Jerusalem artists - Emil Salman
The Jerusalem artists who have received eviction notices from city hall. Photo by Emil Salman
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The 20 artists who maintain studios on Jerusalem's Arts and Crafts Lane were informed Monday that they were being sued, and were given 30 days to clear out. The lawsuit is the climax of a battle between the artists and the municipal firm that operates the site, the East Jerusalem Development company.

Some of the artists have had their galleries along the street, which is near Jaffa Gate, for more than 40 years.

The artists, some of whom are in their 80s, are insulted both by the lawsuit and by the accompanying letter that states that their advanced age has pushed down property values on the street.

Arts and Crafts Lane is the last remnant of a Jewish neighborhood that was abandoned during the 1948 War of Independence and was in no-man's land until the Six-Day War. After the conquest of East Jerusalem, then-Mayor Teddy Kollek decided to turn the ruined buildings into an artists village. Some of the artists who opened galleries were and still are leaders in their field.

But the picturesque street was never very popular with Jerusalemites or tourists, and remained desolate most of the year. Over the past year, East Jerusalem Development has been trying to advance a plan to give the street a facelift. The artists see it as an attempt to get rid of them and to turn the street into an open, commercial site like the nearby Mamilla compound.

The lawsuit was filed after the artists refused to pay their rent, which East Jerusalem Development raised by 30 percent. "We're not against new businesses here, a coffee shop or a restaurant, but there's no other street like this anywhere in the country. Why turn it into another mall?" said calligraphist Oshrit Raffeld, who has had a studio on the street for the past eight years.

But particularly hurtful to the older artists is the report by a real estate assessor appended to the lawsuit that states why the lane's status has declined. In addition to the security situation and parking problems, the report states: "Another, and I believe central reason is the aging of the artists at the site ... the veteran artists, including those who are past 80, have become less relevant to the type of visitors and shoppers who come to the street."

Judaica artist Emil Shenfeld said in response: "How dare they write such a thing. Have they no shame? We are an asset to the city, an asset to tourism."

The artists hint that the fight to evict them is motivated by extraneous real estate interests: The goal is not to replace the artists, but to leave the lane free for a developer.

Attorney Gilad Barnea, who represents 19 of the artists, says of East Jerusalem Development: "If they get what they want, the place will be abandoned and empty. That is incomprehensible, unless there is a hidden agenda that we have been unable to expose."

Recent attempts by the municipality to reach an agreement between the artists and East Jerusalem Development have failed. The artists agreed to pay the higher rent if East Jerusalem Development would extend their lease for more than a year and would publicize the place, but the company turned down their offer.

East Jerusalem Development said the Tenders Law required it both to raise the rent and to offer the galleries to other artists.

Gideon Shamir, CEO of East Jerusalem Development, said of the artists: "They've gotten used to being there for decades under extraordinarily inexpensive conditions ... To allow them to continue, I had to raise the rent modestly, which they refused to pay. After dozens of meetings we have reached a dead end. I can't commit to a multi-year contract because I have to leave options open for an upgrade."

The municipality said in a statement, "Most of the artists were not meeting their contractual obligations to East Jerusalem Development." It also said it had brokered an agreement between East Jerusalem Development and a committee representing the artists, "which the artists themselves turned down. The city seeks to re-examine all rental issues under East Jerusalem Development responsibility in light of a new concept being developed."