ACRI and Bimkom: Stop City’s Unauthorized Work in East Jerusalem

Summary of a petition against the Jerusalem Municipality’s destructive work in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem

The Palestinian residents of Silwan in East Jerusalem are not permitted to build or expand houses on their land since no valid, detailed master plan exists for the area. The lack of a plan has not prevented the Elad Association from expanding the City of David archeological site in Silwan, disrupting the lives of residents. The Jerusalem Municipality and Israel’s Ministry of Transportation are the latest to violate the law in the area.

On 17 November 2008, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Bimkom-Planners for Planning Rights petitioned the Jerusalem District Court on behalf of residents of the Silwan/Wadi Hilwa neighborhood to demand that plans for infrastructure work in the neighborhood be cancelled. The petition, written by ACRI attorneys Tali Nir and Nisreen Alyan, argues that the planned work will cause irreparable damage to the neighborhood’s fabric of life and will significantly hinder efforts to develop services for residents, among them educational institutions, post offices, and public parks.

The petition was filed following the announcement of a plan by the Jerusalem Municipality and Ministry of Transportation to begin development work in the neighborhood in the near future. This plan was designed without first acquiring a construction permit, and residents were excluded from the planning process (as required by law) and not informed of the plan’s details. Since the authorities ignored proper procedures for approving a detailed master plan for the neighborhood, residents had no opportunity to voice their opposition, and the planners were able, essentially, to bypass the requirement for construction permits.

The petition includes the following details:
1. In recent years, tension has been mounting in East Jerusalem between Palestinian residents and groups of Israelis who are employing different methods to “Judaize” the area and rid it of its Palestinian population. A focal point for the conflict has been the Silwan/Wadi Hilwa neighborhood just outside the Dung Gate and Western Wall area of the Old City.

2. The Silwan/Wadi Hilwa neighborhood sits on a hill that was the site of the ancient Jerusalem, and its soil contains the layers of over five thousand years of archeological treasures. In recognition of its importance in the history and development of the city, the area was designated at the time of the British Mandate as an archeological site that is part of a national park extending from the OId City walls.

3. The residents committee estimates the population of the crowded neighborhood at 7,000, a number far too high for the level of municipal services provided. The neighborhood houses one elementary and middle school for girls (built by UNRWA many years ago), a small (two-classroom) municipal elementary school for boys, and one private nursery school. The majority of neighborhood children, then, are transported to other neighborhoods, some far from East Jerusalem. There are no post offices in the neighborhood to serve residents, and the area lacks any public parks or playgrounds.

4. To the great discontent of neighborhood residents, Silwan/Wadi Hilwa has been targeted in recent years by settler NGOs, primarily the Elad Foundation (an acronym for “to the City of David” in Hebrew), as an area for expanding Jewish presence. Since the 1990s, these organizations have settled about 60 Jewish families (some 300 persons) in Silwan, after using various methods (some of them suspicious) to acquire homes.

5. Today, Jewish settlement in Silwan/Wadi Hilwa consists of several dozen single-family dwellings scattered throughout the neighborhood. All are protected by armed security personnel, at government expense. Understandably, the settlements and their ever-present security mechanism-consisting of widespread camera surveillance and a heavy presence of armed guards-are a constant disturbance to local residents.

6. As mentioned, moreover, a major archeological site, the City of David, is prominently located in the heart of the neighborhood. Responsibility for the site has been passed, unexplainably, to Elad, which makes no secret of its goal of “settling families in the City of David and developing the site as a Jewish neighborhood.” Since Elad took control of the site, the scale of archeological excavations in the neighborhood has greatly expanded and now includes previously public areas that are closed to residents. Digging is also taking place beneath the homes of residents (actions which are being contested through separate legal measures). Most of the funding for the excavations is being provided by Elad.

7. In addition to the large-scale archeological work being conducted in the neighborhood, the site is being aggressively marketed by Elad. Hundreds of tourists arrive daily at the City of David Visitors Center. As tour buses pass through the neighborhood of narrow streets and dense construction, they often block vehicular traffic, causing severe congestion.

8. Because of these changes in the character of the neighborhood, the Jerusalem Municipality and Ministry of Transportation have decided to initiate a plan to develop its infrastructure. However, residents were excluded from the planning process and, with the work about to begin, they have only partial details about the plan’s content. Over the past several months, the petitioners have tried unceasingly to obtain a copy of the detailed plan, but they, too, have received only partial information. They have yet to receive either documentation of the plan or copies of construction permits.

9. To the best of the petitioners’ knowledge, no permits were issued for the development plan. In essence, no such permits can be issued since the neighborhood is defined in the local master plan as a special, open public area in which construction is categorically forbidden. Likewise, there is no evidence of approval for individual plans, and absent such approval, no construction permits can be issued.

