INTERVIEW / Herzl Yechezkel, head of the Har Homa residents' committee
Why is it so important to build at Har Homa right now, at the risk antagonzing Israel's allies?
Anyone who believes Israeli bureaucracy cannot move things must visit Har Homa in Jerusalem. The hills east of Hebron Road in the city's south, close to the Mar Elias monastery, have become home to a giant neighborhood in less than a decade. Har Homa (officially Homat Shmuel - "Samuel's wall" ) has 20,000 residents, wide streets, modern infrastructures and plans to build another 2,000 housing units.
The neighborhood was set up in the face of strong Palestinian and international protests during Benjamin Netanyahu's first term as prime minister. This week it once again made the headlines, in the wake of reports that the Interior Ministry's regional council for planning and construction is advancing a plan to add another 1,000 housing units to the neighborhood.
Once again the planning authorities in Jerusalem have proven just how expert they are at choosing when to make plans public, in order to cause the greatest possible damage to the prime minister. This time the publication came while the prime minister was busy with diplomatic meetings in the United States. Last time around, the planning officials embarrassed Netanyahu during a meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem, and during his visit to the White House.
This time around, U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the construction. "This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations," he said, adding that this could destroy the trust between the sides.
Attorney Herzl Yechezkel, one of the first residents of the new neighborhood, has been the head of its residents' committee since its inception. He is not bothered by the international crisis, and is busy with setting up a new park and traffic islands in the neighborhood.
Are you disappointed that after so many years, and despite the neighborhood's success, you are still considered outside international consensus?
"I remember the fight that accompanied the birth of the neighborhood. It was led by Faisal al-Husseini. The deputy mayor, Shmuel Meir (after whom the neighborhood is named ) led the fight to build the neighborhood. Then everyone threatened that there would be a third world war.
"The bottom line was that Husseini made some noise and some headlines but when we started to actually build, the whole world was quiet. It was much ado about nothing.
"It's our right to build up Jerusalem. You are not talking about Judea and Samaria but Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people."
Why is it so important to build at Har Homa right now?
"Har Homa is the future of Jerusalem. Building here is saving the city. Building here is an existential necessity, it's not a luxury. It's not merely to annoy the Gentiles. The northern part of the city is completely ultra-Orthodox. What is left for the secular and national religious public in Jerusalem is the south of the city.
"The people who live here are young couples, people in their 40s, creative types, working people, taxpayers. That is the middle class that keeps Jerusalem going. We must build so that they don't leave. Homat Shmuel is Jerusalem's hope."
Where is the neighborhood supposed to spread?
"It currently has 20,000 residents in 4,000 homes, and we are already the size of a local council. Right now Har Homa Gimmel is an uninhabited hill, as the entire neighborhood was in the beginning. When Gimmel is completed, there will be 6,000 homes there; that plan has been approved. There is talk of Har Homa Daled and Har Homa Hey later on, and then we will have 9,500 housing units. That is already the size of an Israeli town."
And are you not concerned that international pressure will stop all these plans?
"I can say not only what I think but what all the residents of the neighborhood think - it doesn't faze us. The demands of the world are hallucinatory. It's as if I were to say: Don't build in Washington. It doesn't concern us. I am repeating things that were said by those greater than I am. Ben-Gurion said it wasn't important what the Gentiles said. What was important was what the Jews did. We must build - and if they want to yell, let them. I am not trying to annoy or irritate people, but we have our own pride."
How much does an apartment cost in Har Homa?
"A three-room apartment costs NIS 1.2 million, like in the rest of Jerusalem. It used to be cheaper here but now we have closed the gaps.
"If it weren't for Homat Shmuel, many of the residents here would have moved to the periphery. As it is, Jerusalem has negative migration of 18,000 residents a year.
"I think the construction here should be something trivial, a necessity in this reality. I think the plans and the approval should be speeded up. We're in the middle of a real estate bubble. If you don't build more homes, you can't complain that apartment prices are going up. They have prevented people from building in Judea and Samaria, so let them allow us to live in Jerusalem."
On the top of the hill where Har Homa Gimmel is supposed to rise, there is a beautiful pine forest now. What will happen to it when the units are built?
"They will make every effort not to touch it. Most of the grove will remain."
Background: Har Homa is a very young neighborhood. Yechezkel believes that 50 percent of the residents are under age 18. Over the past few years it has become one of the most attractive options for young secular people who wish to remain in the city. About half the residents are secular, and the other half are national religious.
Yehezkel is also busy with the approaching elections. For the first time since the neighborhood was founded, elections will be held for the neighborhood council.