Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin decided last week to suspend plans for a commercial center next to the Palestinian neighborhood of Umm Tuba in southeastern Jerusalem because Jewish residents of the nearby Har Homa neighborhood objected. Some of the opponents of the plan for the center, which was slated to include offices and other commercial space, have argued that the project would lead to the “mixing of populations” and pose a danger to young women from Har Homa.
Sources who have been involved in the plans said sensitivity due to the run-up to the March 2 Knesset election and politicians’ concern over backlash from right-wing members of the public have prevented them from intervening to try to save the project. One source, who confirmed that the planners were recently ordered to halt work on the project, added: “It’s terrible. We’ve destroyed an entire neighborhood’s development capability.”
The development of four business centers for neighborhoods of East Jerusalem has been a flagship project of the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry in recent years. The plans called for one of the four centers, a 134,000 square meter (1.4 million square foot) project, to be built next to Umm Tuba. Through the East Jerusalem Development Company and in cooperation with the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry spent about 2 million shekels ($585,000) on the plans for the center, which was slated to include a range of businesses, offices and services, such as banks and community health clinics. It was also to have served the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa.
Part of the center was slated for land privately owned by Palestinians, while the remainder was to be on land expropriated from Palestinians when Har Homa, which is also known as Homat Shmuel, was built in the 1990s.
Presented to residents
The plan progressed through the planning process and last week was presented to a gathering of residents in Har Homa. Some of the residents vehemently opposed the plan, while others called the objections racist. One man summarized objections to the plan as follows: “It’s dangerous for the girls. We need to live separately. We need to keep [the residents of Umm Tuba] away from us. They would harm our children and we need to build a wall between us and them.”
According to others present, another resident said she would only want to see Arabs up close “as shepherds with sheep.” Another reportedly said: “The State of Israel belongs only to the Jews, and Arabs need to be drawers of water and hewers of wood,” a reference from the Book of Joshua referring to manual laborers.
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“It was really sickening,” one person who attended the meeting said.
Neighborhood residents raised similar objections to the project in messages shared among members of a neighborhood WhatsApp messaging group. Haaretz has obtained the messages.
“We don’t want a mixing of ethnic groups. [I] fear for our Jewish daughters, [if I am to] call it like it is,” wrote one woman. “I don’t understand why we need to build them centers like that. After all, they are at the malls en masse,” another resident wrote. “Reducing disparities in East Jerusalem, [but] not at our expense !!!! It can be in their villages,” read another message. One resident expressed concern that Haaretz would “make us look like racists.”
Community administration objects
The chairman of the community administration in Har Homa, Shlomo Golbary, wrote to Jerusalem Mayor Leon, saying that the community administration objected to the project in part for security reasons. The residents recalled particularly difficult experiences in the early years of the neighborhood, which included break-ins and thefts in broad daylight, Golbary wrote, and have heightened concerned about the presence of a large Arab population at a new commercial center, “particularly because schools and a youth center are planned to be built across from the center.”
Golbary asked that the project be scrapped and that instead a project be developed for the residents of Har Homa alone. He also asked Leon to leave the Arab-owned land at the site as open space and that no other construction be carried out there.
Other objections to the project included the argument that Har Homa residents had become accustomed to using services available in the Talpiot industrial zone to the north and that the proposed business center would cause damage to a memorial to Israeli soldiers and to an ancient aqueduct. There was also opposition from people affiliated with the Har Hamor yeshiva, which moved to Har Homa two years ago, as have a large number of the yeshiva’s graduates. Among the yeshiva’s links are contacts with the extremist Noam party, among others.
Arieh King, a right-wing member of the Jerusalem city council who has been mentioned as being behind the protest against the Umm Tuba project, told Haaretz that he was not among the plan’s initial opponents but “definitely opposes” it. King said that a non-municipal entity such as the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry must not be allowed to develop such a plan and “act like a bull in a china shop.”
“It is a mistake to put such a project next to a Jewish neighborhood,” King said, adding that a more appropriate location for it exists east of Umm Tuba.
Opposition by Har Homa residents bore fruit exceptionally quickly when compared to objections to developments elsewhere. Just a few days after the Har Homa community gathering, the city issued a statement saying that the mayor will not support a plan that the residents of the area do not agree to. “The plan was promoted and is being promoted by the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry. Mayor Moshe Leon asked for broad public participation with regard to it and to hear what positions Homat Shmuel residents have on its effect on the neighborhood,” the municipality stated.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Elkin, whose ministry promoted the plan, has decided not to intervene at this stage. “We are not a planning entity,” Elkin told Haaretz. “We did not decide on the location. That is the city’s decision and I have no way to impose the plan on the mayor. What is important is that the idea in principle is that these centers are very important for progress in the city. It is fortunate that these objections were raised at a relatively preliminary stage of the plan,” Elkin added.