Controversial plan will see tourist center built instead; U.S. State Department expresses concern

The Jerusalem municipality's Planning and Building Committee yesterday approved a controversial plan for the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

The plan calls for razing 22 Palestinian homes that were built without permits and constructing a tourism center in their place. An additional 66 homes built without the proper permits would receive approval.

Mayor Nir Barkat yesterday said he was dismissing city council member and Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalo, for voting against the plan in the Planning and Building Committee. The mayor also announced that he was kicking the other representatives of Meretz out of his municipal coalition as well.

The city said it will help the residents of the 22 homes slated for demolition to move to other areas of Silwan.

The tourism center for the area, which is called Al Bustan in Arabic and Gan Hamelekh (King's Garden ) in Hebrew, is to include restaurants and boutique hotels.

Local residents oppose the plan and claim that its purpose is to increase the hold of Jewish settlers over the neighborhood. They have submitted an alternative plan that does not involve the demolition of homes but still includes the park that is part of the city's plan. The zoning panel did not discuss the alternative plan, which angered council members on the left.

In the wake of international criticism of the plan, which was first presented in March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Barkat to suspend the approval process and to continue talks with the residents.

Barkat's office said yesterday that Netanyahu was notified that the plan had been submitted to the committee for approval.

Yesterday's meeting was interrupted for several minutes by residents of Silwan, who protested loudly before being forcibly removed from the hall.

Attorney Ziad Kawar, who represents the residents, said the plan "does not answer the residents' needs and cannot be implemented from a legal perspective," adding, "Why didn't the committee discuss the alternative plan submitted by the residents?."

Meretz council member Meir Margalit told the committee that the plan's purpose was to heighten the Israeli presence in Silwan. "They want Tuscany, but they'll get Bosnia," he said.

The meeting was halted twice for efforts to persuade Alalo to vote in favor of the plan. "If Barkat wants to fire me, let him fire me and we'll see his real face. That's how he gives up the Jerusalem left wing," Alalo said.

Meretz's departure from the coalition will mean that Barkat, most of whose electoral support came from city residents who are not religiously observant, will have an Orthodox-Haredi majority in his coalition.

The committee also approved yesterday a master plan for the center of Silwan that includes the retroactive issue of building permits for thousands of other illegally built homes as well as the construction of hundreds of new apartments. It will also permit new construction for the Jewish settlement in the heart of Silwan.

Barkat said the plan created the unprecedented possibility of retroactively approving 75 percent of the illegal homes and granting building permits to new ones others while for the first time building proper infrastructure in the area.

The mayor said he regretted the fact that Meretz, "which had been the standard-bearer for the residents of East Jerusalem, had voted against a plan that was good for the residents."

He also said the National Religious Party members of the municipal coalition traditionally voted with the council's secular bloc.

The Palestinian Authority yesterday condemned the vote. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, said: "The decision proves that Israel has decided to destroy the indirect talks with the Palestinians," and called on the international community to "stop these dangerous steps."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States was concerned about the project, though he said it was a preliminary step being taken by the Jerusalem municipality and not the Israeli government.

"We've had a number of conversations with the government of Israel about it," Crowley said. "This is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust that is fundamental to making progress in the proximity talks," he said.

"This is a municipality of colonization," Adnan al-Husseini, the PA-appointed governor of Jerusalem, said.