Rightists Blocking Jerusalem Plan to Build 2,500 Houses for Arabs

Left condemn Jerusalem mayor for not exerting enough effort to advance the plan, which would somewhat relieve the extreme shortage of housing in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods.

Right-wing and Haredi city council members are blocking an effort by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to build a new neighborhood for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, claiming the plan was poorly conceived and politically dangerous.

At issue is a plan to build 2,500 housing units on private land in the village of Sawahara in southeastern Jerusalem, apparently the largest plan ever drawn up for the residents of East Jerusalem.

While the municipality is sponsoring the plan, it differs from plans for Jewish areas because the landowners will be responsible for its development, rather than the city or the Housing and Construction Ministry. As a result, even if the plan is approved, it will be many years before the homes are built.

On Monday the plan was meant to be approved by the Local Building and Planning Committee, but committee chairman Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahalon had to cancel the vote when it became clear that the Haredi and right-wing council members were determined to foil the plan.

The left condemned Barkat for not exerting enough effort to advance the plan, which would somewhat relieve the extreme shortage of housing and infrastructures in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods.

They compared it to Barkat's determination to get approval for the Gan Hamelech plan, which will involve demolishing Palestinian-occupied homes in Silwan to build an archaeological park, noting that Barkat had fired left-wing councilmen from his coalition when they voted against it.

"We see that when the mayor is really interested in advancing something he forces his coalition to toe the line, and even dismisses council members for it," said Efrat Bar-Cohen, an architect affiliated with the Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights organization.

Councilman Meir Margalit (Meretz ) said he thought the Haredim were attempting to flex their muscles after being angered by Barkat's decision to name Rahel Azaria, a councilwoman from the secular camp, as deputy mayor.

Right-wing councilmen say the plan is politically unwise.

"This plan will create a dangerous reality of a contiguous built up area between Silwan and Abu Dis, thus effectively legitimizing the division of the city," said councilman Yair Gabai (NRP ).

"It's also unworthy from a planning perspective; there was no study of land utilization in the eastern part of the city and it includes building on green areas," he added.

The municipality issued a statement saying that the mayor "ascribes great importance to the building of 2,500 housing units in Arab A-Sawahara."

The plan was debated by the local planning committee this week, the statement said, "and during the debate a number of members asked to receive more planning information about it. When the answers to their questions are received from the professionals, the committee will again consider the plan and vote on it."