Joel Greenberg
The Washington Post
July 1, 2010 - 12:00am

In a warren of cramped alleys in the crowded Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, a slogan scrawled on a wall warns: "Silwan is in danger."

The danger, as residents see it, is a city development plan that calls for the demolition of 22 homes to make room for a park that would flank a promenade of restaurants, art studios and shops.

Mayor Nir Barkat says the plan -- aimed at attracting visitors to the historic valley near Jerusalem's Old City where Silwan is located -- will improve services to residents, provide jobs and boost commerce.

Palestinians living there say it is an Israeli ploy to evict them from the area and cement Israeli control of another part of East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

The proposed demolitions in Silwan's al-Bustan quarter have raised tensions there since the Jerusalem city planning committee approved the development last week. The move drew condemnations from Washington and the United Nations, and clashes erupted in Silwan this week between local youths and Israeli police.

The project is subject to two more votes in the Jerusalem district planning committee, a process that could take months. But its progress has already threatened to unsettle peace efforts, which are set to resume this week with another round of indirect talks mediated by U.S. special envoy George J. Mitchell.

Along with other Israeli building plans in East Jerusalem that have heightened tensions with Washington, the plan for al-Bustan is likely to be raised during Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's scheduled visit to the White House next week.

Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared the plan "a stumbling block in the path of the political process" and urged the Obama administration to press Israel to stop the project.

A State Department spokesman said the plan was "the kind of action that undermines trust and potentially incites emotions and adds to the risk of violence." And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the proposed demolitions "provocative" and "contrary to international law."

In many ways, the al-Bustan plan reflects the sensitivities surrounding any move by city hall in the Arab areas of this contested city. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, a move that has not been recognized internationally. And while Israel claims the entire city as its indivisible capital, its activities in East Jerusalem are often subject to international scrutiny.

Barkat, a right-leaning entrepreneur, denied any political intent behind the plan for al-Bustan, which in city brochures is called the King's Garden, a reference to traditions linking the area to gardens of the biblical King Solomon. Although the valley has for years been zoned as an open area for public use, homes were built there in the 1990s because of overcrowding in Silwan, and though technically illegal, they were not razed.

The mayor and his aides point out that under the development plan, 66 homes in al-Bustan that were built without permits would be preserved -- 75 percent of the area's illegal structures -- and residents of the houses to be razed would be given permits to build homes elsewhere in the neighborhood.

"There's no catch," Barkat said in an e-mailed response to questions. "This is simply to provide proper planning and ensure a better quality of life for future generations in Jerusalem."

Along with improvements in roads, sewage treatment and other infrastructure, the plan envisages a community center that would house a school, kindergartens, a day-care center, a fitness room and sports fields.

But to the residents, all that is window dressing for a large-scale demolition project that they see as part of a broader Israeli intent to evict Palestinians and replace them with Jewish settlers, who in recent years have moved into some homes in Silwan and are seeking to expand their presence in the area.

The Silwan residents' committee drew up an alternative that would preserve and legalize all the houses in the neighborhood while converting some into shops and restaurants, but Barkat rejected it as inadequate.

"He wants to reduce the percentage of Palestinians living in the neighborhood and turn it into a tourist Disneyland," said Jawad Siyam, a neighborhood activist.

In the garbage-strewn alleys, residents complained that the city sanitation department neglected their streets, pointing to a homemade sewage system they had built between the houses.

Sami Ershied, a lawyer representing al-Bustan residents, said the mayor's ambitious plan has leapfrogged the need for basic services in the ramshackle quarter.

"He's welcome to come first and collect the garbage -- let's start from that," Ershied said. "To improve conditions in the neighborhood, there is no need to demolish a single house. This is a political plan meant to strengthen Israeli control around the Old City."

Jawad Abu Ramuz, a father of five who has fended off a demolition order against his unauthorized house, said residents had been forced to build illegally because of an Israeli planning regime that severely limits the number of building permits issued to Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

"It's inconceivable to destroy our homes to build a park," he said. "People are more important than parks."


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