In the complicated affair of the Beit Yonatan apartment building in East Jerusalem, there is one question Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat must answer for his city's residents: What's the difference between the settlers of Beit Yonatan in the heart of the Palestinian Silwan neighborhood and a group of secular students in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood?
Regarding the Haredization of Jerusalem's secular neighborhoods, Barkat has an answer that he has been using since even before the elections: Every community needs neighborhoods of its own. About a month ago, Barkat's spokesman told Haaretz that "the municipality's policy is that each sector should be developed in its neighborhood ... in an effort to prevent unnecessary friction among the residents." Mixing Haredi and secular residents, says Barkat, is not proper for Jerusalem.
But what is proper for secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews in West Jerusalem is far more proper when the issue is settlers and Palestinians in East Jerusalem. According to any measure - the potential for violence, the mutual hatred, the different needs - if it's desirable to separate students from the Haredi residents of Mea She'arim, how much more should the activist group Ateret Cohanim be separated from the Palestinian residents of Silwan? But in Silwan, Barkat is adopting an opposite policy. In recent years he has been fighting with all his might and even paying a public price to prevent the evacuation of Beit Yonatan.
It's possible that Barkat is not an expert on the situation in Silwan. But his bodyguards are not happy to take him for a visit in the narrow alley that leads to Beit Yonatan, to be besieged by stones and Molotov cocktails. Yet even from city hall in Safra Square it's hard not to see that the settlers' presence in Beit Yonatan is making thousands of the city's residents suffer.
The Jewish presence in Silwan is concentrated in two blocs: the Elad association near the Old City walls and the Temple Mount, and the Ateret Cohanim in the very heart of Silwan, which includes Beit Yonatan, home to 10 Jewish families, and nearby Beit Hadvash, with one family. Naturally, the friction between the settlers in the village and their bodyguards on the one hand and the Palestinians on the other creates conflict. Stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails are a daily occurrence for the settlers. Nighttime police raids, dozens of children arrested and the constant smell of tear gas are the lot of the Palestinians.
Removing Beit Yonatan from the equation would almost certainly lead to the end of the Jewish presence in the heart of Silwan. One act that is legally mandated, politically necessary and logically humane would reduce the suffering of Silwan's residents. And thousands of people would exit the cycle of violence. Anyone who is afraid that the Palestinians would look for new centers of friction should ask himself why he is barely familiar with names such as Suwahara and Beit Sahour, Palestinian neighborhoods where no Jews live and there is little violence.
The question remains why the mayor insists on continuing to make his city's residents suffer. The usual political explanation is that Barkat understands that the winner of Jerusalem's next election will be the person who receives the votes of the knitted-skullcap wearers, who vote for the right-wing parties. Barkat assumes that the ultra-Orthodox won't vote for him and the secular population will, so the deciding factor will be the national religious community. Therefore he must be portrayed as a rightist to guarantee himself another term.
But even according to this cold logic, after innumerable court decisions, including at the High Court of Justice, which demanded the evacuation of the building, and a similar number of threatening letters from two attorneys general, Barkat could easily blame everything on the "leftists" from the Justice Ministry and the High Court.
"I fought for two and a half years," Barkat would explain to his voters. "I delayed the evacuation as long as I could, but 'they' forced me." That's all he has to do, tell the truth. Having said that, with a heavy heart but wholeheartedly, he must order the evacuation. When he does so, we, the residents of Jerusalem, will make do without an answer.
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