Smash and grab, Jerusalem housing policy

December 1, 2017
Sarah Benton

A bulldozer hired by the Jerusalem municipality destroys a Palestinian house in annexed East Jerusalem on the grounds that it was built without a construction permit. Photo taken in 2016 by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

“Deliberately Planned: A Policy to Thwart Planning in the Palestinian Neighbourhoods of Jerusalem”

“Of course the authorities demolish their homes, because they build illegally.” This is how most Israelis respond when they hear about the demolition of homes, whether it happens in a Bedouin village in the Negev, in Qalansuwa in central Israel, or in East Jerusalem. This report examines three plans in East Jerusalem that reflect the efforts made by Palestinian residents to eventually build legally and eliminate the threat of demolition.

Our examination of the obstacle course faced by these plans shows that the Israeli authorities do everything within their power to delay the process and ultimately thwart any detailed plan of significant scale, effectively preventing lawful construction by Palestinians.

In most cases, a Palestinian family that tries to build a home in East Jerusalem is required to run from one office to the next, spend hundreds of thousands of shekels of its own money on planning, and then expend even more to submit an application for a building permit.

After confronting all of these barriers, the family may or may not be granted permission to build a home. Families must deal with this process while coping with the daily threat of home demolition and paying heavy fines while under threat. Like anyone else, they would prefer to build legally but are prohibited due to the suppression of their planning rights.

Recently, there has been a sharp increase in the number of home demolitions in East Jerusalem, as in Arab communities within the Green Line and in the Occupied Territories. It is important to emphasize in this context that construction takes place without permits as a direct consequence of plans that do not enable approval of permits on a scale appropriate to community needs.

Plans prepared for the Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem attest to politically motivated discrimination in line with the state’s overriding policy objective of maintaining the demographic balance in the city.

Ir Amim and Bimkom have been working actively for years to encourage fairer and more equitable conditions for the two national groups – Israeli and Palestinian – living in Jerusalem. Ir Amim is active in Jerusalem in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; seeking, in the absence of and toward a political resolution, to ensure that the city is managed as the home of the two peoples who live in it. Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights seeks to promote the rights of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem with the goal of ensuring their ability to live safely, in permitted homes, and to enjoy adequate roads, parks and other public amenities.

The two organizations developed this report out of an awareness that urban planning is a key contributor to the wide gaps between Palestinian and Israeli neighbourhoods. In their extreme form, these gaps manifest in unpermitted construction and home demolitions.

This report examines current obstacles to the advancement of plans that would provide an adequate infrastructure for the granting of building permits, through a close look at three medium to large plans prepared for Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem.

 37 percent of the residents of Jerusalem are Palestinians. They occupy 8.5 percent of the total area of the city

Since 1967, Israel has expropriated more than 38 percent of the area of East Jerusalem for the construction of neighbourhoods/settlements for Israelis. The outline plans for the Palestinian neighbourhoods approved by Israel in the 1980s and 1990s included extensive open areas in which construction is prohibited. Today, 37 percent of the residents of Jerusalem are Palestinians, but only 15 percent of the area of East Jerusalem (and 8.5 percent of the total area of the city) is zoned for their residential use. What is more, the building percentages permitted in these areas are particularly low.

The planning system in Jerusalem has effectively been recruited in service to the Israeli imperative of maintaining a demographic majority in the city. Demographic considerations – above all the desire to increase the Israeli population while reducing the number of Palestinians in the city – constitute the main criterion for planning in Jerusalem.

Since 1967, no single outline plan has been prepared for East and West Jerusalem as a whole. The Jerusalem Local Outline Plan 2000, approved for deposit in 2009 but never actually deposited for objections, was meant to change this reality. Its approval process was frozen precisely because of the potential for community development it offered in some of the Palestinian neighbourhoods.

Since the beginning of 2009, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, detailed outline plans allowing for approximately 10,000 housing units have been approved for the Israeli neighbourhoods/settlements in East Jerusalem.

By contrast, only minor detailed plans in the range of hundreds of housing units have been approved in the Palestinian neighbourhoods. No broader outline plans have been approved for these neighbourhoods. In addition to the planning authorities’ failure to approve detailed plans in the Palestinian neighbourhoods, in recent years they have granted only eight percent of building permits for housing units in Jerusalem to the Palestinian neighbourhoods.

Without any prior warning, dozens of Israeli special forces, bulldozers, and council crews raided Issawiya in occupied East Jerusalem at around 4:30 a.m. and demolished a privately-owned Palestinian building leaving many homeless, January 2017. Photo by Getty

Adding to the pressure, demolitions have recently begun to spike. In 2016, the Israeli authorities demolished 123 housing units in East Jerusalem. Inadequate planning also prevents the construction of schools and development of public areas and employment and commercial zones.

The planning crisis, the lack of housing, and the burden of demolition orders have led many residents of East Jerusalem to lose faith in the prospect of the Jerusalem Municipality (herein, “Municipality”) planning their neighbourhoods; consequently, they must resort to internal community organizing to initiate their own detailed plans for approval by the planning authorities.

Demolition of private Palestinian home, March 2017. Residents were left homeless and witnesses said they were forced outside before they had time to remove their belongings. Photo Ma’an Images

Those who have chosen to take this course of action, and have been willing to cope with the attendant community challenges, have encountered a series of bureaucratic obstacles – most prominently, having to confront Israeli planning policy motivated by demographic objectives. The Municipality argues that the master plans it has initiated in East Jerusalem in recent years constitute a response to the severe lack of housing. The truth is that the plans it has initiated lack statutory status and have no bearing on the planning crisis in East Jerusalem. In fact, the emphasis on master plans actually delays the preparation of detailed outline plans – the only class of plans that enables issuance of building permits.

The three plans examined in this report represent different examples of planning in terms of the plan type, the identities of plan promoters, and the status of pre-existing plans. The details of the manner in which these plans were promoted and ultimately foiled exemplify the fate of many other substantial plans prepared over the last decade for areas within the Palestinian neighbourhoods.

Download the full report, pdf file

© Copyright JFJFP 2017