A gaping hole excavated illegally by a Palestinian entrepreneur poses a huge safety hazard in the Sur Baher neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where it has already led to the collapse of electricity pylons, olive trees and water pipes. However, the Jerusalem Municipality says “the hole has been filled” and denies that it poses any risks.
The pit was dug in 2013 by an association involved in building homes for academics and by builder Hussein Abu Hamed. Thirteen buildings offering more than 150 housing units were planned for the site where an 18 meter deep hole was dug, across an area of seven dunams (1.7 acres).
Neighbors and sources involved in the construction say the excavation was carried out without a permit and residents complained about it to city authorities while the digging was taking place. The city responded by opening a construction violations file against the entrepreneur and summoning him to hearings, but took no steps to stop the work.
In the years that followed, particularly during rainy seasons, the walls surrounding the pit have caved in, blocking access to a neighboring home. Nearby electricity, water and telephone lines have also collapsed, and an ancient terraced olive grove and a fence that had been put up around the site have all given way as well.
Wael Atoun’s home, which overlooks the pit, has noticeable cracks in the walls. Atoun fears his home’s foundations are also at risk. On his own initiative he has ordered dozens of truckloads of sand to fill a portion of the hole in hopes that it would support his house enough to avoid its collapse.
“This pit endangers two houses and passersby,” Atoun said. “We also have a school above us.”
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“I have asked the city to remove this hazard and restore the road, or let us at least fill up the hole. A child could fall from a height of six meters and die,” he added.
The municipality doesn’t have a single, unified position on the issue. A few years ago the builder put up a fence at the site and the city said it did not see the pit as posing any risks and that the process of applying for a construction license could continue. But later the city’s department for dangerous buildings sent a warning letter to the entrepreneur Abu Hamad, demanding he build a protective wall to prevent further collapse at the site. The builder did nothing and was charged with illegal construction.
A response sent by the city to Haaretz a year ago, said the case has been sent on to the legal department and that the builder hadn’t shown up for any of the court sessions to which he had been summoned.
“It’s important to point out that the department for dangerous buildings has been monitoring the situation and will take any necessary steps,” the city said, adding that legal measures were being taken “against the person responsible for excavating the plot.”
While in effect the city hasn’t done anything about the pit in the past year and a half, its walls have continued to collapse. In a response sent this past week, it said that “the pit has been filled in by the department of dangerous buildings and the place has been fenced off, so there is no danger. The issue is still in court. A summons to appear in court has been sent but the entrepreneur is in jail where he will remain until August.”
Abu Hamed’s attorney, Walid Zahalka, said the neighborhood has an approved plan and there was a license to dig the pit. He said the delays were due to neighbors’ objections to the construction. “For now the court has barred us from doing any construction but we are awaiting a decision,” Zahalka said.