A Different Kind of Power Struggle in Jerusalem

For two years a bitter struggle has been under way between residents of Jerusalem's upscale Yemin Moshe neighborhood and the corporation that manages it.

The Yemin Moshe neighborhood, which overlooks the Old City's walls, is one of the most beautiful places in Jerusalem. It was founded as one of the first Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City in the late 19th century. Today, though, the area's picturesque alleys have become a battleground between its residents and the East Jerusalem Development Corporation.

A government-municipal corporation (most is owned by the Tourism Ministry, and part by the Jerusalem municipality ), the EJDC manages the neighborhood in accordance with the terms of historical agreements. In the 1960s, in a controversial move designed to turn it into a tourist attraction, poorer residents of Yemin Moshe were evicted and, in their stead, artists, writers and poets were moved in. The neighborhood's face-lift was spearheaded by the EJDC, which was created by Mayor Teddy Kollek.

Yemin Moshe
Michal Fatta

Since that time, Yemin Moshe has been managed as a private neighborhood whose occupants are "residents" of both Jerusalem and the EJDC. In addition to paying a municipal tax like any other local resident, people who live in Yemin Moshe also pay a special tax to the EJDC: On every real estate deal signed in the neighborhood, 2 percent is paid directly to the EJDC; this payment is known as an "agreement fee."

The rigorous demands for the preservation of the neighborhood and its unique character provide the EJDC with a special standing with regard to all home renovations and even vis-a-vis installation of such elementary infrastructures as telephone lines, satellite dishes or solar water heaters. The EJDC owns an additional property, the adjacent Hutzot Hayotzer artists' quarter. There as well, the corporation is involved in a bitter struggle with the artists who operate the workshops, and who are refusing to comply with an increase in rental fees and with the EJDC's eviction demands.

Most of those who live in Yemin Moshe are neither artists nor writers. The majority are foreign residents and all of them are affluent. Among the more well-known names in the neighborhood one can find the former sponsor of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, Guma Aguiar, who has purchased many homes in Yemin Moshe; Prof. Eytan Sheshinski; Lia van Leer, a major figure in Israel's film industry; and Hannah Amichai, widow of poet Yehuda Amichai.

Residents claim that the corporation is not dealing with the neighborhood's lighting and security problems, is neglecting its public areas and creates needless headaches for those who want to renovate their home.

Revenue vs. expenditure

Two years ago, in the wake of the EJDC's attempt to raise taxes, residents decided to revolt. Instead of paying the tax directly to the corporation, they deposited the money in a trust account. Today they say they are prepared to transfer it to the EJDC only if the corporation accedes to their various demands.

What really made the locals' blood boil and brought about the latest protest - in the context of which they demonstrated a few weeks ago beside the neighborhood's historic windmill - is the corporation's plan to erect a new structure on their parking lot. The EJDC claims that, in 1948, a structure with eight apartments occupied the site and that the parking lot is actually a "pirate lot," without a permit. For their part, the residents claim that each of the eight apartments in the building which stood back then on the site of the present-day lot had an area of 40 square meters, whereas each of the planned apartments has an area of 190 square meters.

"It was only when we began our struggle that we discovered that we were dealing with an incompetent corporation that wastes public funds," says Joey Silver, one neighborhood resident.

According to documents presented by residents, although the corporation is now in a deficit situation, Yemin Moshe and the artists' quarter in Hutzot Hayotzer are profitable properties for the EJDC, and the revenue from the two neighborhoods exceeds expenditure.

"Today, we are demanding that they close their office permanently and that we be treated like the residents of any other neighborhood in the city," explains Silver.

Two years ago, the Finance Ministry called for the office to be closed, but ultimately succumbed to pressure from the Tourism Ministry and that did not happen. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has written a highly critical report on the corporation's management, and the Jerusalem municipality has expressed dissatisfaction with the EJDC's performance.

Gideon Shamir, the corporation's CEO, rejects all of the residents' claims and declares that the EJDC intends to go to court in order to force them to pay the taxes they owe the corporation.

Shamir: "The neighborhood is managed in a scrupulous regime of 'revenue against expenses' and generates no profits. The EJDC has gone beyond the call of duty in all it has done for this neighborhood. We have become a whipping boy for the residents even on subjects that are not our responsibility, such as security and lighting."

Regarding the claims concerning the new structure that is about to be built, Shamir states: "The building's parameters are similar, if not identical, to those of the building that stood there in 1948. We are talking about the last lot remaining in the neighborhood and it is my duty, as the CEO of a public corporation, to realize this property. All of the residents' arguments have been rejected by the planning committee."

The Jerusalem municipality's response: "The Jerusalem municipality is dissatisfied with the EJDC's performance and with the way it is managing the neighborhood. The municipality is taking measures to upgrade the residents' quality of life. The corporation is not cooperating with the municipality and is not complying with municipal policies. The Jerusalem municipality is currently discussing with the Tourism Ministry, which has the controlling interest in the corporation, how to change the EJDC's role so that it will serve tourism interests that are compatible with the municipality's policies, rather than inimical to them."

The Tourism Ministry's response: "The tourism minister, Stas Misezhnikov, is studying the corporation's activities from various points of view. When he has completed this study, options for increasing the corporation's efficiency and for improving its operations will be considered."

The Finance Ministry states that no decision has yet been taken on the EJDC's future.