JERUSALEM — Construction of a freeway extension through one of Jerusalem's most-prosperous Arab neighborhoods is igniting tension in the once-quiet community and reviving complaints about how the city treats Palestinian residents.
If completed as planned in 2015, the nearly 1-mile extension of Jerusalem's Begin Expressway will slice through the neighborhood of Beit Safafa, home to about 12,000 Arabs.
Many residents say the extension would contribute to what they consider a pattern of discrimination and marginalization of East Jerusalem's Arab residents. Residents also say the project — six lanes wide and lined with an acoustical wall — would shatter the continuity of life in a neighborhood that has already been squeezed by the construction of surrounding Jewish developments and dissected by major roads.
"They are carving us up like a pizza," said Alaa Salman, 39, a Beit Safafa resident whose home is 30 feet from the freeway route. "This is destroying Beit Safafa."
Salman said the freeway extension would prevent his family from easily reaching the mosque, market and school, and require them to use bridges to cross the roadway.
Residents are asking Israel's Supreme Court to halt construction while they try to persuade the city to reroute the freeway or build it underground.
City officials say that they understand the residents' concerns but that plans for the extension were approved in 1990 as part of a badly needed roads project to ease traffic in Jerusalem. Begin Expressway, which serves as a ring road around Jerusalem, is key to that effort, they say.
In response to residents' complaints, the city said it agreed to construct one section — about one-tenth of a mile — underground and build a 2-acre public park on top, with barbecue pits and fitness equipment. But constructing a tunnel for the entire stretch would cost too much and require the city to resubmit plans for approval, delaying the project for years, said Naomi Tzur, deputy mayor.
"This is a real urban improvement for the residents," Tzur said, predicting that real estate values would increase because the freeway will reduce commuting times.
Tzur said similar battles between the city and its residents have taken place in Jewish neighborhoods affected by the freeway, and the controversy in Beit Safafa is no different.
"This is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," she said. "It should be related to as a fight between residents and their city authority. But it's being taken to another place."
Neighborhood leaders say Beit Safafa has already endured its share of hardships. The village was cut in two after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, with part located in Israel and the rest controlled by Jordan. After Israel seized the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East War, Beit Safafa was reunited and annexed to Jerusalem, though the move was never accepted by Palestinians or the international community. After construction in the 1970s of the Gilo development south of Beit Safafa, a similar road cut the community into two parts.
Today, the community is a mix of Arab Israeli citizens and Palestinians with Jerusalem identification cards.
Last month, a Jerusalem district judge agreed with the city, ruling that residents should have complained earlier, before the plans were approved.
But community leaders reject claims that they had failed to voice their concern earlier, saying they have been fighting the proposal for a freeway extension for many years. The community was repeatedly rebuffed when it asked for detailed building plans, including the number and location of bridges, leaders said.
"We didn't just wake up," said Ali Ayoub, director of the Beit Safafa community center. "We've been trying for years to find alternatives."
He said the freeway will block more than half a dozen internal roads that connect Beit Safafa neighborhoods and prevent people from easily walking around the community.
Talks with the city about the proposed freeway extension broke down late last year, residents say, when bulldozers started clearing the road.
East Jerusalem residents say they remain consistently underserved when it comes to public services, like security, healthcare, welfare and building permits. There are chronic shortages of housing and classrooms, though the city says it is working to open new schools.
"There is a big gap between what the city says and what is happening on the ground in East Jerusalem," said attorney and Beit Safafa resident Nisreen Aylan of the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel. "No other community has been divided like this."