Nir Barkat in Jerusalem - Jan 29 - Emil Salman
Nir Barkat planting a tree in Jerusalem Katamon neighborhood. Photo by Emil Salman
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Last year Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat chose to mark Tu Bishvat, Jewish Arbor Day, with residents of the south of the city where a large park known as the Rail Park is to be set up after a long battle by residents. The park will extend along an old rail line that crossed Jerusalem; the park will run from the Malha neighborhood in the south to the old railroad station near the city center.

But on Thursday, the Jerusalem City Council approved a budget allocation for a highway that would run through part of the park, near the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa.

In so doing, area residents say, the city is violating its commitment to transparency and its promise to work with the public on the park. There have also been allegations of discrimination against Arab residents who live near the proposed four-lane highway.

The park would go through a few Jerusalem neighborhoods: the German Colony, where work on a promenade and bicycle path has already begun; Katamon, where the park is in the planning stages; and Beit Safafa, where the city council decided to eliminate part of the park in favor of the highway providing access to the Talpiot industrial zone.

Social activists in Jerusalem have said the choice of Beit Safafa as the neighborhood to lose part of the park is symbolic. The other two areas are Jewish neighborhoods. "This is clear discrimination among neighborhoods," said Kimmy Caplan, a Katamon resident who chairs the public committee that has been promoting the park.

For its part, the Jerusalem municipality said the blue line in the city's light-rail network is being built alongside the old rail tracks. According to the municipality, "at the same time, the development of the public park and the bicycle paths planned for the location will continue" from near the old railway station in the center of town to the Talpiot industrial zone.

Activists said Barkat had made the park an election promise. They said the original concept had been to create a "green finger" from the forests that border the city into the middle of the city, but this won't happen due to the construction of the highway. Residents have also claimed that the city is hiding experts' reports that state that the proposed highway is not needed.

"The mayor has the right to change his mind, but he has an obligation to notify the public," Caplan said. "There is a difficult sense that there are people at the professional levels of city hall who for relevant reasons or otherwise are scuttling the mayor's policy."