Silwan’s al-Bustan neighborhood lies in Kidron Valley, between the Wadi Hilwa neighborhood and Jerusalem Walls National park to the west and Silwan’s old quarter (Silwan al-Wasta) to the east. Until 1967 residents of Silwan cultivated fruit trees in the valley. City master plan No. 9, which was to determine the conservation to development ratio in the Old City Basin, defines al-Bustan Valley as an open space where construction is prohibited. The plan allowed only the few buildings in place at the time the plan was approved in 1976. Neighborhood master plans approved over the years for parts of Silwan did not allocate land for expansion or increase building rights. As crowding worsened, Silwan residents had no choice but to build in the valley and there are now more than 90 residential structures there. The buildings, built mostly since the 1980s, were constructed without permits. Approximately 1,000 people live in this neighborhood. The residents face great difficulties because it is not officially recognized and must contend with demolition orders issued against their homes. Residents cannot build additions to their homes or new homes on their land, nor can they lay down proper infrastructure or build public facilities.
An area called the Garden of the King is mentioned three times in the Old Testament. Some scholars identify it as Al-Bustan Valley. However, the exact location and nature of the biblical garden are not known and there are no archeological or other findings in al-Bustan to suggest that this is in fact the location. In 1995, the Jerusalem Tourist Development Steering Committee, established in advance of the celebrations of the city’s 3,000th anniversary, published a general plan for an “open archeological museum” in the “Valley of the King”. In November 2004, Jerusalem City Engineer Uri Shitrit issued orders to “remove unlawful construction in the Valley of the King” in order to keep the area “an open public space”, as defined by Plan No. 9 in 1976. In early 2005, the Jerusalem municipality began serving demolition orders to residents of al-Bustan, and later that year demolished the homes of two families. Following international pressure, then Mayor Uri Lupolianski postponed the demolition plans and declared that the residents would be given a chance to try to secure retroactive approval for their homes. The residents hired an Israeli planner, and filed a proposed plan for the neighborhood in 2006. Though the plan was prepared in coordination with planning authorities, it was rejected by the District Planning Committee in 2009, on the grounds that the area must remain an open space due to its important location, “landscape sensitivity” and “cultural and historical values”.
In 2009, the Jerusalem Municipality proposed that residents voluntarily relocate to Beit Hannina, in northern East Jerusalem, but they declined. In early 2010, the municipality filed a new plan which included a tourist park called King’s Valley or King’s Garden in al-Bustan Valley. The park flows directly from Jerusalem Walls National Park and acts as a quasi-extension of it. The brochure marking the launch of the plan describes a vision of “turning the King’s Garden into a flourishing park that will bloom alongside a residential neighborhood with restaurants, artist workshops, souvenir shops, local art and more […]”. The plan called for the demolition of structures in the neighborhood’s western part (at least 22), whereas structures in the eastern part (about 66) would receive retroactive approval along with increased building rights. This increase is meant to allow the residents who will be evacuated from the western side of the neighborhood to build new homes on top of existing ones in the eastern part, or on private nearby land. The plan fails to specify how this is to be implemented in practice. The plan also includes a public complex that would house a school, pre-schools, a sports center and more, as well as road, water, sewage and electrical infrastructure in the neighborhood. The municipal plan was approved by the local committee in June 2010 and awaits approval from the district committee.
According to Amnon Berman, legal advisor to the Jerusalem Municipality, in September 2012 there were 35 pending demolition orders against homes in the al-Bustan neighborhood. Thirty-one of these cases were being heard in court and the execution of four other orders has been postponed as a result of a political decision. In April 2010, al-Bustan residents submitted another proposed plan for the neighborhood. In June 2011, it too was rejected on the grounds that it was not possible to advance two plans for the same area.
The plan submitted by the municipality would legalize structures built in the neighborhood without permits. It would allow most residents to continue living in their homes without the threat of demolition and would improve infrastructure and services, thereby possibly improving conditions in the neighborhood. At the same time, the plan to relocate more than twenty families from one part of the neighborhood to another against their will is injurious and baseless given that the city has neither the authority nor the ability to build homes for these individuals on land owned by others or enable them to do so themselves. In practice, families whose homes will be demolished will have to purchase new land, if any is available, and try to meet the municipality’s strict criteria for construction permits in East Jerusalem, including a costly process of land registration. Once they lose their homes, there is no guarantee that these people will be able to find suitable housing inside their neighborhood or, for that matter, elsewhere.
Sources for further reading
Bimkom, Survey of Palestinian Neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Planning Problems and Opportunities, Information Card 2.9.
Bimkom, From Public to National – National Parks in East Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 26-28.
Ir-Amim, The Giant’s Garden - The "King's Garden" Plan in al-Bustan, update, May 2012.