Guest Column: Playing with fire

Demolishing 22 houses in Silwan under the illusion of improving the local residents’ quality of life is just the first step in Barkat’s "salami method."

silwan protest 311 (photo credit: AP)
silwan protest 311
(photo credit: AP)
If any more proof is needed that Jerusalem is not just a city, but a volcano about to erupt, here comes the Gan Hamelech affair, in the Bustan section of east Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood, to remind us how dangerous life in the city can be when the wrong hands are steering the wheel.
The Bustan area has been in City Hall’s sights for at least a decade, and Nir Barkat is pressing the trigger to prove he’s outdone his mayoral predecessors. As a successful businessman, he knows a lot about marketing: that you can sell anything using a smart advertising campaign – from detergent to a settlement. So Barkat packaged his plan in cellophane and decorated it with pretty pastel-colored strings.
In a singularly cynical, brilliant presentation, aimed at preventing international intervention, he marketed his plan to eradicate the Bustan neighborhood as a plan to improve living conditions for local residents. He has no intention, heaven forbid, of demolishing – simply improving, upgrading, creating a national park and turning the place into a flourishing tourism site. “Tuscany in Jerusalem” is what Barkat calls it. It’s a splendid goal, really appropriate for a city which lacks tourist sites. But just scratch at those pastel tones, and quite a different reality is exposed.
AS A long-distance runner, Barkat is well aware of the steps he’s taking. Demolishing 22 houses under the illusion of improving the local residents’ quality of life is just the first step in the “salami method” whose ultimate aim, it seems, is to remove Palestinian presence from the Bustan, and Judaize east Jerusalem. The method requires granting management of the future national park to the Elad Association that managed to transform the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood, close to the Bustan, into a Jewish tourism site – the City of David. Just give the Elad guys a park, and presto, they’ll transform it into a settlement.
Control of the Bustan is achieved not only by the settlers’ physical presence but also through using architectural elements directly associated with Israel and Judaism. The physiognomy of the place filters into the awareness, and takes it over, giving the Israeli presence control no less than the settlers’ physical presence. In fact it’s even more dangerous, since who can object to such an ostensibly passive, innocent action?
The cherry on the Barkat cake is the idea of relocating evacuated families into an alternative site – anyone who wants to can build a new home on a vacant lot on the eastern side of the neighborhood, or build a second story on an existing house. This is the great lie of the plan. The Planning and Construction Law does not permit building a house unless the land is privately owned, so Barkat is incapable of granting building permits for vacant lots or for second stories.
The situation is that the vast majority of Silwan residents, including residents of the Bustan, cannot obtain authorizations of ownership from the Israeli Registrar of Land. No statutory body will give building permits to families whose houses were demolished. And for the same reason, Barkat is incapable of granting retroactive permits to the 66 remaining buildings that he’s promising to upgrade.
Moreover, the very idea of building another story on an existing building is highly surprising – why worsen density problems and overload already dilapidated infrastructures that are close to disintegrating. Why would anyone give up the option of adding another story to his house, for his children, and instead allow a strange family to build another story? Why would anyone with a private home be willing to move to the upper floor of another family’s house?
Barkat’s proposal for alternative housing obviously cannot be implemented, and it conceals another land mine – planning regulations stipulate that new construction cannot begin before demolishing the old house. No answer is forthcoming to the question – where will the family live over the years that elapse from the day their old house is demolished until the day the new one is ready?
In such conditions, no family would take the risk of evacuating its home – 43 years of occupation have taught them not to rely on the Israeli government’s promises.
Indeed, the planning of the Bustan relies on the “stick and carrot” principle – destroying and rebuilding. And we know that ultimately the Palestinian residents will receive the stick but not any carrots.
THIS WEEK Barkat launched his 2013 election campaign. He knows that Jerusalem’s haredi residents will vote for a haredi candidate, and assumes that secular residents will vote for him. What’s left are the National Religious residents whose votes are decisive in any election. The Bustan project is a down payment to this crucial sector.
At the same time, the Bustan project provides the mayor with an excuse for obtaining political quiet for the upcoming period. He’s been trying for a year to promote a bill that would add two new deputy mayors to the city – one for Shas and one for the Ashkenazi haredim. Now Meretz has objected to the approval of the Bustan plan, its members have left the coalition following the mayor’s revocation of their authority, and the position of deputy mayor it previously held will be handed over to a Shas representative. It’s easy to understand the pressure on the mayor, because the municipality is subject to the Interior Ministry, and the Interior Ministry is in the hands of Shas.
There’s one unknown in the equation: How much involvement did BinyaminNetanyahu have in the Barkat-led move? Was he aware of the timing? Theassumption is that it’s hard to imagine the mayor leading such a movewithout informing and fully involving the prime minister. Sources closeto the mayor hinted to us that it’s a well-planned move by the two,aimed at sending up a trial balloon ahead of Netanyahu’s forthcomingtrip to Washington, to check the Americans’ resolve.
This trial balloon is the continuation of one sent up two weeks agowhen Barkat went ahead and destroyed three buildings in east Jerusalemdespite the US request to freeze all house demolitions. The buildingswere carefully chosen, so it could be claimed that they were not homesbut “only” warehouses. Regrettably, there was no American reaction.Encouraged by the industrial quiet, Netanyahu moved to stage two –testing the threshold of US patience. This entailed asking Barkat tosubmit the Bustan plan for approval by the Local Planning andConstruction Committee, even though the file is still not ready forsubmission, and without any real need, since substantial work is stillrequired before submitting it to the District Committee.
If this assumption is correct, Israel’s leaders are far more amateurthan they seem, and the fate of the region is in the hands of peoplelacking any political wisdom. Perhaps the American administration knowswho it’s dealing with, but time isn’t playing into our hands. If itdoes not send an unequivocal message to the government, the situationcould get out of control.
The writer is a field coordinator for the Israeli CommitteeAgainst House Demolitions (ICAHD) and was a member of the JerusalemCity Council for Meretz.