Jerusalem Old City Master Plan Derailed by Rightists on City Council

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Right-wing members of the Jerusalem City Council succeeded in blocking a master plan for Palestinian building in the Old City, saying one of their big objections was its omission of a new Jewish neighborhood in the Muslim Quarter.

For the past eight years the Jerusalem Municipality and Jerusalem Development Authority have been working on a new master plan for the Old City. The current master plan does not enable the issuing of hardly any new building permits, which has led to more and more illegal building. Two months ago the plan was submitted to the local committee for planning and building, but due to pressure from right wing-members such as Yair Gabai (former member of the National Religious Party) and Didi Hershkovitz (Yisrael Beiteinu), changes were made.

In its new form, the plan does not enable any residential building whatsoever. Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon, who serves as chairman of the local planning committee, said on behalf of the municipality that the current master plan, which deals only with conservation of monuments and fixing infrastructure, should be promoted.

According to Aviv Tatarski, who wrote a report dealing with the issue for the left-wing Ir Amim, the committee's members were pressured by activists of Ateret Kohanim, an organization promoting Jewish settlement in the Muslim Quarter. In their attempt to influence the plan, Ateret Kohanim members met with officials of the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority.

The right-wing organization's opposition to the plan also stems from the absence in it of approval for 22 residential units for Jews near Herod's Gate, in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. Moreover, the plan added conditions that would not allow the Jewish neighborhood to be built in the future, such as prohibiting building adjacent to the city walls or above the walls' height.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu (Meretz) said: "We've waited years for a master plan for the Old City, for its residents, and we see how various elements, with access to the mayor, ruin these plans for political reasons."

Council member Gabai acknowledged opposing the plan because it did not include the Herod's Gate neighborhood, but stressed that his main objection was that it ignored the needs of the Jewish Quarter (which, however, is subject to a different building plan). Another problem, according to Gabai, was that the plan was drawn without addressing the Old City's pressing problems.

Another reason for the right-wing's opposition was the involvement in the plan of architect Mike Turner, who was ousted as chairman of UNESCO's Israel World Heritage Committee after he opposed the large building plans for the Old City and the surrounding areas.

"Turner saw to it that the Herod's Gate neighborhood was deleted from the plan, despite a former decision of the planning committee, due to its proximity to the city walls," said Gabai. "The problem is that this rule is used exclusively against Jews, and nobody does anything about similar Arab buildings, some of which use the city walls as the house wall. This is straight-forward discrimination."

Tatarski argues that the current stalemate suits the needs of Ateret Kohanim officials, since they, unlike their Palestinian neighbors, do not encounter problems when submitting building plans. Tatarski says that since 1974, only six building permits in the Muslim Quarter were submitted, five of them by Jews.

The municipality's failure to have the master plan approved follows several other failures in promoting plans for Palestinian building in East Jerusalem. The largest plan, stalled for two years now, deals with 2,500 residential units in the neighborhood of Sawahra al-Arbiya. Mayor Nir Barkat declared several times that this plan is an important step in decreasing housing gaps between the eastern and western parts of the city. Still, Kahlon was forced to withdraw the plan when he understood it wouldn't be approved due to the opposition of right-wing and Haredi committee members. A senior municipality official admitted yesterday that "there are political obstacles concerning that plan." Two other plans concerning the nearby neighborhood of Jabal Mukkaber, are also being stalled in the local planning committee.

Last week, attorney Neta Patrick of Hebrew University Faculty of Law's human rights clinic sent an angry letter to senior municipality officials on behalf of landowners in Sawahra al-Arbiya. "The Jerusalem Municipality, which often complains that East Jerusalem residents solve the housing shortage by illegal building, leaves them no other choice by failing to have the plan approved by the committee," wrote Patrick.

Kahlon said municipality would continue to push for the Sawahra al-Arbiya housing plan's approval.

A Jewish settler in Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter. Credit: Emil Salman
Residents of Beit Safafa, in southern Jerusalem, protest the construction of a road through their neighborhood.Credit: Emil Salman

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