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The "King's Garden" Plan in the Neighborhood of Silwan

17 March 2010   Ir-Amim report

At a press conference held on Tuesday, March 2nd, Mayor Nir Barkat, presented his plan for the "King's Garden" project, which seeks to demolish 22 Palestinian houses in order to create an archeological park in the western part of al-Bustan, in the Silwan neighborhood, located immediately outside the walls of the Old City,  In exchange, the plan proposes to raise the maximum building height in the eastern part of the neighborhood to 4 stories instead of  the present 2 stories, and to legalize post facto a number of existing houses there.

According to the Municipality, the plan is the product of discussions with Palestinian residents of the neighborhood; however, when it became public, the residents quickly clarified that the Municipality did not get their approval for the plan, and that they object to it in its current form. 

In order to understand the complexity of the plan, it is necessary to examine it from both the planning and the political perspectives. 

From the planning perspective, the "King's Garden" plan does promise opportunities for additional Palestinian construction in the eastern part of the neighborhood.  However, as of now, the necessary prerequisites for obtaining a building permit in East Jerusalem make legal construction virtually impossible   (See our report on the issue).   That means, as long as these prerequisites remain unchanged, the ordinance increasing the allowed building height in the neighborhood does not actually give the residents an opportunity to build.

In this context, it is important to mention that the residents of the al-Bustan initiated discussions with the Municipality in 2005, with the goal of addressing the issue of illegal construction in the area.  They financed, with their own funds, an architect to design a neighborhood plan that legalized most of the existing houses, while also taking into consideration the need for open, green areas.  At first, the plan received the support of the Municipality, which both encouraged the residents to create the plan, and gave them official notice that the plan met the requirements of the Planning and Building Committee.  Despite this initial support, the plan was rejected at the beginning of 2008, without any serious discussion, and with only a partial argument that it "clashes with the municipality's position, which does not support the legitimization of illegal construction."

Alongside the planning issues, the King’s Garden plan also has a distinct political facet, which is worthy of discussion.  There is no doubt that the construction of an archeological garden on the ruins of demolished Palestinian houses aims, amongst other things, to strengthen the Israeli hold over this area, which lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Palestinians as well as the international community will interpret these steps as a provocation by Israel, which exploits its power in the area to dictate the reality on the ground unilaterally, and which may have severe consequences for both the city's political future and its present stability.  These concerns are magnified given the fact that state authorities, including the Jerusalem Municipality, have already given away national assets of great importance in this area to extreme right-wing organizations, which exploit their presence there in order to promote a far-reaching political agenda.  In light of this, it is not unfounded to speculate that the archeological garden that the city plans to build on the ruins of the residents houses in Al-Bustan might be handed in one way or another to right-wing organizations active in Silwan. 

As a result of the vast media coverage of the objections to the plan by the residents and other factions, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked Mayor Barkat to postpone raising the plan for discussion in the Local Planning and Building Committee. Although Barkat heeded the Prime Minister's request, he did not give up his intention to carry through with the plan.  Ir Amim believes that the Israeli authorities must exercise caution in this sensitive area, and avoid actions that may lead to a conflagration, while also taking into consideration the needs of the residents.  If the Jerusalem Municipality seeks to move forward with these plans, it should do so in discussion with the residents, and not through unilateral decisions.
The neighborhood plan created by the residents is a good starting point for this type of discussion.