Burned By The Freeze

Burned By The Freeze

With West Bank settlement projects on hold, many families and developers are feeling the pinch.

Jerusalem — With five kids and monthly rent topping $1,200, it didn’t take long for Ronen Mizrachi to calculate how much more he would get for his money if he moved his family out of Jerusalem.

So two years ago, Mizrachi, a lawyer, and his wife, an optometrist, purchased a piece of land in Har Gilo, a small, tranquil Jewish settlement-cum-village about five miles south of Jerusalem.

“Prices of apartments in Jerusalem were out of our reach so we decided on Har Gilo,” Mizrachi said. “After we purchased the land we started the procedure to obtain all the building permits. That took a year. We had all the permits in hand in September 2009 and had just started digging when the freeze took effect on November 26.”

The freeze — the Israeli government’s decision to suspend for 10 months virtually all construction in the West Bank, taken at the behest of the Obama administration — has left the Mizrachis and many others in personal and financial limbo.

“We’ve already sunk something like 500,000 shekels [$132,000] into the land and permits, but we can’t build,” Mizrachi said anxiously. “We took out loans that cost more than 2,000 shekels [$530] a month to repay. And that’s on top of our 4,600-shekel rent. We have five kids and we still have to buy them food and clothes. It’s not easy these days,” he said.

While U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spent much of this week in Israel trying to jumpstart stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Mizrachis and others personally affected by the building freeze wondered when, or even if, they will ever be able to build or fully recoup their losses.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement this week that the government is prepared to compensate homeowners, builders and some municipalities has done little to assuage fears.

“I’ve already written letters to the minister of defense, to his assistant, to Knesset members. I’ve already sent out all of my documentation,” Mizrachi said. “The money is there but no one has decided on criteria and who to pay. In the meantime, we’re paying for a house we can’t build.”

Roughly 3,000 families, hundreds of building contractors, as well as 24 municipalities should be eligible for compensation, according to Knesset member Danny Danon, who spearheaded the compensation campaign. Ultimately, the prime minister agreed to a plan without the need for legislation.

The criteria outlining how the compensation is to be allocated will be drafted “in the coming weeks,” Danon told The Jewish Week. He estimates that homeowners will receive about $26.5 million in total and the amount that will go to building contractors is “unknown.” He does not yet know when the money will be distributed.

Not all of the structures affected by the freeze are housing.

Lev Binyamin, an organization that assists 200 special needs children, was about to start work on a facility in Ofra, a settlement in the north West Bank, when the freeze took effect. The structure is now on hold.

“We have the land, we have the permits, we have architectural plans. We even have 90 percent of the funding,” said Mali Sztrigler, Lev Binyamin’s director. Although the center’s land was donated, the organization has already spent about 200,000 shekels, more than $50,000, in fees.

The girls’ high school from which the organization currently operates “isn’t appropriate for disabled children,” Sztrigler said. “The bathrooms aren’t wide enough, for example. We need to accommodate children in wheelchairs.”

Sztrigler wondered out loud how her center became a victim of the peace process.

“Since when are disabled children a political issue?” she asked.

Benny Kashriel, the mayor of Ma’aleh Adumim, a city-settlement just outside Jerusalem, said his municipality — which has entire neighborhoods that are partially built — has to provide services to the residents who have already moved into completed buildings.

“You still have to clean the neighborhood, you still have to provide infrastructure, and it’s expensive. And yet the city doesn’t receive income from the land sales, municipal taxes and development taxes we budgeted for.”

The builders, Kashriel said, “have to pay guards to keep watch” over partially built buildings. “They still have to pay fees on the money they borrowed for a down payment.”

Two gas stations with restaurants, four factories and kindergartens are among the structures that will not be serving his community anytime soon, Kashriel said.

Ma’aleh Adumim resident Shelly Levine, owner of Tivuch Shelly, which specializes in real estate marketing and property development consulting, said her business has been badly hurt by the inability to build.

“I lost close to 350 apartments in one day,” Levine, whose projects are extremely popular with foreign investors, said, referring to properties in Ma’aleh Adumim, Hashmonaim (near Modi’in, just over the Green Line) and Mitzpe Yericho, on the way to Jericho.

In a phone interview from London, where she was trying to attract homebuyers, Levine said she is finding it difficult to pay her employees.

“Had I known ahead of time this was going to happen, I would have pursued other projects in other locations. But no one told us this was coming, or when.”

Peace Now, which has been demanding a settlement halt for decades, supports compensation, perhaps out of the belief that it will create a precedent that will enable the evacuation of some settlements.

“The very idea of compensation to a person who is already invested and going to be hurt by the freeze is legitimate,” Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Project, said. “But there should be clear criteria for specific losses, not global compensation.”

While those affected by the freeze believe they deserve to be compensated, some wonder whether the government’s willingness to pay signals the beginning of the end for settlement construction.

“If you freeze construction, isn’t it like an admission of guilt, as if we’ve been doing something wrong all along? And if that’s the case, how do you start up again?” Levine asked, already knowing the answer. n

read more: