Jerusalem Approves Plan That Would Legalize Homes in Palestinian Neighborhood

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The entrance to Isawiyah, in East Jerusalem, November 10, 2019.
The entrance to Isawiyah, in East Jerusalem, November 10, 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

For the first time in 30 years, the Jerusalem municipality has approved a master plan for the neighborhood of Isawiyah, in East Jerusalem. The plan includes a new zoning mechanism to allow for the retroactive approval of most of the buildings in the Palestinian neighborhood, which were built without permits.

But residents say the plan will not meet their future needs because authorities refused to increase the size of the neighborhood.

Isawiyah is located between the Mount of Olives and Route 1, the main road between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, in the northeastern part of the capital. The neighborhood has a population of 17,000. It has often been in the headlines in the past two years due to frequent confrontations between residents and the police, which have caused the death of one resident and injuries to many more.

During this period, the city’s planning division advanced a master plan for the neighborhood in cooperation with residents in an effort to solve the severe problem of illegal construction and the lack of public buildings and infrastructure. As in the rest of East Jerusalem, the master plan in effect for Isawiyah is outdated, does not meet its residents’ needs and does not allow for the neighborhood’s development. The current master plan was enacted in 1990, and it barely allows for new construction or for the approval of existing structures. Most of the homes in the neighborhood were built without permits.

In February, after a number of meetings between Mayor Moshe Leon and residents in the wake of the tension in the neighborhood, Leon ordered a six-month moratorium on home demolitions, to allow for the plan’s approval. The Jerusalem zoning board approved the plan last week, sending it to the regional planning and building committee for its approval.

Around 15 years ago residents, together with the human rights organization Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, began promoting a new master plan, that called for expanding the neighborhood, with the city’s blessing. But the city canceled the plan after the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Prime Minister’s Office advanced plans to establish a new national park on the slopes of Mount Scopus, which was planned for the last available land in the neighborhood.

Residents said the park’s establishment was meant to block Isawiyah’s expansion. The new master plan, designed by architect Ari Cohen, does not enlarge the neighborhood or change the borders of the park, but it does grant building rights to residents and includes a unique legal mechanism meant to solve the problem of development in the neighborhood.

The new master plan for Isawiyah is the first for East Jerusalem that attempts to address the serious planning problems in the capital’s Arab neighborhoods. It will permit residents to apply for retroactive approval of existing, unauthorized homes or for permission to raze and rebuild.

One of the most difficult problems for East Jerusalem residents in dealing with similar plans is that they require a large number of people to come together – usually dozens of families – and submit plans that would allow them to receive building permits.

Cohen divided the neighborhood into small planning areas, so groups of five or six families could also submit requests for building permits. In this way, Isawiyah’s master plan could set a precedent for addressing the problems of illegal construction and a housing shortage in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods.

Isawiyah (in the foreground) in AprilCredit: Emil Salman

The strength of the plan is that it doesn’t require residents to submit any further changes in the master plan. “We have created a system of shared in which several buildings can apply for a building permit with the agreement of the neighbors,” Cohen said. “We tried to divide the lots by extended family groups, we created a flexible mechanism for the borders and gave rights to each lot,” he added.

Each lot seeking a permit for existing buildings or to demolish and rebuild must allot some land for public use, such as day care centers, small parks, parking and road expansion, Cohen said. “The goal is a logical, high-quality public framework, that can serve public transportation and connectivity between the lots that can jointly take advantage of what every unit cannot exploit on its own, to place the carrot alongside the stick. The idea is: Provide more public space, receive more building rights,” Cohen said.

But despite of the efforts of residents and Bimkom, the new plan does not expand the borders of Isawiyah. In fact, seven of the neighborhood’s buildings are outside the boundaries of the plan and are at risk of demolition.

“In 2004, when we drew up the plan together with Bimkom, we conducted a needs survey of needs with the consulting firm Yeadim,” said Hani Isawi, a prominent local activist. “They found that Isawiyah needs to be 1,350 dunams (337.5 acres) in size. Under the existing plan it is 1,072 dunams, but in practice it’s less than 900,” after accounting for green areas. “This means there’s no room for future expansion,” Isawi said.

“The plan is complete surrender to pressure from the Nature and Parks Authority. Instead of allocating an appropriate amount of land to Isawiyah, which would provide a response to the residential needs and public spaces, the plan dictates a narrow border to the neighborhood with a much more limited than necessary area,” said Efrat Cohen-Bar, the deputy director of Bimkom. “So, in spite of the impressive innovation that it expresses and the honest attempt by the architect to finally deal with the planning problems, the result is disappointing,” she added.

Uri Yakir, the mayor’s adviser on Arab affairs, said keeping the existing borders stems from the need to increase housing density and build taller buildings in Jerusalem’s neighborhoods. He said the new plan will meet the neighborhood’s needs until at least 2040. “We promised residents six months ago to pass the plan, they didn’t believe us and we showed them that it is possible to do it. The idea is that we are taking responsibility and are not afraid of the challenges, and are creating trust between city hall and the residents,” Yakir said.

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