Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: The Other Illegal Construction - Pt. I

Drive along the Maaleh Adumim-Jerusalem road towards French Hill and you'll pass the Arab neighborhood of Isawiyah, within the municipal boundaries of the city. There, you will find hundreds of buildings scattered haphazardly all over the place, with no apparent logic.
Published: Thursday, April 07, 2005 10:31 PM


Drive along the Maaleh Adumim-Jerusalem road towards French Hill and you'll pass the Arab neighborhood of Isawiyah, within the municipal boundaries of the city. There, you will find hundreds of buildings scattered haphazardly all over the place, with no apparent logic. Hundreds of these buildings were erected illegally, without a permit, and come as the result of numerous crimes, from forged deeds and land theft to tax evasion and building with total disregard for safety codes. While stories regarding illegal Jewish building in the administered territories abound, little, if nothing, has been reported of another, far wider phenomenon ? illegal Arab construction.

The building in Isawiyah represents only the tip of the iceberg. Experts say that illegal building in eastern Jerusalem has reached a magnitude hitherto unknown and has all but become the norm in the region. "I estimate that between 800-1,000 dwellings are built illegally each year," says Micha Bin-Nun, Director of Jerusalem's Licensing and Inspections Department. "It started in earnest in 1995, a little after Oslo." Ten years later, he estimates, the total number of illegal structures now exceeds 10,000 buildings. Assuming an average of five living units per structure, the total could exceed 50,000 apartments.

The municipal figure is backed up by Palestinian sources. At a conference that took place four years ago, on January 7, 2000 at the Jerusalem Center for Women, Palestinian Legislative Council member for Jerusalem, Hatem Abd El-Khader Eid, boasted that Arabs had erected 6,000 illegal structures in East Jerusalem in the previous few years.

Illegal Arab construction is widespread all over the country, not just in east Jerusalem. Two years ago, the Interior Ministry estimated the amount at 20,000. Former Housing Minister and Current Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Natan Sharansky, has estimated the figure at 40,000.

Last year, International Human Rights Lawyer Justice Reid Weiner, of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, published a 172-page study on the phenomenon entitled Illegal Construction in Jerusalem - A Variation of an Alarming Global Phenomenon.

Weiner says the numerous problems caused by illegal building hurt both the municipality and local residents. Besides creating a slum-like atmosphere in whole sections of the city, it makes it physically impossible to provide even the most basic services. "One person building up to the zero line makes it impossible to build a sidewalk and reduces a four lane road to a single lane, so cars and buses must go into a ditch to let other cars pass," says Weiner. "Building illegally in a zone marked for a school makes it impossible to build the school."

And for those services that can still be provided, it becomes much more difficult to supply them, says Weiner. "It costs far more to bring electricity, water, roads, sidewalks and parking to the entrances of all these dispersed living units than to uniform, planned communities. And when the city finds it hard to provide these services, it is immediately accused of discriminating against the Arab population." Another problem is lack of funding. "When people build illegally, no taxes can be collected, so there is no money to provide services such as schools and community centers," says Bin Nun.

Safety is also a concern. The illegal structures are frequently built without the input of a licensed architect or engineer and likely fail to meet standard safety codes. "Living in these building is less safe, especially in the case of an earthquake or shelling," says Weiner.

Illegal building frequently goes hand in hand with land theft. This can be private land owned by absentee owners ? often Christian Arabs living abroad, or land owned by the old and infirm. It is believed that gangs, some linked to the Palestinian Authority, have used forged land deeds to lay their hands on vast areas in fashionable Arab neighborhoods such as Beit Hanina and Shoafat. But it also takes place on municipal land designated for public services such as schools and community centers. The building also entails the destruction of green spaces, such as land set aside for public parks. Even land designated for streets and highways are built on. Completion of the Eastern Ring highway, important to both Jews and Arabs, is threatened by illegal construction.

The Palestinian Authority forbids eastern Jerusalem residents to deal with the municipality ? often by the threat of violence. But many Arabs who suffer directly from the illegal construction have put aside concern for their personal safety and complained directly to the city. According to Mayor Uri Lupolianski, half of the building violations in the Arab neighborhoods come to the city's attention when Arab neighbors who have been adversely affected by the changes lodge complaints.

The phenomenon has forced some to take radical action. "Many Arab landowners have built ugly cement walls a meter high around their properties to keep illegal builders off," says Weiner. The walls themselves, besides scarring the landscape, are themselves illegal."

The phenomenon has become so bad that Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, the PLO's representative in Jerusalem, took out an ad on the front page of the Al-Quds newspaper on November 14, 2002 condemning the phenomenon. Next to the ad there was an offer to buy Doberman guard dogs. An article in the same edition was entitled, "The Upper Political Committee of Jerusalem Forms a Committee to Protect the Lands and Property in Jerusalem (After Attempts of Seizure by Counterfeiting and Intimidation)".

Nusseibeh has gone on record warning of the consequences of the phenomenon. "We are facing a disaster a far as the environment and the city is concerned, unless people take another look and begin to seriously plan once again." He also says that gangs that build illegally on stolen land should be jailed. Azan Abu Saud, the Director General of the Office of Arab Commerce in Jerusalem, has said that ignoring the planning law encourages violence and impinges on the rights of others. At the risk of opposing the PA, he even recommended demolishing the illegal structures.

[Part 1 of 2]