Efforts to Get Approval for New Jewish Neighborhood in E. J'lem

With a new master plan for Jerusalem about to be approved, efforts are underway to secure approval for building a large new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Government ministries are seen as sympathetic to the idea. But the planners have also approached residents of Walaja, an Arab village within the boundaries of Jerusalem that abuts the area of the planned new neighborhood, to seek their consent.

The villagers have been asked to withdraw objections to the new neighborhood in return for a number of concessions, including retroactive approval for houses that were built in Walaja without proper permits, a change in the route of the separation fence in the vicinity of the village, and greater ease in securing entry into the rest of Israel.

But residents of Walaja have balked at the suggestion, saying they will not consent to construction of the new neighborhood.

The proposed new neighborhood, to be known as Givat Yael, would be built in the southeast of the city, near the Malha neighborhood and the Biblical Zoo. The plans, which were drawn up six years ago, call for a major residential area that would ultimately be home to some 45,000 people. The plans also provide for commercial areas and a sports club.

However, the project has been frozen for years, and the city's proposed new master plan designates the area as green space rather than a residential neighborhood. Because of the area's special landscape, the city also rejected a request by Walaja residents to legalize 95 homes in the village that were built without a permit and are at risk of demolition.

As a result of the pressure applied to Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) by some rightist members of the city council, however, approval of the city's master plan has been held up for two months. That provided an opening for efforts to get Givat Yael included in the plan.

A private company, also called Givat Yael, would develop the project, and it has been lobbying for the neighborhood's inclusion in the plan. Architect Eli Reches wrote to Yishai three weeks ago on behalf of the company, saying "the importance of the neighborhood to Jerusalem, given its location and its scope, is of national significance and requires [the minister's] involvement so that an immediate decision can be made."

According to sources involved in negotiations over the project, the developers are also concerned about claims by Walaja residents that they own parcels of land where the new neighborhood would be built.

Jerusalem city councilman Meir Margalit (Meretz) says he is concerned that the rejection of Walaja residents' request to legalize the village's illegal homes is designed to put pressure on them to agree to the construction of Givat Yael. But one Walaja resident, Amin al-Atrash, said, "under no circumstances will we agree to this, even if they demolish all the houses and we live in caves. We won't give permission to establish a settlement here with our consent."

Environmental organizations are also opposed to the construction of Givat Yael. Avraham Shaked, who represents the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel on the district planning committee, said the area is the last remaining location in Jerusalem where the original terraced landscape is fully preserved.

Another complication is the allegation that Eli Reches' involvement creates a conflict of interests, since at the time when the plans for Givat Yael was developed, he was a business partner of Jerusalem's current city engineer, Shlomo Eshkol. A year and a half ago, the municipality's legal advisor, Yosef Havilio, directed Reches not to deal with the plan due to this potential conflict of interests.

But Reches denied that there is any problem. "This directive is old," he said. "The commercial ties between me and Eshkol have ended ... Havilio's [objection] dates to a period when things were not final. Today, there is no concern about a conflict of interests."

Reches refused to comment on contacts with Walaja residents.

The Jerusalem municipality said the Givat Yael plan is not being advanced, since it conflicts with the city's master plan, and therefore, the city engineer has no connection with the matter.