The Jerusalem municipality has asked the courts to reactivate demolition orders relating to dozens of buildings housing 1,500 Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, after years of conducting unusual back-door negotiations with these residents in an attempt to find a plan that would offer them alternative housing.
The request was filed in a court for local affairs three weeks ago. If approved, more than 70 structures in the al-Bustan neighborhood are at immediate risk of demolition.
In 2010, then-Mayor Nir Barkat announced a plan to build a tourist-targeted archaeological park called The King’s Garden in the al-Bustan neighborhood, located in the lower part of Silwan. The park was intended to blend in with tourist attractions in the City of David. However, the plan included the demolition of houses and the evacuation of dozens of Palestinian families who had built their houses in the neighborhood, on land they owned, but without obtaining building permits. When the plan was approved, it sparked fierce public and political furor, leading to international protests against city hall and to the resignation of Meretz members of the municipal council.
Residents of the neighborhood mobilized for a campaign against their evacuation following publication of the city’s plan and the submission of a request for a court-ordered demolition. But instead of an aggressive and courtroom confrontation, the two sides agreed to embark on negotiations in an attempt to reach an understanding whereby the park would be built and housing solutions would be found for all the area’s residents.
Negotiations were held behind the scenes over the last ten years, under wraps due to residents’ concerns that they would be condemned by Palestinians for holding negotiations with the municipality. In the course of the talks, the residents agreed to the demolition of most of the buildings in the neighborhood in exchange for receiving building permits in adjacent plots on the condition that the current buildings not be torn down until new buildings are constructed. Under the plan, most of the neighborhood would be turned into a park and tourist destination.
Three and a half years ago, the residents and city hall representatives, including the city engineer and the mayor’s adviser for Arab affairs, reached agreement on a document of principal terms. “The proposed plan will give residents of al-Bustan appropriate housing solutions in the neighborhood,” read the document’s first clause. The plan included clauses calling for the renovation of some buildings, additions to other buildings and the evacuation of still others, so that ultimately, the neighborhood would have the same number of housing units, as well as a park for tourists, which included commercial uses as well.”
Based on these negotiations and the agreement with the municipality, the Palestinians managed to obtain from the court deferrals of demolition injunctions issued by the municipality.
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However, the city recently objected to a further extension of these deferrals. “The plaintiffs had many years in which to obtain permits, but in all this time they were unable to point to significant progress in their planning,” read the city’s request, submitted by Adv. Eyal Cohen.
“People entered a process of negotiations since they believed that there was a real intention to do something good. They invested millions and we made changes dozens of times based on the city’s demands. Now they’ve retracted everything,” says Adv. Ziad Kawar, who represents the residents.
In response to the municipality’s request, Kawar wrote that the city had not informed the court of the fact that there had been ongoing negotiations lasting many years and that progress had been made. He asked the court to postpone carrying out the demolitions by one year in order to give the plan a chance. “This is an extensive neighborhood-wide plan that can give an updated and appropriate solution to residents and their needs. The respondents should support this plan and the residents’ initiative instead of trying to quash it.”
“We were told that they would not abide by the agreements we reached and that they’d demolish the entire neighborhood. I suppose there is something political at play,” says Fakhri Abu Diab, the head of a residents’ committee. He says that 1550 people live in al-Bustan, 63 percent of them children under the age of 18.
For its part, the municipality says that: “City hall has not gone back on any agreement. This is an open public area, where many buildings were built without permits over the years, in contrast to present and future planning. The courts have ruled that some of these should be demolished. In tandem, residents are promoting some plan, which should come before the district planning committee. The city will proceed according to the court’s ruling in this matter and with decisions by the district planning committee regarding the plan that’s being promoted by residents.”