City of David at center of new Jerusalem building controversy

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 |  Israel Today Staff

The Jerusalem Municipality has approved a plan to develop a protected area of the City of David that has in recent decades been illegally occupied by local Arab squatters.

The City of David, a small Jerusalem neighborhood just south of the Old City that is known today primarily by its Arab name of Silwan, comprises the original city of Jerusalem conquered by King David over 3,000 years ago. Today, the neighborhood is largely Arab, though there is a sizable Jewish population there, too.

Since the time of the Ottomon and British Mandate governments, the lower part of Silwan was kept wooded and devoid of buildings in order to preserve its historical uniqueness. But over the past 10 years or so, some 90 houses have been built without permits by local Arab squatters in the area known as King's Garden.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat recognizes that the Arab squatters have been living there for decades, and his plan to again turn King's Garden into a green area is considerate of their situation. According to the plan, 66 of the 90 illegal structures will be retroactively approved, and alternative plots of land will be given to those who are evicted.

Nevertheless, local Arab and left-wing Jewish elements that are antagonistic to Israel, in eager partnership with the international media, have focused solely on the fact that a number of Arab families will be forced by Israel to leave "their" homes. Israel is taking immense heat over the plan, despite the fact that the homes were built illegally on state-owned land, that the municipality is going to retroactively approve two-thirds of the homes anyway, and that the remaining squatters will be receiving gifts of land despite having broken the law.

Barkat explained that by catering to the squatters, the municipality is making its job of restoring the green area far more difficult. Most of the illegal homes were built without proper infrastructure, which means the municipality must now come in and install plumbing and electricity for already existing structures. It also means the proposed park and other public areas will be much smaller than originally intended.

None of that mattered when P.J. Crowley, press secretary for the Obama White House, addressed reporters the day after Barkat's announcement.

"This is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust that is fundamental in making progress to the proximity talks and ultimately in direct negotiations," Crowley said. "We’re concerned about it. We’ve had a number of conversations with the government of Israel about it."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled that the municipality may be forced to give in even further to the squatters when he said the Silwan plan was only in its "very initial stage" and that many discussions were planned in order to reach an acceptable compromise.

Silwan was the stage for further tension when local Jews and their allies in the Knesset demanded Israel's High Court of Justice finally demand the execution of a 2008 decision to remove Arab families from an old Jewish-owned building.

Built in 1890 by the large Yemenite Jewish community in Silwan, the building served as both a living quarters and a synagogue. In the late 1930s, the Jews of Silwan were forced out of the neighborhood by incessant Arab rioting that claimed many lives. During the years that Jordan illegally occupied the eastern half of Jerusalem, including Silwan, Arab families were moved into the Jewish-owned properties.

Right-wing Jewish lawmaker Uri Ariel of the National Union party threatened that if the court and police did not fulfill the 2008 decision by July 4, he and local Jewish residents would remove the Arab occupants themselves.

Ariel noted that while "there are fewer than 50 illegal Jewish structures...the number of illegal Arab buildings is estimated in the thousands." He argued that "demolition orders for Jews are rushed up, while those for Arabs happen much more slowly."

As evidence, Ariel pointed to the judicial attention being focused on Beit Yonatan, a housing structure built illegally by Jews just 200 yards from the Arab-occupied structure in question, while the courts regularly stall demolition orders against illegal Arab buildings.

Barkat and others have been trying to retroactively approve Beit Yonatan, though the High Court insists it must be evacuated and sealed up. Barkat insists that the fate of Beit Yonatan must be the same as the fate of all illegal Arab buildings in Silwan, putting the courts and the government in the sticky situation of choosing between equal application of the law and international diplomatic sensitivities.

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