Jerusalem demolitions may spark repeat of 1996 riots
Bloody riots after opening of Western Wall Tunnel claimed lives of 17 IDF soldiers, 70 Palestinians.
Judging by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's moves and Prime Minister-designate Benjamin ("Rock of our existence") Netanyahu's record during his previous stint at the Prime Minister's Office, those who love Jerusalem will have to relinquish two right hands in order to protect the city's wellbeing.
During the September 1996 riots, in the wake of the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel, a similar kind of constellation exacted the lives of 17 Israeli soldiers and 70 Palestinians. Since then, Ehud Olmert, who was Jerusalem mayor at the time and still holds the post of prime minister, has crossed political lines and the city's new mayor is vying with his predecessor over what red lines can be crossed.
Since entering city hall, Barkat has behaved like a tot who was handed a valuable toy and insists on smashing it to smithereens. First he decided to quash the mayoral bureau, built to serve Olmert's needs (and it is common knowledge that Olmert is no ascetic) and to erect in its stead new quarters to house his 10 aides. The renovation stands at NIS 800,000 - a bit less than the cut Barkat imposed on the municipality's welfare budget. (The Jerusalem municipality said the purpose of the physical changes planned for the mayor's office is to create a more efficient work environment.)
For a millionaire like Barkat (who has declined a salary), this is small change. The big toy was awaiting him in the city's eastern part, mostly in the Holy Basin. There, in the Bustan neighborhood, on the slope of the village of Silwan, stand no less than 88 houses that were built without a permit. Most of the 1,500 inhabitants have been living here for decades. Some of them put down stakes already pre-1967, way before the authorities handed control of the compound to the right-wing Elad organization and changed its name to "City of David." The head of Elad, David Be'eri, has found in Barkat a loyal partner for his expansion plans. The right-wing Jerusalemite settlers are easily extracting from the new mayor what they were unable to obtain, even with massive pressure, from Olmert and his ultra-Orthodox successor, Uri Lupolianski.
During her visit last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was honored with the first convoy of bulldozers, which set out to demolish the home of a family of eight in the Bustan neighborhood. Why now of all times?
Barkat explains that it is high time someone imposed law and order in the holy city. The minutes of a Knesset State Control Committee meeting last June, chaired by MK Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party (as it was called then), the municipality's legal advisor, Yossi Havilio, offers a different explanation. Havilio maintains that there has been hardly any illegal construction in the neighborhood since 2004. "The subject came up because of an ongoing case, which the settlers call Jonathan House, and they're trying to evade the law from being enforced. Therefore these claims are cropping up anew."
Havilio is referring to a multi-story building, 200 meters away from the Bustan quarter, where a settler family has been living for many years illegally. Because of pressure exerted by right-wing politicians, the municipality is not enforcing an order pending against them for evacuating and sealing the building.
The taxpayer is footing the bill for the building's guards - Border Police soldiers and private watchmen. At the same Knesset committee meeting, City Engineer Uri Sheetrit suggested discussing the building violations in Jerusalem as a whole and not focusing on the Bustan neighborhood. He said that with a little willingness, it would be possible to reach a humane solution "without causing an international uproar."
Sheetrit undoubtedly knows what Via Dolorosa Palestinians who want to legally build their home have to traverse. Nevertheless, in line with the municipality's proposal, Bustan residents submitted applications to the committees responsible for the city's building planning. Two weeks ago the regional committee for planning and construction rejected their application.
Interior Ministry sources say representatives of the Jerusalem municipality vehemently opposed the plan, partly because these are "open spaces." Apparently it is important to Barkat that the children of Silwan have a place to play with the children of their settler neighbors. Perhaps this is the ultimate objective of the order to demolish two more buildings in the adjacent al-Abbasiyya neighborhood. Get ready for Wall tunnel 2.
Why Fayyad resigned
Why did Salam Fayyad resign from the position of prime minister? The story being disseminated by his associates is that Fayyad wants Hamas to cry out "Stay, stay" and is eyeing an endorsement as head of the Palestinian unity government. This version has been buttressed by the news that Hillary Clinton has informed her colleagues in Europe and the Arab world that only a government headed by Fayyad will secure American recognition and funding. Of course Hamas can live without U.S. recognition, but it gladly receives dollars. On the organization's web site, Ibrahim al-Madhun, a Hamas leader in Gaza, reveals that the donor funds will go toward preparing for the next Israeli attack, for building shelters and for reinforcing the smuggling tunnels.
Nevertheless, why now of all times, when talks on a unity government are not even in the teething phase and no one is talking about handing out portfolios? From conversations with senior PA staff, it emerges that Fayyad needs Fatah's endorsement more than that of Hamas. To win the Americans' trust, the independent politician has to reduce the authority of Fatah's old guard - in particular that of Ahmad Qureia (Abu Ala).
In addition, Fayyad wiped out the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and has turned the leaders of Fatah's younger generation against him. And if this were not enough, Fayyad received a bear hug from Elliot Abrams, the last of the neo-conservatives in the White House. Talking to The Weekly Standard, the man who served as former president George W. Bush's Middle East advisor has proposed relinquishing a peace agreement with PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for now, in favor of helping Fayyad put the house in order. A public opinion poll published yesterday by the Khalil Shikaki Institute shows that both Fayyad and Abu Mazen are losing ground among the public. Abu Mazen is trailing behind Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh and the Fayyad government's popularity level has dropped to 32 percent.