Right-wing Jerusalem Councilman Blocking Palestinian Construction Plans

Dozens of requests for building permits in East Jerusalem have been rejected in the past few months by Yonatan Yosef, who says he is doing so to prevent corruption and land theft

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Murals in Silwan, East Jerusalem, December 23, 2019
Murals in Silwan, East Jerusalem, December 23, 2019Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A Jerusalem municipality committee has put a hold on dozens of building plans for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, saying those submitting the plans have not proven their ownership of the land.

Leading the opposition to the building plans is city council member and right-wing activist Yonatan Yosef, who was appointed in some cases to examine applicants' land ownership rights.

Yosef does not deny that he is placing obstacles in the path of those requesting building permits. He says that he is doing so to prevent corruption and land theft.

A number of factors make receiving a building permit in East Jerusalem neighborhoods more difficult, including a shortage of detailed master plans and a lack of infrastructure. But one of the most severe barriers to construction for Palestinians there is the fact that about 90 percent of the land in the eastern part of the city is not regulated and is not registered in the Land Registry. This means many Arab residents cannot prove their ownership of the land, and as a result are unable to submit building plans and be issued building permits.

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The Jerusalem Municipality, responding to claims Haaretz has received, said that only a handful of requests have been rejected by the planning and building committee, in cases where discrepancies were found in ownership documents.  

The difficulty of receiving building permits has led tens of thousands of residents of East Jerusalem to build their homes illegally and without permits.

To address this problem, for the past few decades the “mukhtar protocol” has been implemented – in which a person who wants to build on land that is not registered in their name is required to have the mukhtar, meaning a village leader or head of a large local family who is recognized by the Jerusalem city hall, sign a document attesting to their ownership of the property.

Plans have been approved by the city and building permits issued based on the signatures of the mukhtars. In two neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem, Shoafat and Beit Hanina, senior city officials – including the city’s legal adviser and the head of the construction licensing and inspection department – sign the documents alongside the mukhtars.

But over the past two years, this protocol has been under attack from right-wing members of the city council, who say the protocol encourages corruption. The chairman of the local Jerusalem planning and building committee, city council member Eliezer Rauchberger, previously promised that the objections from the right would not lead to the cancellation of plans, but lawyers, planners and engineers have reported that over the past few months dozens of plans have been rejected for this reason.

“I have at least 30 cases that are stuck because of this, which is about 80 percent of requests,” said a construction engineer from East Jerusalem. “They send it on for an additional examination, but we don’t receive an answer.” Another planner said that he found that 13 cases had been delayed in the past few months because of Yosef’s complaints about problems with the mukhtar protocol.

In some cases, the committee dealing with the plans rejects them and sends them to Yosef for a further check – who then decides whether the person requesting the permit has a connection to the land. "Every member of the committee who asks to examine a specific file is allowed to do so,” says Rauchberg. This also happens to plans in Shoafat and Beit Hanina, which have been approved by the city’s legal adviser and the head of the construction licensing and inspection department.

“The files come to the committee and are then taken off the agenda at Yosef’s request,” said architect Nasser Abu Leil. “They tell us go talk to [Yosef] and get his approval, and if you don’t, your case gets stuck.” Sami Arshid, a lawyer who specializes in planning and building in East Jerusalem, says the delays are against the law and make things even harder for residents of East Jerusalem to get building permits, “in addition to all the discriminatory policy that has lasted for 50 years and almost makes it impossible to issue building permits.”

Yosef, the grandson of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the son of former Shas Knesset member Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, is known as a long-time activist in Jerusalem, having served as the spokesman for the Jewish settlers living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in the past. He is a representative of the Me’uchadim, Hebrew for "United," party in the city council.

Yosef said he formulated his position on the building permits after consulting with officials in the Justice Ministry and the regional planning and building committee. “According to the law, anyone who does not present registration to the Land Registry or a power of attorney from the owners of the land, it would be improper and unjust to discuss his request in the committee,” said Yosef.

Rauchberger said about 90 percent of requests have been approved, and only 10 percent are being delayed because of the mukhtar protocol.

Jerusalem city hall said that in spite of the claims Haaretz has received, only a few requests have not been approved by the local planning and building committee. “In these few cases, mistakes, forgeries or deficiencies in the ownership documents were discovered, and as a result the requests were not approved. The municipality is working and is continuing to work according to the mukhtar protocol as was approved by the regional [planning and building] committee,” they added.

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