Jerusalem Mayor Delays Major Renovation Project

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- An effort to restore a Jerusalem area to its ancient glory is causing an international controversy.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat agreed to postpone the start of a major renovation project in the City of David. And he is pledging to continue working with local Arab residents who are caught in the middle.

Barkat told Israeli and international media he agreed to a request by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay the start of his plan to renovate an area called The King's Garden. Netanyahu asked for the delay to avoid what he called tensions created by "elements interested in sowing strife and discord in presenting a distorted picture to the country and to the world."

For the first time in public, Barkat presented the city's plan.

"The plan is for the benefit of the residents alongside the importance of developing the area for the benefit of the world, for the benefit of tourists and for the beauty of Jerusalem," Barkat said.

The plan would demolish 22 illegally built Arab homes, build new homes for those residents, improve the infrastructure and construct a commercial center.

The King's Garden is located at the base of the Kidron Valley. It is near some of the most well known sites from the Bible such as the Gihon Spring, Hezekiah's tunnel and the Pool of Siloam. It is an essential part of the 3,000-year history of the City of David.

"The goal is to improve an area that today is one of the lowest and worst in the city and to develop it into an area that we can all be proud of, for the benefit of the residents and for the city," Barkat said.

Most of the homes were built illegally on property zoned for public places and have court orders to be demolished. But instead of simply demolishing the homes as previous municipalities have done, Barkat wants to provide new, legal homes for the residents.

"Basically, we're offering them better neighborhoods and offering them to live in the same place basically with a better house, with a legal house and in an area that's much more developed," said Yakir Segev, Jerusalem city council member. "So the benefits for the people who live there are enormous."

But Segev says some groups are fighting the plan.

"We know that the Islamic Movement and the Palestinian Authority are working very hard to do the best they can to make it impossible for the plan to happen," Segev added. "They sometimes go as far as threatening the people living there not to cooperate or join in the settlement we're offering them."

Segev said this explains why some residents say they oppose the plan in public, but privately have agreed to it.

"But I understand that because of threats and because of political discomfort they're sometimes forced to say openly say other things than they say to us in closed rooms," Segev continued.

However, some residents do publicly and privately oppose the plan. A representative from the Palestinian authority said the plan would hinder future negotiations.

"While the United States is trying to bring the parties together, it's very astonishing and very odd that Israel is going into these measures," said Mohammed Ishtayeh, Palestinian minister for public works and housing.

Barkat hopes the world will evaluate the plan on its own merits.

"I propose the world to take a serious look at what we're doing and I believe people will change their views," Barkat said.

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