The Old City of Jerusalem stands on a hill, completely enclosed by its ancient city wall which is punctuated by seven gates. Beneath the Old City, to the south-east, the terrain falls away into the Kidron Valley, and extending along the valley is a neighbourhood known as Silwan.
Except for a few Jewish residences, noticeable for their fencing, security and flags, the neighbourhood is home to some 45,000 Palestinians. The area is an unplanned hotch-potch of dwellings of every conceivable type, some little more than shacks, some of a very high standard, comparable to the best in the most affluent Jewish neighbourhoods. However, the vast majority of the hundreds of buildings that have sprung up in Silwan since 1967 were built illegally – that is without municipal planning permission.
In November 2008, at the second time of trying, Nir Barkat – described as "secular" as opposed to "religious" – was elected mayor of Jerusalem. Determined to spearhead improvements for the city and its inhabitants, he spent his first year drawing up imaginative and far-reaching plans for regulating new building in East Jerusalem, and consulting widely on them. And indeed, the mayor succeeded in assembling a diverse support group for his proposals. Even some on the Arab side were convinced by his insistence that he was not seeking to oust existing Arab residents, or bring in new Jewish residents under the cover of the redevelopment.
At a press conference last week, Mayor Birkat gave details of his plan to develop the area of Silwan known as ‘The King's Garden' ('Gan Hamelech' in Hebrew; ‘El Bustan' in Arabic). Barkat says he has no hidden agenda. But on either side of the Bustan neighbourhood there are disputes over recent Jewish settlement, and residents fear a pincers operation.
In northeast Silwan stands one of the area's few Jewish blocks of apartments – the illegally-erected seven-storey Beit Yehonatan. The courts have ordered it to be evacuated, but so far no action has been taken. To the west, also part of Silwan, is the so-called City of David, an archaeological park with a Jewish theme run by a settler group. Mayor Barkat says his plan has nothing to do with the City of David or the settlers, but few Palestinians believe him.
The Mayor's basic proposal was, by retrospective legislation, to legalise all buildings in Silwan already constructed that were up to four storeys high, thus resolving the vast majority of the building violations in the area. But his plans also included allowing the seven-storey Beit Yehonatan to continue in existence – and this gained him the backing of some right-wing politicians for his plans.
Many on the political left supported his proposals because the four-storey rule would constitute retroactive legalization for the vast majority of Silwan’s illegal dwellings, thus averting the distress associated with demolishing people's homes.
But the Birkat plans did indeed call for the demolition of about 100 homes, built without the proper permits in the area designated as 'Gan Hamelech' - 'The King's Garden'. Even though the plans call for a large-scale construction project that would see the entire area rebuilt and the Palestinian residents re-housed in new multi-storey buildings, this was the aspect of the proposals that aroused the greatest controversy.
Gan Hamelech is the starting point and centrepiece of his wider Silwan revamp. The aim was to elevate the King’s Garden into “east Jerusalem’s Abu Ghosh” – a flourishing Arab neighbourhood playing host to a vibrant flow of Israeli and foreign tourism.
The plan was to knock down Gan Hamelech’s illegal structures and rebuild from scratch – a development of modern buildings, with commercial premises on the ground floor and new homes for the old residents on up to three floors above. Birkat planned to add recreation areas and health clinics for the residents, and hotels for the incoming tourists. And, through more effective planning and zoning, he intended to revive at least some of the lost parkland – land that, according to some sources, was where King David wrote his psalms, and according to others where King Solomon wrote "The Song of Songs". Take your pick. The essential point was that one myth or the other would have boosted the area and attracted tourists.
But the national government – initially, in the form of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman – would not back Barkat's “east Jerusalem’s Abu Ghosh” vision. Officials in City Hall recognized that Gan Hamelech was, as one of them put it, “the second most incendiary place after the Temple Mount.” The disastrous effect on Israel's image of carrying out close to 100 imposed demolitions in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood could be imagined.
And so, shortly before he held his press conference last Tuesday to unveil his Gan Hamelech project, Mayor Barkat received a telephone call from Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Exactly what passed between them is not recorded, but the result was that Barkat announced that he had been asked to shelve the plan until the affected local Palestinians give it their formal approval.
That may take some time in coming.