Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has asked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to allow the city to rezone some of the capital’s neighborhoods.
The plan is seen as controversial, although it only involves four neighborhoods and would retroactively legalize the vast majority, but not all, of illegal Arab structures that were built over the years.
Reason: The change would involve the demolition of 22 Arab homes near the Old City, clearing the way for construction of a tourism center in Shiloach, as it is known in Hebrew -- Silwan, in Arabic -- which the mayor wants to build just outside the walls. The land on which these homes were built is called the King's Garden and is not zoned for residences, but is nonetheless full of illegal Arab structures. Under a previous rezoning plan, families whose homes are on the demolition list would reportedly be granted land for new homes nearby. It is not clear whether the current plan contains similar language.
Leftist groups, including the Israel-based group “Ir Amim," are opposing the plan, as they wrote in a letter to the prime minister on Wednesday. Ir Amim head Daniel Seidemann said in an interview with the Associated Press, “This is clearly an assault on the residents of Silwan, not a bona fide effort to improve things. It will make a volatile situation even more volatile.”
Silwan has been a flash point for violence for months, with local Arab residents rioting, hurling rocks and sometimes attacking Jews with knives and other weapons. As Jewish families move into Jewish-owned homes in the neighborhood -- including many that belonged to Jews from before the creation of the State of Israel -- Arabs have been torching their vehicles and vandalizing their property in an effort to convince them to leave.
Those Arab families who live in illegal structures contend that they built their homes without building permits because Israel refused to authorize construction. They claim a desire to live near their familes, but Jerusalem's real estate prices makes that wish untenable for most Arabs and Jews.
International and local leftist human rights advocates have strongly backed the Arabs, and urged the government to halt demolitions of the illegal structures, calling the plan another obstacle to a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Ironically, the same international voices are raised against Jews in Judea and Samaria, where there is no shortage of space to build as opposed to Jerusalem, and who have construction needs within the municipal boundaries of their own communities. They are not issued permits because the Defense Minister has not signed zoning plans. In fact, in Judea and Samaria, heads of Arab villages located near Jewish communities have filed suits in Israel's Supreme Court against Jews who they claim are building without permits within Jewish towns -- even though their villages are not affected by the construction -- and have succeeded in stopping it.
This week three structures in an outpost were destroyed in the tiny Maoz Esther neighborhood of the Samarian Jewish community of Kochav HaShachar for the third time in two years. Although police forces tried to destroy a fourth, they failed because the small cinder block home was built into the side of a boulder-strewn hill, inaccessible to tractors and bulldozers.