10. In this context, it should be noted that those who have suffered for many years from planning failures in the Silwan/Wadi Hilwa neighborhood are the residents themselves, who are prevented by the authorities from building homes in their own area. As a result of the problematic planning situation, residents have no possibility of obtaining permits for building homes on land that has belonged to their families for generations. In Silwan/Wadi Hilwa, as in other East Jerusalem neighborhoods, the authorities demolish many homes that were constructed without a permit. Only this month, on November 5, 2008, Jerusalem municipal workers demolished two homes in the neighborhood.

11. In light of the above, attempts by the authorities to perform infrastructure work in the neighborhood-without acquiring the construction permits required by law, and without abiding by legally grounded planning procedures that call for notifying residents and inviting their participation-are particularly unwarranted. Had the respondents been concerned with the good of the neighborhood, they would have designed a detailed plan that takes into account the needs of residents and involves them in the planning procedure, at the same time it lays the groundwork for improving the neighborhood’s infrastructure.

12. Based on the information obtained by the petitioners, it appears that the development plan, as designed, will cause irreparable damage to the neighborhood’s fabric of life: the revised transportation and parking arrangements will cause interminable traffic jams and severely limit the amount of available parking, and the planned use of open areas in the neighborhood will leave little opportunity for developing public services such as educational institutions, post offices, and public parks..

13. In addition, it is highly likely that infrastructure development in the neighborhood will lead to even wider-scale archeological excavations that will immobilize the surrounding area for a very long period. This phenomenon has been evidenced in the recent past with the large-scale “rescue excavations” in Silwan and Wadi Hilwa, which, supervised by the Israel Antiquities Authority, stretched over several years. Much of this digging was undertaken after layers of soil containing significant archeological findings were uncovered in the course of infrastructure work in the area.

14. In 2005, for example, repair work was conducted following a sewage pipe burst along the path leading from El-Ayin Street to the neighborhood mosque and kindergarten. Findings uncovered in the course of the work led to the large-scale “rescue excavations,” which revealed a staircase that is part of the Shiloah Pool. The Antiquities Authority and Elad were quick to block entrance to the path and charge a fee to anyone who desired to use it. In this way, access to a central public area was denied to residents, and neighborhood children no longer had a convenient and safe route for walking to the kindergarten.

15. The same was true in the case of infrastructure work undertaken last winter to repair a gaping hole at the foot of Wadi Hilwa Street. A wall from the Second Temple era, along with ancient coins, was exposed in the course of the work, and the area was fenced off for “rescue excavations.” Last winter’s snowfall also exposed a pipe near the visitors center, later identified as the famous water shaft dating back to King David’s conquest of the then-Jebusite city.

16. Similarly, the “rescue excavations” on Wadi Hilwa Street, within the area supervised by Elad, developed into a larger-scale dig of an ancient tunnel situated beneath the homes of residents. In this case as well, there was no attempt to coordinate with the landowners before undertaking the project, and the work was halted by an interim order by the High Court of Justice (HCJ 1308/07 Siam v. The Antiquities Authority).

17. Therefore, one of the main reasons the petitioners oppose the infrastructure work in the Silwan/Wadi Hilwa neighborhood is their well-grounded suspicion that during the course of this work, which includes excavation, archeological artifacts will be uncovered, giving justification for still more “rescue excavations.” The result would, once again, entail the blocking of vehicular traffic in the neighborhood for a considerable length of time-perhaps permanently. Since, given the history of the area, there is a very good chance of finding archeological treasures beneath the main roadways, these suspicions are not unfounded.

18. Residents of the neighborhood wish to point out that they are not generally opposed to archeological excavations and tourism. They are proud of the antiquities located beneath their village and interested in preserving the findings in a way benefits science and makes them accessible to all residents of Jerusalem. For over 140 years, actually, the Silwan/Wadi Hilwa neighborhood has been one of the most excavated sites in Israel, one which draws visitors from all parts of the globe who come to research the history of the city. In the 130 years before Elad was given responsibility for excavation work in the neighborhood, projects were conducted with the residents’ approval and did not conflict with the normal course of their lives. The work was carried out with the cooperation of residents-not as it is today, when the residents have no knowledge of decisions made about the excavations and are not even notified of plans to dig under their very houses. For these residents, the digging up of major roads in the neighborhood, the commencement of “rescue excavations,” and the obstruction of vehicular traffic are a heavy price to pay.

19. The petition requests that the respondents be prevented from carrying out any plan to develop the neighborhood until a new development plan is designed-one that takes the needs of neighborhood residents into consideration rather than disregarding them.

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Categories: East Jerusalem, Arab Citizens of Israel, Land Distribution and Planning Rights, The Occupied Territories

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