SILWAN, East Jerusalem – Outside the Bedouin-style protest tent in the heart of this Palestinian neighborhood, the anger is palpable, but controlled.
Muhammad (surname undisclosed) turns to an Israeli TV reporter: "Would you agree to have your neighbor’s house moved on top of yours just because they knock his house down so as to build a park there. Would you agree?"
The rhetorical question is aimed at Jerusalem’s Israeli mayor, Nir Barkat, who had, earlier this week, announced the launch of a lavish tourism project in this run-down neighborhood
As part of the project, the mayor wants to demolish several dozen Palestinian homes considered "illegal" by Israeli authorities who consistently refuse to grant East Jerusalem Palestinians building permits.
Barkat says he would retroactively grant permits to those and dozens of other homes built "illegally" in the al-Bustan quarter of Silwan, provided the dispossessed Palestinians move out of the area or build their new apartments atop existing buildings.
Mayor Barkat does not do much to disguise an ulterior motive: He wants to whitewash a contentious building slap in the middle of Silwan by right-wing Jewish nationalists. The seven-story block of flats, called Bet Yonathan, was also built without a permit.
The Israeli Supreme Court recently ordered that Bet Yonathan be sealed, an injunction that the mayor has been actively trying to flout.
The grandiose scheme which Barkat is intent on pursuing is in an area which Israeli archaeologists claim is the original site of ‘City of David’, built by the Biblical king over 3,000 years ago.
The park would include a canal leading from an ancient pool of water, restaurants, hotels and green areas.
"For 3,000 years, the area has been green," Barkat tells foreign reporters. "Now there are 100 illegal buildings there. We want to return it to what it was. We intend to take a neglected area and transform it into something successful,’’ says Barkat.
"The King’s Garden will guarantee development of the area, improved infrastructure, higher standards of living and a tourism base," Barkat argues. ‘’It’s a win-win situation,’’ he goes on, promising local Palestinians jobs in the project.
But with the city just recovering from a massive storm which had turned the narrow alleyways here into muddy streams, for Palestinian inhabitants that rosy vision hardly jelled with the way Israel has sorely neglected East Jerusalem for the past four decades since it took control over their lives.
"Look at that collapsed wall, look at that debris which the rain has left blocking our roads," Fakhry Abu Diab, a spokesman for Silwan residents, told IPS. "We really have no confidence that the Israeli authorities are looking out for our interests.
"This is political. It has nothing to do with just building a biblical park. What they actually want is us out of Silwan and out of Jerusalem," says Abu Diab.
"Demolishing homes in the al-Bustan neighborhood to clear the area for an archaeological garden will be a dangerous step which could ignite one of the most volatile areas, and damage the stability and political future of the Jerusalem," a statement from Ir Amim, an Israel NGO that keeps tabs on Israeli activity in the occupied side of the city, declared. In the past, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been labeled exactly that, "the master of pyromania", with a reputation for lighting matches through schemes rooted in Jewish heritage with the purpose of consolidating Israel’s hold in East Jerusalem. The most explosive example was when Netanyahu was previously prime minister and allowed the opening in 1996 of a tunnel located in the walled Old City which runs close to the foundations of the Haram el Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site, but which is for Jews their holy Temple Mount. That ill-conceived decision led to a mini Palestinian uprising in which scores of Palestinian protestors and Israeli soldiers were killed. This time, though, Netanyahu has chosen the role of city chief fire-fighter. In the past, he had tacitly endorsed the expansion of Israeli presence in East Jerusalem, particularly in the so-called Holy Basin which surrounds the Old City. But on Tuesday, just as Barkat was planning to unveil with much media fanfare his "King’s Garden" project, the prime minister pressed the mayor to set the project aside. He urged him to avoid the planned wide-scale demolition of homes in Silwan until a deal is reached with the Palestinian residents. Netanyahu advised Barkat to reconsider the plan to avoid sparking further tensions. A statement from his office said the prime minister had warned the mayor, "Some people want to ignite trouble and strife and to present a false, skewed picture of what we are trying to do here."
Barkat agreed, but pledged he would not abandon the project – albeit it would be carried out "with great consideration and sensitivity, but also with determination."
Prior to this averted crisis, over recent days there has been widespread international condemnation of the Netanyahu government’s designation of two West Bank biblical sites in the Palestinian cities of Hebron and Bethlehem as Israeli "national heritage" sites. That sparked weekend clashes around the Al-Aqsa mosque between Palestinian protestors and Israeli security forces.
The United States was among the protesting governments. Washington also expressed concern over a recently announced Israeli plan to build 600 new apartments in the Jewish settlement neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev in the eastern part of the city.
Now Netanyahu’s move to get the mayor to call off his park plan has won him praise from the U.S.
Netanyahu clearly does not want to shoulder any blame for possibly scuttling at the last minute what looks like becoming the first success in the Obama administration’s attempt to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after a hiatus of more than a year.
An announcement of such "proximity talks" under U.S. brokerage is expected as early as next week.
Still, if and when the talks do get under way, Netanyahu will find himself on the defensive.
Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank is only on the back burner. It has not stopped completely – as the U.S. had originally sought – and the Israeli leader’s own limited freeze on settlements runs out in a few months time.
(Inter Press Service)