February 5, 2010 - 12:00am
For the first time since Jerusalem's unification after the Six-Day War, a plan has been proposed to create a fully integrated Jewish-Arab neighborhood in the city. The residential area is planned at Tantur, between Bethlehem and the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. It would feature 800 housing units and a hotel district.
The project is being promoted by a group of Palestinian and Israeli public figures who hired architect Eli Reches to plan the neighborhood. The plans have been presented to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
According to Jerusalem City Councilman Meir Margalit, Barkat didn't rule the project out, but thinks it should be pursued at a different location.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, representing the Quartet of Mideast peace mediators, has reportedly expressed support for the initiative.
The concept was initially proposed by Hasson, a Hebrew University geography professor, during a tour of the site nearly a year ago with a group that included Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur and the municipality's engineer, Shlomo Eshkol.
Hasson pursued the project after the city's former mayor, Uri Lupolianski, tapped him to explore options for building affordable housing in Jerusalem. Hasson also hopes to see a similar mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood go up in the north of the city.
Among the Jews in the group promoting the Tantur project are the former director general of the Jerusalem Development Authority, Ezri Levi, the former director general of the Jerusalem municipality, Aharon Sarid, and a senior staff member from the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Israel Kimchi.
Arab participants include journalist Rami Nasrallah, who served as an adviser to the late Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini, and Haifa University geography professor Rassem Khamaisi. A number of other Palestinian participants asked not to be identified at this stage.
Master plan changed
Some of the land for the project is owned by the Al-Tantur monastery, which has given its preliminary approval. The rest is owned by Christian residents of Bethlehem. The area was initially planned as an Arab neighborhood, but after the Interior Ministry demanded changes to the city master plan, the site was designated for green space.
Some left-wing observers say the demanded change was an attempt to scuttle Arab construction in the area. According to Hasson, "the neighborhood can be a nice link between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. You need to think about the future in which [residents of the] two cities talk to each other."
Members of the group promoting the project acknowledge that many difficulties lie ahead before the neighborhood takes shape. Levi rates the chances of success at 50 or 60 percent, but called the concept "correct."
Others, however, see the proposal for a mixed neighborhood as a plan to bypass objections to an Arab neighborhood, saying that in practice the group will build an Arab residential area.
Margalit said that "what is necessary is to find models for living together ... We are sowing seeds here that can go far."