Lawyers for Beit Safafa residents display construction plans at a press conference on Monday, February 18 (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

Lawyers for Beit Safafa residents display construction plans at a press conference on Monday, February 18 (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

Residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa will appeal next week to the Supreme Court to halt the construction of a highway through the neighborhood, community activists said at a press conference Monday.

Work on the six-lane road, an extension of the city’s north-south Begin Expressway, is threatening to ignite tensions in Beit Safafa, a quiet, middle-class Arab neighborhood that lies among Jewish areas in southern Jerusalem.

Aluminum walls lining the construction site have been covered in graffiti against the expressway — “Don’t run over Beit Safafa,” reads one — and the municipality has condemned “acts of vandalism” by residents.

“The road in its current format cannot go ahead. It would be a disaster for Beit Safafa,” said Mohannad Gbara, a lawyer for residents.

Beit Safafa, a village split between Israeli and Jordanian rule until it was reunited in the 1967 war, has become the most integrated of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods. Unlike most other Arab areas in the city, Jewish visitors and shoppers are common.

Residents bluntly charge the city with disregarding their wishes because they are Arabs. On Sunday, there were scuffles between residents and security personnel sent to guard workers, including both regular police officers and Border Police — a force that Israeli authorities generally use against Palestinians. 

Beit Safafa residents gather near the site of the new highway through their neighborhood, Monday, February 18 (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

Beit Safafa residents gather near the site of the new highway through their neighborhood, Monday, February 18 (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

Last week, the Jerusalem District Court rejected an appeal by residents to halt construction. On Monday, local activists said they would appeal to the Supreme Court and ratchet up their public struggle against the road. A protest is scheduled for later this month.

The extension of the Begin Expressway, initially envisioned in a master plan from the late 1960s, has officially been in the works since 1990. Since the first plans were put forward, however, Beit Safafa has grown, and a road intended to pass by the neighborhood’s southern flank now cuts through its center. 

The road is meant to ease traffic going to and from the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. But it also aims to make access to the city easier for residents of the settlements of the Etzion Bloc, in the West Bank to the south of the city — creating the impression that the city is aiding the settlements at the expense of Arab residents.

The road is “racist planning meant only to connect the settlements to the north of Jerusalem,” said Kais Nasser, another attorney representing the community.

“The residents of Beit Safafa gain nothing from this road,” he said.

The city has proceeded with work without carrying out a detailed plan for the segment of the expressway through the neighborhood, as required by law, and without allowing residents to file objections, Nasser charged. Those will be the central claims in the Supreme Court appeal, he said.

The activists have little chance of permanently halting construction. They hope instead to force the city to make the road narrower or to put longer segments of it underground.

The Jerusalem Municipality rejects the residents’ claims, saying they were given opportunities to object and participate over the 23 years during which the plan made its way through Israel’s zoning bureaucracy. The city has spent millions of shekels to improve life in the neighborhood and minimize the damage caused by the road, City Hall said in a statement.

The road “is of importance to all Jerusalem residents and has great economic value,” the statement said.

“The municipality stresses that dialogue with residents and the local community center will continue, including the improvement of access roads inside the village and of public spaces in order to respond to residents’ needs. The municipality will not tolerate acts of violence and vandalism of the kind carried out in the last few days on the route of the work, and calls on residents to respect the court decision.”