The Other Illegal Construction - Pt. II

One of the main claims of Arab and left-wing human rights groups is that eastern Jerusalem residents are forced to build illegally because the city is unwilling to grant building permits to Arab residents.

Yehezkel Laing,

OpEds Yehezkel Laing
Yehezkel Laing
INN:YL
[Part one of this article can be read at http://www.israelnationalnews.com/article.php3?id=4986.]

One of the main claims of Arab and left-wing human rights groups is that eastern Jerusalem residents are forced to build illegally because the city is unwilling to grant building permits to Arab residents. "Israeli Authorities have choked development and building for Palestinians," says a report from B'Tselem. "Inadequate planning and restrictions on building for the city's Palestinian population leave many Palestinians with no choice but to build their homes without obtaining building permits."

Weiner says the claims are demonstrably false. "In the mid 1990s, Faisal Husseini, then the PLO's representative in Jerusalem, put out a 23-page booklet to encourage investors to invest in East Jerusalem building projects. In the booklet, Husseini says that by 2010 East Jerusalem Arabs will require another 26,200 units including those needed for tourists and returning refugees. The Municipality has already approved plans that are intended to meet the projected Arab needs for the next 16 years that authorize in excess of 33,000 units."

Poverty amongst the residents of East Jerusalem is also claimed as the reason for the illegal building. "Palestinian residents of the city in their desperation resort to illegal means in order to provide themselves and their families with a basic living environment," says Daniel Seidmann of Ir Shalem, a left wing organization monitoring Arab rights in Jeruaslem. But Weiner says that while economic hardship plays some role, it is not one of the primary causes. "It's happening for two main reasons: quick illegal profit in violation of interests of neighbors; and for political reasons ? to occupy territory."

One major reason is money. Illegal building is extremely lucrative. The lawbreakers build multi-story, upscale apartment buildings suitable for rental or sale to the affluent. Hundreds of such buildings exist. Because they often build on stolen land, the plots are free. Building illegally also allows them to avoid paying taxes on the construction and sale of the residences.

The second reason is political - to occupy as much land as possible with as many people as possible, thereby creating facts on the ground and divide the city. Bin-Nun says the PA set a goal of establishing territorial continuity between eastern neighborhoods, such as Atur, Isawiya and Anata, in an effort to unite Ramallah to Bethlehem, thereby blocking connection of Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem.

Weiner agrees. "In the Shuafat refugee camp, for example, building has gone quite far out. It serves more to prevent expansion of the Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood to its north than to build up Shuafat," he says.

The PA has attempted to portray the growth as 'natural'. But this flies in the face of both public statements made to the Arab press and confidential documents that point to an organized campaign.

The late Faisal Husseini, the PLO's former representative in Jerusalem, gave an interview to the Egyptian magazine Al-Ahram Al Arabi in June 1997. In it, he stated, "It is the Palestinian program to build a Palestinian belt around the Israeli belt.... The most important Palestinian challenge is building, even without permits."

Bin-Nun says many documents were found in the Orient House, the PA's former unofficial embassy in Jerusalem, displaying details of the plan. On Sept. 11 2000 Jamil Othman Nasser, the PA's Governor of the Jerusalem District, wrote to Yasser Arafat, "Any Arab who builds in Jerusalem has accomplished a national act of the highest order." In the same letter, Nasser requests that Arafat pay fines assessed to those who built illegally. Arafat's hand written notation on the side of the letter instructs that it be forwarded to the PA Minister of Finance.

Another letter was found from Faisal Husseini to Yasser Arafat asking for financial assistance for Monair Jabran, a resident of Jerusalem who built illegally and was assessed a fine by the court. Husseini asks Arafat for NIS 40,000 to enable Jabran to pay the fine and complete the house.

Nor does the PA only pay fines. "The PA helps build illegal structures monetarily by giving homeowners mortgages, and if an illegal house is destroyed, it pays owners NIS 50,000," says Bin-Nun.

