An East Jerusalem Neighborhood Is Both Political Powder Keg And Affordable Housing
While a housing crisis grips the rest of Israel, the 22,000 inhabitants of this East Jerusalem settlement enjoy affordable rents. The political price for the controversial project is not so easy to calculate.
JERUSALEM - Seen from the outside, Har Homa looks like a white stony fortress on the top of a rocky hill. The buildings of this shiny new neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem wind in concentric turns. There is in fact just one entry, just like in a fortified castle.
Inside, one enters a small paradise of circular streets, kindergartens, cobblestones and well-placed giant planters. The scenery is strikingly gorgeous: overlooking the beige hills of the Judea desert, Bethlehem, and in the distance, the giant mole hill of the Herodium, the palace and necropolis of King Herod the Great. The center of Jerusalem is just 10 minutes away by bus or car.
All the inhabitants of Har Homa proudly declare that they are in Jerusalem.
In the big monopoly game led by the Israelis in Jerusalem, Har Homa is a symbolic property. It was built in the 1990's within the Greater Jerusalem's borders, whose extended limits were never recognized by the international community. Har Homa is also the symbol of the determination and tenacity of past Jerusalem city councils to construct a project on this piece of real estate as part of a longer-term goal of encircling East Jerusalem with Jewish districts. The envisioned network of neighborhoods would cut off Palestinian districts from the rest of the West Bank, and make it almost impossible to divide the city.
The example of Har Homa shows that the international community, especially the United States, is unable to oppose this aggressive, politically-driven urban planning. Like in all the controversial East Jerusalem settlements, the case of Har Homa is a political and real estate imbroglio. The project was launched on a hill nestled between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in woodlands of the occupied West Bank. The Israelis argue that these areas belonged to Jewish landlords that were expropriated during the West Bank occupation in 1948.
The fact remains that Har Homa has been built on the east side of the green line, the boundary drawn in the 1949 cease fire, and as such is considered a settlement by the international community. The fact that the Israeli left wing and the Palestinians mobilized against this project in the 1990's did not stop this building project from going ahead.
Build and build again
Today, Har Homa is a district of 22,000 inhabitants, and more new buildings are about to be finished.
Hertzl Ezechiel, who heads the local Har Homa governing council, was part of a wave of Israeli families who moved to the district in February 2002. He is also a staunchly religious Zionist: "I moved to Har Homa for ideological reasons, and to reinforce Jerusalem," he said. "This means bringing in more and more Jews -- and to build, build and build again."
In the 1990's, there was a mobilization against Har Homa led by Fayçal Husseini, then the top Jerusalem official of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). "Where did it lead? We carried on with the planning project, and today there are 22,000 residents," Ezechiel declares. "Israel must build in Jerusalem. In 2008, Condoleezza Rice opposed any new construction. We demonstrated against it to tell her that we are free to build wherever we want in Jerusalem, and that we are not afraid of anyone."
Ezechiel does also admit that he lives in the district because he can afford a bigger apartment there than elsewhere in Jerusalem. At different levels, residents here share these motivations for being in Har Homa. They are religious without being very orthodox; they are nationalists without being staunch activists like the settlers in Gush Etzion, the neighboring settlements. They are middle-class Israelis who don't see themselves as settlers.
According to Israeli authorities, Har Homa is truly connected to Jerusalem, and is therefore not affected by the settlement freeze.
The housing crisis Israel has faced over the past few years has recently reached a climax with demonstrations in several cities. "Here you have an excellent quality of life and an apartment is twice as cheap as in Jerusalem (proper)," says Ram-El Lavi, a real estate agent who arranges viewings in Har Homa. "It is a unique opportunity for young couples who otherwise could not afford to buy a flat in town."
However, the current buildings are almost full. "There are new projects," says Ram-El Lavi. "But they are on hold in order not to make the Americans angry."
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Photo - gnuckx