Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed this week that Jerusalem is an "open city" that permits all its inhabitants, Jewish and Palestinian, to purchase homes in both its eastern and western parts.
"Our policy is that Jerusalem residents can purchase apartments anywhere in the city. There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city, and there is no ban on Jews building or buying in the city's east," Netanyahu said in response to the U.S. request to halt a Jewish construction project in East Jerusalem.
An examination by Haaretz, however, presented a rather different situation on the ground. According to Israel Lands Administration rules, residents of East Jerusalem cannot take ownership of the vast majority of Jerusalem homes.
When an Israeli citizen purchases an apartment or house, ownership of the land remains with the ILA, which leases it to the purchaser for a period of 49 years, enabling the registration of the home ("tabu"). Article 19 of the ILA lease specifies that a foreign national cannot lease - much less own - ILA land.
Attorney Yael Azoulay, of Zeev and Naomi Weil Lawyers and Notary Office, explains that if a foreign national purchases an apartment they must show the ILA proof of eligibility to immigrate to Israel in accordance with the Law of Return. Non-Jewish foreigners cannot purchase apartments. This group includes Palestinians from the east of the city, who have Israeli identity cards but are residents rather than citizens of Israel.
Most residences in West Jerusalem and in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem are built on ILA land. All the neighborhoods built after 1967 - Gilo, Pisgat Ze'ev, Ramot, French Hill and Armon Hanatziv - are built on ILA land. Even in the older neighborhoods of Kiryat Hayovel, Katamonim and Beit Hakerem, tens of thousands of apartments are built on ILA land and cannot be sold to Palestinians. In the ultra-Orthodox central Jerusalem neighborhoods of Geula and Mea Shearim, as well as in Rehavia and Talbieh, there are homes built on private land - mainly owned by one of the churches or purchased in the past by Jews.
It goes without saying that a Palestinian seeking to purchase an apartment in a Haredi area would be rejected out of hand, and Rehavia or Talbieh would in any event be out of the range of most East Jerusalemites' budget.
Nevertheless, dozens of Palestinian families have moved into Jewish neighborhoods, mainly French Hill and Pisgat Ze'ev. Most are renting, while a few buy apartments without registering them. Lawyers in the field say the law is not always applied, and that if a resident of East Jerusalem were to apply to register the apartment at the ILA, they would not have problems doing so.
If the amendment to the Israel Lands Administration Law is passed - the bill is in an advanced stage - an Israeli apartment owner would be able to take ownership of the land and could then sell it to anyone, including foreign nationals and Palestinians.