Funding requirements for this much building are enormous. Foreign Arab governments are believed to have taken part. According to some reports, Iran has donated up to $300m. for Arab construction in eastern Jerusalem. Former Housing Minister, and current Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, Natan Sharansky said Saudi Arabia is secretly financing the PA building campaign for political reasons in strategic areas in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel. On October 4, 2002, the Arab English-language newspaper Jerusalem Times printed on page two an article headlined "Saudis Build Housing Units for Palestinians". "This is a national, not a municipal problem," says Bin-Nun. "Outside forces have infiltrated the city."


The PA's effort to Arabize Jerusalem has born fruit. According to the Municipality's Department of Policy Planning, in 1967, the Jewish population accounted for 73.4% of the total, while the Arab population accounted for 26.6%. But by the year 2000, the Jewish percentage had dropped to 68.3% and the Arab population had risen to 31.7%. At current rates, it is estimated that in 15 years the Jewish population will decline to only 62.2% while the Arab population will increase to 37.8%.

Weiner criticizes the city's feeble efforts to enforce the law. Of the up to 1,000 illegal structures built annually, only a tiny percent have been knocked down. Between 1995-96 - 22, 1997-98 - 62, 1999-2000 - 26, 2001 - 46.

Many times, the decision to demolish came too late. In Abu Tor, for example, the El-Sheikh family built two large apartment complexes on absentee family land. An injunction was issued, but in the meantime, the builder gave an affidavit that it was out of his hands, as 20 of the apartments had already been sold.

One of the reasons for the low number of demolitions is money. Each demolition costs between NIS 50-60,000. More difficult ones can cost up to half-a-million shekels. The cost is absorbed by the city and not by the illegal builders.

But negative press, in the form of widespread media coverage of the demolitions, also serves to deter the city from enforcing the law. For example, on January 15, 2002, the Independent of London printed an article by Phil Reeves entitled "Israel Sends in its Death Squads and More Bulldozers".

The only illegal building that gets coverage, both in Israel and abroad, is Jewish. "There has been a tremendous amount of coverage and concern over illegal Jewish building in territories and very little focus on illegal Arab construction right here in Jerusalem," says Weiner. Weiner has first hand knowledge of the bias. His own report was virtually ignored by the local and foreign media. In Israel, it was covered only by the business paper Globes and abroad, the Harvard-Israel Review did a story on the study.

Weiner says Israel needn't be frightened, as demolitions of illegal dwellings are common worldwide - even in Arab countries. In 1997, for example, the New York Times reported that the Egyptian government destroyed some 1,500 homes and forcefully relocated 8,000 people in an effort to open new sites to archeologists and attract new tourists. The Palestinian Authority itself has demolished homes. In 1995, the Washington Post reported that the PA destroyed 20 homes in Gaza that it claimed were constructed illegally on "Palestinian State Property".

The problem is so big that some have claimed it is unstoppable. But Bin-Nun says that in the past year, the city has finally managed to significantly reduce the phenomena. This has been done by using both new and old methods. The old way is by increasing demolitions. In 2004 some 123 demolitions were carried out. And the new way is by targeting the builders instead of the contractors and homeowners. They do this by confiscating the trucks, mixers and other equipment of the companies building the illegal structures. "Now the cement companies check first if the contractors have a building permit before they start working," says Bin-Nun.

Why, after almost ten years of massive illegal building, have they begun to act only now? Bin-Nun says that only recently did they get authorization from the courts to confiscate the equipment.

While time will tell if the phenomenon has been permanently halted, the question still remains of the existing 10,000 existing illegal structures. Does crime pay? In this case, it may. Bin-Nun says the municipality has instituted what they call the Amana Plan to retroactively authorize the illegal buildings in exchange for promises from the Arab sector to cease the illegal construction. Critics say that if the government can authorize the destruction of the legally built homes of the 8,000 Jewish residents of Gaza, then it can surely destroy the illegal buildings in East Jerusalem.

[Part 2 of 2]




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