The headlines yesterday and today (here
, for example) are touting the news that the Jerusalem Municipality has approved the construction for 2200 new units for Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. If true, this would be good news indeed. Regrettably, these headlines are, in fact, misleading, reflecting a brazen – and so far successful – hasbara
effort on the part of the Jerusalem Municipality.
- Yesterday, the Jerusalem Municipality granted preliminary approval for a Master Plan dealing with an area called Arab A-Sawahrah – a remote Palestinian neighborhood in the southeast Jerusalem, bordering on the West Bank town of Abu Dis.
- A further protracted planning process (likely to take at least a year) is required before this Master Plan can be granted final statutory approval, and this final approval is by no means a foregone conclusion.
- Even assuming this Master Plan is granted final approval, this will not mean even a single new building permit can or will be granted for construction under the plan.
- This is because a “Master Plan” is a conceptual plan – basically a declaration of intent delineating the overall planning designations within a large area (residential, commercial, public domain, etc). Master Plans, including the plan in the headlines this week, do not allow for the issuance of building permits.
- Should this Master Plan is granted final approval, the Jerusalem Municipality will then have to consider and approve a number of “Specific Plans” before a single construction permit can be granted in this area.
- Assuming the Jerusalem Municipality genuinely supports Palestinian construction in this area – something that almost five decades of experience would indicate is unlikely – the process of considering/approving Specific Plans will take many years to complete.
The history and context
- In 1967, there were 69,000 Palestinians living in Israeli-defined East Jerusalem, residing in 12,600 homes. Today, that population has more than quadrupled to approximately 303,000 Palestinians, residing in more than 50,000 homes.
- Since 1967, the Jerusalem Municipality has issued a total of fewer that 4500 building permits for the entire Palestinian sector (meaning that the majority of construction in East Jerusalem was undertaken without permits).
- Since 1967, fewer than 600 units, total, have been built for Palestinians in East Jerusalem with any Israeli government support, the last of such units being built in the 1970s.
- Since 1967, Israel has expropriated 35% of the private land in East Jerusalem to build 53,000 units for Israelis in the settlement neighborhoods established on that land.
- Forty-seven years of experience disclose unambiguously that the planning regime in East Jerusalem is NOT designed to address the housing needs of a living, breathing, and growing Palestinian population. Rather, it is geared to put an artificial cap on the Palestinian population in order to keep their demographic figures low, while accelerating the development and the expansion of the Israeli-Jewish population.
- The rationale underlying the Israeli policy regarding construction, planning and permits in East Jerusalem is clear and is euphemistically called “maintaining the demographic balance” in Jerusalem. At its heart, this policy reflects the belief that the birth of an Israeli-Jewish child in Jerusalem is a simcha (a “joy”), while the birth of a Palestinian child in Jerusalem is a demographic problem.
- The Israeli attempt to maintain a robust Israeli majority in Jerusalem has failed: the Palestinians were 25.5% of the population in 1967; today they are 37% of Jerusalem’s population. However, the municipal and governmental policies remain unchanged, and the planning regime continues to be geared to curbing Palestinian development rather than genuinely addressing the housing needs. Nothing in this new approval deviates from that policy.
- At best, the groundbreaking for the first building in the area governed by the new Master Plan in the news this week is many years away. More likely, even if this Master Plan receives final approval, the Specific Plans will never be approved and the Master Plan will remain a dead letter.
- The marketing of the preliminary approval of this new Master Plan by the Jerusalem Municipality – to the public both in Israel and abroad – indicates that this story is more about hasbara than about housing. In short, it is part of Mayor Nir Barkat’s effort to tell the world, which is so often critical of East Jerusalem settlement approvals: “see, we approve construction for Palestinians, too.”
- The point that is being obscured by the Municipality – and glossed over in the headlines – is that while approval of construction in East Jerusalem settlements signifies that new houses are actually going to be built for settlers (often in a relatively short period of time), approval of construction for Palestinians in East Jerusalem signifies positive headlines for Barkat and Israel, but rarely any actual construction, even in the long term.
- At the end of the day, the Master Plan that received preliminary approval yesterday is about deflecting the very compelling charges that Israel discriminates against Palestinians in its Jerusalem planning regime, NOT about creating any real possibilities for Palestinians to build new homes legally.
- It is also part of Barkat’s effort to convince the world that under his leadership, Israel is acting as a responsible, benevolent sovereign power in East Jerusalem, as opposed to an occupier. In the official press release published yesterday (in Hebrew) the Municipality writes: “The Local Planning Committee of the Jerusalem Municipality, headed by Dpty. Mayor Kobi Kachlon, today [Wednesday Sept. 4] approved a plan for the strengthening of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the unity of Jerusalem”.
- Finally, it is worth pointing out that there is special grammar that applies to the Israeli planning regime in relation to the Palestinian sector of East Jerusalem. Decisions and actions to limit the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem are always in the declarative, present tense, as was on display yesterday, when the Jerusalem Municipality carried out a number of demolitions in East Jerusalem. Decisions and actions pertaining to construction for the Palestinian sector in East Jerusalem are always in the theoretical, future tense, and rarely, if ever, actualized, as was on display yesterday, with the news of approval of a plan under which construction is a remote possibility, at best. The latter stands in sharp contrast to decisions and actions that promote Israeli settlement construction or expand Israeli control over the public domain in East Jerusalem – decisions that almost always are actualized in the form of new facts on the ground, and in many cases are expedited.