As mammoth high-tech hub is eyed for East Jerusalem, will it benefit locals?

Urban planners say that ‘Silicon Wadi’ project does not answer needs of Wadi Joz residents, must include housing; up to 200 existing Palestinian businesses to be evicted

The proposed Silicon Wadi hi-tech development in Wadi Joz, East Jerusalem (Screenshot from Jerusalem muncipality promotional video)
The proposed Silicon Wadi hi-tech development in Wadi Joz, East Jerusalem (Screenshot from Jerusalem muncipality promotional video)

Earlier this month, the Jerusalem municipality announced plans for an unprecedented investment in the city’s neglected Palestinian neighborhoods, creating a technology hub with 10,000 well-paying jobs.

But while the right-wing mayor and local Palestinian landlords are excited about the move, many questions remain about how the proposed new “Silicon Wadi” zone in Wadi Joz will impact the lives of East Jerusalemites — and if the development truly answers the locals’ needs.

If the project comes to fruition, Silicon Wadi could be one of the biggest public investments ever made in East Jerusalem. A total of 200,000 square meters will be devoted to high-tech businesses, 50,000 to hotels, and another 50,000 to commercial space — all in the heart of Wadi Joz. When completed, the complex would be twice the size of Grand Central Station in New York.

With increased public transportation, green space, a brand new technical college for training “thousands of East Jerusalemites in advanced technology,” and incentives to “increase the integration of women in the workforce in the city’s East,” the plan aspires to not only create thousands of new jobs in East Jerusalem, but to totally transform the area.

“The thinking here now is to develop high-tech and other industries that will allow people from East Jerusalem to find employment in Jerusalem. I’ve met many talented Palestinians who work in Ramallah and other places because there isn’t a lot of high-tech in Jerusalem, and what exists is by and for [Jewish] Israelis,” Jerusalem City Council member Laura Wharton (Meretz) said.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Due to chronic municipal neglect, Palestinian East Jerusalem has never enjoyed the institutional and financial resources of the city’s Jewish neighborhoods. In 2016, the poverty rate among East Jerusalem Palestinians was 72.9 percent, compared to 29.8 percent in the Jewish communities.  Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed it in 1980, in a move not recognized by the international community. Most East Jerusalemites are Palestinians with Israeli residency.

The Silicon Wadi project is part of a five-year, NIS 2.1 billion ($677 million) government initiative to reduce gaps between Jewish and Palestinian Jerusalem, one of several that Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion has promoted in recent months. Lion says he hopes the projects will reduce mistrust and inequality between East and West Jerusalem.

“The government finally woke up a few years ago and realized that leaving East Jerusalem in the state it is in is bad for everyone, and that it’s time for the government to get involved,” Wharton said.

A right-wing mayor who leads a coalition of ultra-Orthodox parties in City Council, Lion seemed an unlikely figure to cross Jerusalem’s Seam Line. But since taking office, he has reached out to East Jerusalemites in unexpected ways.

In February, he froze home demolitions in Issawiya after consulting with local leaders. He visited Malek Issa, a young boy who lost his eye to a rubber bullet fired by Border Police, and his administration’s collaboration with East Jerusalem health authorities during the coronavirus pandemic has been widely praised by Palestinian activists, according to the Haaretz newspaper.

200 East Jerusalem businesses to be relocated

Numerous details have yet to be worked out, however, to ensure that a plan intended to bring prosperity to East Jerusalem does not dispossess existing Palestinian residents and businesses without compensation. It’s also unclear whether the development will avoid replacing Palestinian locals with high-tech companies employing mostly Jewish Israelis, what some would see as the same old dispossession in new, techno-utopian garb.

As many as 200 Palestinian-owned businesses — mostly auto repair shops run out of garages — are scheduled to be demolished as part of Silicon Wadi. Moreover, the plot intended for Silicon Wadi contains the only Palestinian-owned industrial zone in East Jerusalem. Some of the business owners have already received orders to vacate by the end of 2020.

While the municipality said that Silicon Wadi is a “project by consent,” the business owners in Wadi Joz appeared to be taken entirely by surprise when the orders to vacate showed up on their doorsteps. Until they were asked to vacate, most of them had not heard of the project, according to i24 News.

