Yoni Yochanan long ago got used to the ceaseless noise emitted from the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. But the booms that explode on the other side of his house have deprived the 50-year-old of sleep for a year-and-a-half. The series of explosions, each 30 seconds in length, are part of the tunnel construction procedure followed by the Israel Railways - the railroad is digging a tunnel into the side of a hill along whose peak Highway 1 flows into Jerusalem's entrance. At the foot of the mountain stand the homes of Yochanan and 13 other families.
"You should come sometime and hear this," says Yochanan's son, Zohar, 14. "It's as though three rockets have landed on the house. The floors shake. And the blast effects are getting stronger, because the tunnel work is getting closer to our home."
Two years ago, very close to the start of work on the railroad, the families received eviction notices from the Israel Lands Administration, on the grounds that they are trespassers. The orders remain under litigation. Though the case has yet to be resolved, Judge Malka Aviv has ordered the ILA to find housing solutions for the families, since she regards them as protected residents.
Yochanan says that "at one stage, the Israel Railways officials offered us rental money for half a year, until the tunnel work is completed. However, the amount they offered was scandalous - NIS 5,000 a month for my seven-member family. I told them that this was an outrage; they replied 'you should be grateful, because you are trespassers.'"
Anyone who has driven past Sakharov Gardens junction on Highway 1 has probably spotted the roof of Yochanan's home, hanging over the road. He dwells in the small home with his wife and five children. Facing north, the house stands below the ultra-Orthodox Givat Shaul neighborhood and across from the ruins of a Palestinian village, Lifta. Until recently, this area magnetically attracted those looking for an affordable, relatively pastoral home. But two years ago Israel Railways started the tunnel work, and the number of house-hunters in the area shrunk.Dust everywhere
Looking out from the large windows in the living room of Yochanan's home, you see what looks like a quarry. Dust covers everything. There is an endless procession of trucks to the area where the tunnel is being excavated.
"You see people on a pleasure hike going down to the spring, and coming back covered in white dust. Our children, when they return from school, are also covered in white by the time they've walked from the bus to our front door," says Oded Yochanan, 35, Yoni's cousin, who lives with his family in a nearby home.
Apart from the suffocating dust and blasts at night, area residents complain about the physical damage caused by the railroad work. Yochanan and his neighbors' homes now have wall-to-wall cracks, caused when their houses are rattled by the huge tunnel excavation blasts.
Yoni Yochanan, who happens to work as a contractor with fragile structures, knows that such damage is not inevitable. "When you undertake work so near to houses, you have to conduct a survey of all area dwellings and monitor the engineering," he says. Yochanan says that Israel Railways officials have come to assess the damage, and agreed to compensate only two families for the cracks in their homes.
Yochanan's 95-year-old father, Matlov, is confined to his bed and suffers tremendously from the endless blasts. The elderly Yochanan arrived in Israel with his wife from Kurdistan in the 1950s, and has lived in the same home ever since. "The state settled them here so that they would man the border down below, where the Highway 9 now runs," says a son, Yitzhak Yochanan, who also lives with his wife in a nearby home. "Some families left the area, and 13 have remained through today. Now they are suddenly being told they are encroachers."
In response, Israel Railways says: "The tunnel work complies with noise regulations, and is proceeding with all necessary authorization, including safety rules as strict as those anywhere in the world. The houses in question constitute housing additions built without permits, and without engineering supervision, and the homes are slated for eviction by the Israel Lands Administration; eviction proceedings against them are being held. As a one-time gesture of good will, Railways officials are taking steps to find solutions for the discomfort, and allow the Lifta residents to live in alternative houses for the duration of the tunnel construction work."
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