The Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee this week approved what will be the largest construction project of housing for Palestinian families in Jerusalem since 1967. The plan to build 2,500 housing units in Jabal Mukkaber in the southern part of East Jerusalem, was approved despite fierce opposition from right-wing politicians and organizations.
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According to the plan’s architect, Senan Abdelkader, the opposition stalled the project for at least four years.
The plan to build 2,500 housing units as well as numerous playgrounds, parks and other public spaces near schools in Arab as-Sawahra, a neighborhood of Jabal Mukkaber, was approved years ago, and has won support from many officials within the Jerusalem Municipality. Mayor Nir Barkat, who tried to get the plan approved during his previous term as mayor, sees the step as an important means of improving the lives of East Jerusalem residents. Jabal Mukkaber borders the Jewish neighborhood of East Talpiot.
During an earlier stage of the approval process, Barkat said “planning in the neighborhoods in the Eastern part of the city by the municipality is a quintessential expression of Israeli sovereignty on all parts of the city, and strengthens a united Jerusalem. Without Jerusalem Municipality planning, a harsh, dangerous reality could arise in which individual planning projects would be approved by the courts, without any kind of systematic vision or consideration being given to the various issues facing the neighborhood in terms of building the public institutions lacking there.”
Barkat also noted that “the alternative to regulated planning is illegal construction of thousands of housing units and taking over large open spaces, which would harm the area as well as Israeli sovereignty over a unified Jerusalem.”
Members of various right-wing and settler organizations, however, worked against the plan and succeeded in causing significant delays. Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai refused to grant approval to the overall urban plan for Jerusalem due to right-wing claims that it allowed for construction of the Arab as-Sawahra neighborhood. In the end, neighborhood residents filed a petition with the courts that forced the authorities to reconsider and continue discussing the plan.
According to architect Abdelkader, the project is important not only because it will alleviate the housing crisis for the Arab population in East Jerusalem, but also because it will establish a precedent of cooperation among Palestinian landowners in advancing a large, joint construction project.
“I had doubts about accepting this project. I didn’t want to become a pawn for politicians, but the residents gave me a mandate. The public understood that it could act collectively in order to improve its situation,” said Abdelkader.
The hearing that took place on Monday in the district committee was attended by dozens of neighborhood residents who will be granted building permits as a result of the approval of the plan. The hearing was also attended by activists from various right-wing groups, as well as city councillor Aryeh King, who asked that the plan be postponed amid claims that it was advanced without sufficient research into the actual construction needs in East Jerusalem.
Despite the approval of the plan, it will be a long time until the neighborhood is built, as residents now need to organize into groups and submit detailed requests for building permits. The plan does allow, however, for relatively small groups of landowners to join forces for the approval of small-scale individual construction plans.
“The discussions revealed the extent to which opposition to the plan was political, as on one side there were the landowners, for whom the plan is like their last loaf of bread, and on the other side there were many powerful settler organizations,” read a statement released by the Ir Amim non-profit organization, which advocates for a more equitable distribution of land and resources in Jerusalem. The organization called on the planning authorities “to act with professional consideration and make decisions that lead to the most effective implementation of the plan.”