King's Garden Plan Postponed

Jerusalem Mayor Barkat putting off his plan to deal with the hundreds of Arab squatters in eastern Jerusalem's King’s Garden area.

Hillel Fendel and Gil Ronen, | updated: 10:44

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asked Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Tuesday afternoon to allow more time for efforts to reach an understanding with the residents of Silwan (Shiloach) regarding the King's Garden (Gan HaMelekh) project. 

A statement issued by Netanyahu's office said the prime minister made it clear to the mayor that he has “no intention of trying to intervene either in the administration of municipal affairs or in the powers granted to the enforcement, planning and construction  authorities.”

Netanyahu told Barkat that “there are elements that are interested in sowing strife and discord and in presenting a distorted picture to the country and the world.”

Barkat held a news conference Tuesday (see video below) in which he confirmed that he had spoken with the Prime Minister, who had asked him to “reach understandings” with the Arab residents of the King's Garden and Silwan. He announced that he had decided to accede to the Prime Minister's request and that he would be postponing the process of getting the bureaucratic approvals for his plan to renovate the King's Garden, "in order to leave more time for discourse with the residents.”

88 Illegal Houses
Over the past 20 years, approximately 88 illegal Arab houses have been built in what had been a tree-filled area with no structures – purposely kept that way by the previous Ottoman-Turkish and British governments. Ironically, only during the period of Israeli rule has the uniqueness of the area been desecrated by gradual pirate Arab construction.

The King’s Garden is the area below the City of David, also known as Silwan, at the southern entrance to the Kidron Valley. It is mentioned in the Books of Kings and Jeremiah. Historians agree with the Jewish tradition that it served King David and King Solomon.

Mayor Barkat's plan calls for the retroactive approval of many of the illegal houses, the granting of land to the other illegal squatters for the construction of new and larger houses, and turning much of the King's Garden area into a green area, dotted by two small hotels. The goal is to preserve the area as a historic treasure.

Four Responses on Army Radio, Including Three From the Left
Army Radio made sure to bring some strong Arab responses to Barkat’s plan. Arab MK Ahmed Tibi said that Barkat is “behaving like a pyromaniac, igniting fires and tension in eastern Jerusalem,” while the Mukhtar of Silwan said, “The residents are not at fault that their buildings are illegal; it’s rather the municipality’s fault for not granting permits… If Barkat implements this plan, he will begin a major war in eastern Jerusalem.”

A third response was elicited from the radical Jewish Peace Now organization, which accused Barkat of trying to Judaize the eastern areas of the Holy City and of preventing any future compromise between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem.

(Photos above: King's Garden in 1918, top, and 1967, middle, filled with trees; bottom: King's Garden now)

Army Radio did bring one nationalist response, that of Likud party city councilman Elisha Peleg. He said that granting land to the squatters is a way of “rewarding law-breakers” and that their illegal structures that cannot be approved must be razed before any arrangements are made.

Though the municipality has occasionally razed illegal structures in Silwan and the King's Garden, the situation has basically been ignored over the years. Former Mayor Uri Lupoliansky formulated a plan to deal with the problem, but it was shelved in the wake of heavy international pressure - as appears to be the case with the current plan.

The issue has come to the fore at the present time because of instructions issued by the State Prosecution to demolish the one unapproved Jewish structure in the neighborhood - 5.5-story Beit Yehonatan. Barkat has taken a strong stand, saying he would not demolish a Jewish house while the illegal Arab structures remain standing.