Israel's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the state must find a solution for the problems posed to residents of an East Jerusalem neighborhood by the construction of a highway that would cut the neighborhood in half.
The court refrained from ordering the state to cease the construction of the highway. However, Supreme Court President Asher Grunis has asked the state, off the record, to meet the deadline set by the court. In what was understood by many in the courtroom as a threat to cancel the permits for the highway's construction, Grunis said, "Submit the document without requesting an extension. If it is not submitted, there are alternatives - you know what they are."
The court's decision was made following a lengthy discussion during which the residents' lawyers described a series of legal and practical issues concerning the construction of the highway. The judges ordered the state to explain within 30 days how it plans to address the residents' concerns. The document should also include a timetable for the implementation of each solution. The residents will then be granted 30 days to respond to the state's proposal and only then will the court convene again for another deliberation.
The Supreme Court arrived at its decision on Wednesday after hearing an appeal by Beit Safafa residents, who began protesting against the road six months ago. The district court rejected the appeal despite the fact that the road was partially planned in the 1980's, and that it passes meters from residents' houses.
The planned highway would run through the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa, cutting off several dozen families from the center of the village and causing them to drive or walk a long way in order to reach the mosque, the grocery store or the kindergarten.
Both sides seemed satisfied with the court's decision. The Jerusalem municipality saw the ruling as an approval by the court to continue with the construction of the highway, while the residents also left the courthouse optimistic. The residents hope that, under the threat of the Supreme Court, the Jerusalem municipality would agree to build a bridge over the highway that would connect the two parts of the neighborhood.
The highway seeks to connect Tunnels Road from Gush Etzion and the Gilo neighborhoods to Begin Highway. The residents claim that the road was planned decades ago without consulting with them or allowing them to submit objections and without offering compensation for damages. Begin Highway, which runs through Jerusalem, does not bisect any Jewish neighborhoods and does not pass next to Jewish houses, and still, residents received compensation for damages.
"Shouldn't such a huge project that destroys an entire neighborhood at least allow the residents to object and have their voice heard?" said Mohannad Gbara, a lawyer representing Beit Safafa's community council, which joined the appeal.
Attorney Kais Nasset who represents the residents, objected to the state's argument that delaying construction would be very costly. "They keep talking about costs, but we are talking about human rights," he said. "It's saving money or saving the neighborhood."
Last week, several Labor MKs met with Beit Safafa residents to express support. MK Isaac Herzog said that "the part of the road planned to go through Beit Safafa is being constructed on the basis of general plans more than twenty years old, and without allowing some 200 families who will be cut off from the neighborhood to submit objections.
Herzog added that "in the other parts of the road, detailed plans were presented, allowing residents to submit objections. The new road will cut the neighborhood and several of its inner roads, will be an environmental disaster and completely alter the village's quiet atmosphere."
Author David Grossman, who expressed support of Beit Safafa residents, wrote a letter to President Shimon Peres: "Who, if not you, can take a stand. These are Jerusalem residents, the people of your city. They really are the poor people of your city, because no one will protect them, no one will speak on their behalf. Please, in a place where there are no humans, you must be that human being."
The Van Leer Institute held a debate on the road Monday. Before the debate the institute called on 21 officials in the Jerusalem municipality, Transportation Ministry and other authorities to participate in the debate, but all of the officials refused citing various reasons and excuses.
The Jerusalem municipality said in a statement that extending the Begin Highway "is of great importance to all the city's residents. It will shorten the time needed to traverse the length of the city, without traffic lights, provide a solution to traffic jams and significantly ease traffic in the area."
It said it welcomed the court's decision, which allows work on the road to continue "alongside a continued dialogue" between the city, the Transportation Ministry and representatives of Beit Safafa's residents. This dialogue has been going on for some time, it added, in an effort to provide "specific solutions" to problems of accessibility and to improve residents' quality of life, "including by developing infrastructure in the village, upgrading public buildings, improving access roads and [other] roads, adding walls and acoustic elements, and more."
These proposed solutions will be presented to residents as mandated by the court, it concluded.
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