Only 7% of Jerusalem Building Permits Go to Palestinian Neighborhoods

'If anyone thinks the Palestinians’ frustration and rage are the result of incitement alone, the numbers and facts on the ground show otherwise,' charges Jerusalem city councilor Laura Wharton.

An archive photo of construction in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
Daniel Bar On

Only seven percent of the building permits issued in Jerusalem over the past few years have gone to Palestinian neighborhoods where 40 percent of the city’s population lives, according to statistics obtained by Haaretz.

A careful examination of the data shows that the situation is even more dire. Of the 158 building permits issued to East Jerusalem neighborhoods this past year, more than two-thirds have been for the neighborhood of Beit Hanina, while only 51 permits were issued for all the rest of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods.

Last year, of the 3,238 building permits issued in Jerusalem, 188 were issued in Arab neighborhoods. Over the past five years, there have been 11,603 building permits issued, only 878 of which were for Palestinian neighborhoods.

Data given to Jerusalem City Councilor Laura Wharton (Meretz) points to a sharp drop in the number of permits issued to Palestinians. Her data, provided by the NGO Bimkom-Planners for Planning Rights, based on the municipality’s own figures, show that before 2010, an average of 400 housing units were approved annually for eastern Jerusalem, while over the past five years an average of 200 permits have been issued for those neighborhoods, with no specific numbers cited, according to an official statement by the city.

Most homes in East Jerusalem are built without permits – that is, illegally – since the neighborhoods have no master plans on which building permits can be based. When he became mayor seven years ago, Mayor Nir Barkat declared that one of his primary missions with regard to East Jerusalem would be to deal with the illegal construction there. As part of this new policy, home demolitions were reduced, and the municipality began to advance plans to retroactively legalize buildings that had already been built. But these plans encountered various technical obstacles and to date only a few East Jerusalem residents have been able to get their homes legalized retroactively.

To understand the problem one must compare how construction is handled in Jewish Jerusalem (including areas over the Green Line) with the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, usually referred to as “East Jerusalem” even though many of these neighborhoods are in the northern and southern parts of the city.

In Jewish Jerusalem most construction is initiated by the government; either the Israel Lands Authority or the Construction and Housing Ministry prepare plans, invest money in environmental development and infrastructure, and publish tenders. The homes, mostly multi-unit high-rises, are built and sold by contractors supervised by the state.

In East Jerusalem, however, there are no government construction initiatives; all the construction is private and generally involves a small number of housing units built on family-owned land. In addition, in most cases, East Jerusalem residents cannot get mortgages because of problems with registering their properties in the Land Registry. Even if they can build their homes legally, they must pay very large sums in levies and taxes, sums that in Jewish Jerusalem are shared by the state, the contractor and the home buyer, who can also get a mortgage.

“Many people apply for building permits but can’t get them because when it comes to the levy stage it’s millions,” says attorney Sami Arshid, an expert in planning and construction in East Jerusalem. “In the Jewish sector the levies are paid by the state or the contractors, who then roll them over to [many] buyers, while the Arabs are building for themselves. Just last week I had a family from Jabal Mukkaber [near East Talpiot] who built seven housing units and were charged a betterment levy of 960,000 shekels [$249,000] and another 300,000 shekels [$78,000] as a road levy. People just give up,” he said. This is another reason that few people in East Jerusalem can get a building permit and end up threatened with criminal proceedings because they build illegally.

Building plans in East Jerusalem have also faced opposition from right-wing representatives on the city council. For example, a large building plan in the neighborhood of Sawaharah, which the municipality promoted as its flagship plan for reducing the gaps between west and east, was held up for years by right-wing city councilors and by former Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

Even when it was finally approved, however, it provided little relief for the residents. Rattab Matar, a resident of the neighborhood, explained that since 2005 he has been trying unsuccessfully to get a building permit; in 2009, the District Planning Commission didn’t want to approve a plan just for him and his one-dunam plot. “The neighbors don’t want to build, so they turned me down,” he said. In the end, he was forced to start construction without the permit, and received a demolition order before he finished. Now he is fighting the order in court. “To date I’ve spent 100,000 shekels and now with the demolition another 100,000, and I’ve got nothing to show for it,” he said.

A lawsuit filed by the Beit Safafa Community Council gives some insight into the way the system is stacked against the Arab residents. The suit deals with two building plans for the Givat Hamatos area in southern Jerusalem; one plan is for land owned by the ILA and Jewish owners, while the other plan is for land owned by Arabs.

Both plans were approved by the city at the same time three years ago, but only the plan for Jewish construction was deposited for public comment and is moving forward, while the Arab plan, which would serve to expand Beit Safafa, is stuck. “There is a serious and well-founded concern that the fact this plan was not [advanced] does not stem from relevant or professional reasons, but is linked to political and other irrelevant considerations,” wrote attorney Mohannad Gbara, in the suit he filed on behalf of the community council.

“If anyone thinks the Palestinians’ frustration and rage are the result of incitement alone, the numbers and facts on the ground show otherwise,” said Wharton, the city councilor. “There’s no doubt that there’s incitement, but it’s planted deep in the fertile ground of discrimination. The policy of the city administration and its head is to block not just any movement of Palestinians but also their ability to build and live normal lives. Two cities have been created here, one for Israelis, in which there is investment, and one for Palestinians who are strangulated.”

The Jerusalem Municipality said that there is an increase in legal construction and building permits in the eastern part of the city. “In recent years several plans have been approved and others are in the planning stages,” the city said. “It’s important to note that building permits are issued in response to requests from residents and developers, and in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods there are fewer requests for permits. Every application submitted to the municipality is dealt with and advanced in accordance with professional criteria and compliance with planning law.

“In East Jerusalem there is significant difficulty in proving ownership or a connection to private land, which constitutes the primary obstacle to obtaining a building permit,” the municipality continued. “Therefore, for several years the Jerusalem Municipality has been operating an expedited procedure for proving land ownership in several East Jerusalem neighborhoods. We plan to expand this procedure to other neighborhoods in the near future.”