“The high-tech idea, especially, is new, and residents were not consulted enough about it. It wasn’t part of any of the discussions with residents,” said urban planner Murad Natsheh, who specializes in Wadi Joz.

Palestinian landlords might end up the big winners in the story, as their land’s value would appreciate enormously if state-funded office buildings were to replace simple garages, Natsheh said.

The municipality said that it was investigating several options for compensating business owners, including moving the garages elsewhere. When asked whether the businesses would be evicted — as the process was supposed to be consensual — the municipality declined to comment.

Wharton, the Jerusalem city council member, said that public engagement could be improved, but added that municipality officials responsible for the project had reached out to the Palestinian landowners in the area and had consulted with them for some time before last week’s announcement.

The cautionary tale around the corner

Just a few streets from the intended high-tech center lies yet another kind of cautionary tale for the new project, underscoring how tortuous the path from press release to real change can be. Another commercial district also set to be in Wadi Joz, Ma’ar Mizrah, has been stuck in development limbo for over a decade. The proposed district was a historic center of East Jerusalem urban life which had fallen into disrepair. Planners hoped to rebuild the area as a hub for business and cultural institutions with modern infrastructure and transit.

In the years that followed, three lead planners came and went without a single shovel breaking ground on a new development. First proposed over 20 years ago, Ma’ar Mizrah has still not been opened for public comment — a mandatory period in which the public can file objections before the first construction cranes move in.

While the municipality has indicated that the project might finally reach that stage in the coming weeks or months, it could be years before construction begins, Sari Kronish, an urban planner at rights group Bimkom-Planners for Planning Rights who specializes in East Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel.

Ma’ar Mizrah and Silicon Wadi are intertwined, Jerusalem municipality spokesperson Yaron Lofo told The Times of Israel, both part of the same overall plan to improve the Wadi Joz area. Lofo described Ma’ar Mizrah as “being advanced with comprehensive and total coordination with the public.”

Even if the project goes forward, there are serious questions about whether projects like Silicon Wadi deserve the land, expense and time that they consume. The fundamental need of East Jerusalemites today is not high-tech but housing, Natsheh said.

“Of course, people want to expand their businesses and improve their incomes, and we need improvements in failing infrastructure and pollution and so on, but the most urgent need today is more housing units. That demand has not been answered by the municipality,” Natsheh said.

East Jerusalem has languished in a protracted housing crisis for decades. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, nearly 40% of the city’s residents, are crammed into 50,000 units, or about 25% of the city’s homes. A growing population, combined with the byzantine difficulties involved in obtaining a permit, has resulted in a large amount of illegal construction and periodic Israeli demolitions of illegally built homes.

Garbage piled up on the side of the street in Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz neighborhood on September 23, 2018. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Silicon Wadi is an enormous proposal spanning multiple areas of concern. Despite that, the proposed Silicon Wadi outline leaves out any plans to construct new housing units or to legalize existing ones.

Controversy over how many housing units to include was one of the issues that torpedoed Ma’ar Mizrah, Kronish said. Prominent Palestinian architect Sinan Abd al-Qader, the lead designer for the commercial center, left the project when the municipality decided to excise several hundred new housing units from the proposal.

In the end, after 20 years of wrangling, Ma’ar Mizrah is expected to permit only a few dozen new housing units to be built, Walla News reported in January.

In a statement to The Times of Israel, the municipality said that Silicon Wadi was one part of a larger plan of “urban renewal” in Wadi Joz. The plan as a whole will create some new housing, the municipality said, a possible reference to the Ma’ar Mizrah units.

But downtown areas like Silicon Wadi need housing to thrive, Kronish said, which is why residential high-rises are being built in West Jerusalem’s commercial districts. In East Jerusalem, however, urban planning continues to look very different.

“If you’re not going to build new housing units, then who are these commercial districts really for?” Kronish said.

Wharton says that while she recognizes that good intentions are not enough to make a difference in East Jerusalem, she believes in the value of projects like Silicon Wadi. More importantly, she thinks the municipality is serious this time around.

“It’s good to develop these areas. It’s a good idea to provide good employment for East Jerusalemites. I think the goals are worthy, but I’m not yet sure if the city will be able to fulfill all of the hopes and the promises. I certainly hope it does,” Wharton said.

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