Residents of Historic Jerusalem Neighborhood Score Rare Victory Against Developer

Ein Karem residents manage to halt work on illegal construction project, but remain anxious about risk from ill-considered building projects.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

An establishment known simply as "the Lebanese restaurant" used to operate in the heart of Ein Karem, close to the main road. A year ago, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Health Ministry shuttered the restaurant, citing sanitation problems. The structure was demolished and a building permit was issued for a new restaurant.

After construction started, Ein Karem residents noticed that the new establishment's dimensions exceeded the original blueprint. Instead of a small structure suited to the surroundings of the historic Jerusalem neighborhood, a huge restaurant was being built, and it was about to spread into public spaces.

Residents turned to the district appeals committee, which issued an injunction halting construction of the new restaurant. The committee's decision cited its concern for the fate of public spaces in the area, and noted that there was "definite cause" for suspicion that the construction illegally deviated from authorized plans.

The project's contractors had manifestly transgressed construction permits; built on areas designated for public use; blocked public access routes; and were preparing to pave over a huge courtyard area that is supposed to serve as a public park, the committee concluded.

During a visit to the area last Tuesday, an Israel Lands Administration official indicated that the signature of an ILA colleague on the building permit seemed irregular and could be a forgery.

Meantime, officials from the Antiquities Authority have submitted complaints to the police, claiming that the building of the new restaurant might have brought damage to archaeologically-significant materials on the site.

The restaurant's construction remains suspended.

Striving to protect their neighborhood's pastoral beauty in recent years, Ein Karem residents have conducted a number of campaigns against construction projects.

One of the most recent campaigns was fought against the installation of a huge storage shed near the area's central fountain area. In this case, work on the shed - and also construction of a square in the same area - was halted for months.

However, the state backed the controversial projects and Ein Karem residents claimed it had exceeded the terms of building permits provided for the square and shed.

"At play here is a lethal mixture of the establishment's lack of awareness about Ein Karem's significance and the greed of contractors," says Ron Havilio, one of the neighborhood's activists. He stresses the village's importance as an important site for tourists and religious pilgrims.

The next big battle will concern the proposed establishment of a new neighborhood in the area between Ein Karem and the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood. Ein Karem residents contend that this neighborhood project, one of the more grandiose development plans contemplated by the municipality, would destroy their village's special character.

Neither backers of the new restaurant project nor the ILA responded to inquiries concerning this article.

The Antiquities Authority said that during construction work on the new restaurant in Ein Karem, "the wall of an old home uncovered during excavations was destroyed." However, the Authority concedes that no irreparable damage to antiquities was caused during the restaurant construction, and it allowed the building work to continue, under the supervision of an archaeologist.

The Jerusalem Municipality stated that the original building permit for the restaurant was issued legally, and that it will respect the decision reached by the appeals committee.

A street in Jerusalem's Ein Karem neighborhood. Credit: Emil Salman
Jerusalem Municipality officials pore over blueprints in Ein Karem.Credit: Emil Salman