JERUSALEM — Beit Safafa is perched on a hill along the southern tip of Jerusalem, with winding streets bordered by low stone fences reminiscent of Tuscany and fig, and mulberry trees shading front yards.
But recently, this bucolic Arab neighborhood of roughly 12,000 residents has been embroiled in an angry legal battle with Israel’s urban planning authorities.
In January, the Jerusalem municipality and Israel’s transport ministry revived a long-dormant plan to build a highway, at some points six-lanes wide, that would cut through Beit Safafa, leaving it permanently divided.
For Jerusalem authorities, the project would ease traffic on municipal roads used by Jewish settlers and other commuters traveling from the West Bank to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
Half a million Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, though the road would principally serve the 70,000 Israelis living in the Gush Etzion settlement block, just south of Jerusalem.
Once completed, the road will provide infrastructure for continued settlement growth in the West bank, as well as a physical link connecting the Israeli administered areas throughout a large swath of territory Palestinians claim for their future state, says Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher with the Jerusalem-focused nonprofit Ir Amim.
"We are talking about two distinct issues. The residents of Beit Safafa are fighting an essentially non-political battle to ensure that their neighborhood will not be destroyed by this road. It's an important battle,” he said. “But we see things in a larger political context, in which there is no doubt the completion of this road, without connection to Beit Safafa, is part of a Greater Jerusalem master plan linking settlements all over the West Bank to the city of Jerusalem."
But Israel’s Supreme Court ruled June 27 that the 1-mile stretch of the highway crossing Beit Safafa would cause unacceptable damage to quality of life, and ordered planning authorities to respond to the complaints of the residents here.
The court stopped short of halting construction, but said the government is at risk of losing its permit to build the highway.
For Beit Safafa residents, a mixture of Palestinians with permanent residency and Arabs with Israeli passports, the court ruling was a small victory but that won’t ensure the neighborhood’s cohesion.
The project also demonstrates the contentious nature of urban planning in a disputed city like Jerusalem.
Half of Beit Safafa is on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, which marks the boundary between Israel and the territories it captured in the War of 1967. Beit Safafa fell on both sides of the demarcation line of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, with the border fence running right through the village's center.
Older residents remember smuggling loaves of bread, and sometimes young brides, under the fence.
"The Supreme Court gave us some hope that the other side will come up with concrete suggestions that respond to Beit Safafa’s needs,” said 35-year-old Nisreen Alyan, a human rights attorney at the East Jerusalem Association for Civil Rights in Israel and lifelong resident of Beit Safafa.
She is also leading the protest movement against the road’s construction. Other worries include noise from passing motorists, pollution, and the dangers of the highway’s proximity to residential homes.
“It is positive that the court flat out told [the municipality]: ‘you can’t do what you are doing,’” Alyan said.
When construction first began in winter, some of Beit Safafa’s open fields vanished beneath the sandy, flat widths of the new thoroughfare.
From the balcony of a home overlooking the site, the road’s flattened, unfinished foundation cuts ramshackle across the placid neighborhood, in some places only a few feet away from private homes.
According to the Beit Safafa community council, which is spearheading the legal case, some 200 Beit Safafa residential units would be separated from the neighborhood's center including its largest mosque.
Meir Margalit, too, a left-wing member of Jerusalem city council, said he was “disappointed the Supreme Court did not bring the highway's construction to a complete halt.”
Beit Safafa’s case has become a cause celebre in Israel, with prominent intellectuals like the writer David Grossman speaking out.
“The injustice and the malice of it cry out,” Grossman wrote in a letter to President Shimon Peres and that was published in the Israeli daily Haaretz June 26.
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Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection also sided with Beit Safafa residents against the government, maintaining that noise levels and quality of life were not up to standard under the current plan.
But even with this support, Beit Safafa residents say they have no illusions about the compromises that will be made. Their petition to the Supreme Court called for their concerns to be included in the planning process, which is required under the law.
It “just destroys the village — it destroys the pleasant aspects of life in a small village, like walking to your uncle’s house,” said 20-year-old Shahd Alyan, whose family villa now abuts the construction zone. “But we are realistic.”
In the same vein, 54-year-old Abdul-Karim Lafi, head of Beit Safafa's neighborhood planning commission and principal petitioner before the Supreme Court, says the ruling “is only a relative victory.”
“I feel like they threw some candy at us, no more than that,” Lafi said. “The road’s pollution will disturb residents, will endanger people who want to cross the street, will impose noise on homes 24 hours a day, and will prevent students from studying.”
One of the solutions Beit Safafa’s lawyers say they would find acceptable is the construction of an acoustically insulated tunnel that would put the road underground and protect the area’s geographic integrity.
Under the ruling, Israeli authorities must draw up detailed explanations of how it plans to address the residents’ problems with the road.
Walid Alyan, 42, another member of one of Beit Safafa's oldest families, said he objected to "the highway turning the village into a passageway for settlers.”
“But the decision for now is very good."