Guest Blog

The best solution for Silwan

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Friday, 10 December, 2010

Jerusalem City Council member Hilik Bar writes about why he believes the new plans for East Jerusalem will benefit the Palestinian residents, and why he disagrees with the Elders.

I had the pleasure to meet the Elders a few weeks ago. We had a deep conversation on various topics; we learned from them and I truly hope that they also learned from us. It was a real privilege.

Talking to President Jimmy Carter about the complexity of Jerusalem showed me that one can have a lot of knowledge but still not know everything. What bothered me most were President's Carter views on the Mayor’s plans for the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gan Hamelech, known in Arabic as Silwan.

As someone who lives in Jerusalem and is politically active, I truly believe that the Mayor's plan in Gan Hamelech is a great solution to the problems that this important area presents, a situation that Mayors before Nir Barkat chose to ignore.

Building in Gan Hamelech is prohibited by law: not by municipal laws, not by the decisions of one committee or another, but by the laws of the state of Israel. Despite this prohibition, 88 illegal homes have been built in Gan Hamelech and most of them are now under court demolition orders.

In these illegal houses, families live in very difficult conditions. Some of the houses were built without suitable foundations, with no water, electricity or sewage infrastructure; others were built directly atop sewage pipelines. Most of them could collapse any day.

For the first time in the history of Jerusalem, a mayor is proposing to authorise and legalise 66 of these 88 illegal houses, while the inhabitants of 22 homes will be allowed to legally build their houses in other areas.

Before shouting loudly and objecting to the plan we should understand that there are three options for handling this. The first is to clear the entire area; to demolish the 88 illegal homes according to urban building plans and obey court orders without giving it another thought. If Barkat were the extreme right-wing pyromaniac that he is made out to be, it would be much easier for him to choose this option.

The second option is to continue what has become the custom of Israeli governments and the Jerusalem Municipalities over generations: to bury one’s head in the sand and hope that some magical solution will suddenly appear. But Barkat courageously and honestly chose a third option, which balances the various needs of the area: the unprecedented legalisation of 75 per cent of the houses already in Gan Hamelech. He is also offering to normalise – for the first time – the municipal infrastructure: he has promised to improve roads, sewage, electricity and other local services.

President Carter complained to me: there have never been public buildings on the site, such as schools or kindergartens. In the new plan, however, Barkat is offering classrooms, kindergartens, a gym, a family health center, an underground parking area and many other services that the residents of Gan Hamelech have never even known, and will probably never know if we continue to bury our heads in the sand.

In addition, Barkat will approve the building of restaurants, souvenir and art shops for the benefit of the residents, aiming to make the place a worldwide tourist attraction. He has termed this a classic win-win situation and I agree with him.

If those who are quick to criticise the plan were as courageous as Nir Barkat, the man we all love to hate, they would understand what the residents of Gan Hamelech already understand and are afraid to admit: this plan is the best thing that could happen to the neighborhood and its residents, the same residents who we usually forget exist. In our hypocrisy, suddenly all of us, in Israel, in the US and all over the world, have remembered these people who live in disgraceful poverty on the most important piece of real estate in Israel.

I believe that Mayor Barkat’s plan for Gan Hamelech is truly a good plan. It is time we take off our populist masks once and for all and stop saying what everyone loves to hear, to look at the truth and call it by name. I hope we will all do so, before it’s too late.

Hilik Bar is a member of the Jerusalem City Council and newly elected General Secretary of the Israeli Labor Party.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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