Mining Gold From East Jerusalem's Streets

Israel profits twice from Palestinians living in the capital: once from the fines they pay for the city’s own crimes, and again when the community is forced into a life of low-paying jobs and abject poverty

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A boy walks on the ruins of a residential building in the A-Tur neighborhood, East Jerusalem.
A boy climbs the ruins of a residential building in the A-Tur neighborhood, East Jerusalem. Credit: Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Money, and lots of it, is behind the ongoing Israeli refusal to develop and build for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Money – and not just the clear intention to restrict the number of Palestinians in the city.

Mayors, heads of planning and construction departments, municipal officials and successive interior ministers in the Jewish democratic state have conspired together to create a sophisticated system that sucks the very marrow from the bones of local Palestinians. The talent and the enthusiasm for squeezing money out of the Palestinians were created and heightened by the very nature of their key functions in a country whose essence is occupation and the expulsion of another people from its land.

So it goes like this: Palestinians pay fines for the houses they are forced to build in East Jerusalem without permits on private land that they’ve inherited or bought. They pay daily fines for the non-demolition of their own homes. They pay the municipality for demolishing their houses – or do so with their own hands. They pay a lawyer to represent them when facing off against officials and judges indifferent to two basic facts: 1. The municipality has not bothered to tailor master plans to the needs of its Palestinian inhabitants, and, 2. People need a roof over their heads.

The Palestinians are paying planners and architects to prepare a master plan for the neighborhood in which they live – since the municipality refuses to do it. They hope that the judges will come to their senses and shake off their moral sloth and realize that about 200,000 of the 360,000 Palestinians in the city are being labelled “construction offenders” – but the problem isn’t them, but rather the institutions that have led to this scandalous situation and perpetuate it.

Every such household devotes a good deal of its limited income every month – from hundreds to thousands of shekels – to paying fines for having a roof over their heads. Not to underwrite a mortgage – because Palestinians who are not citizens are not entitled to one – but as an extra payment, in additional to the normal payments made to a contractor, to an appliance store, to cover electricity and water bills and municipal taxes. The fine is the tax that about half of the Palestinians in Jerusalem pay as a penalty for not doing what is expected of them: disappearing into thin air.

And this is how Israel profits twice: It funnels millions of extra shekels into its coffers – money that comes not from customs duties or taxes, but from calculated and intentional faultiness in its planning policies over many years. The original sin is the policy of non-planning. The sinner: the Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality. And who is penalized and fined? The Palestinian residents.

This policy also condemns every Palestinian family not only to intolerable and humiliating overcrowding in their existing dwellings, but also forces them to give up other activities vital for their well-being, for their future: for example, enrichment programs for their children or tuition to a better school, vacations and trips in the country and abroad, higher education. And this is after Israel has already expropriated their available land (38 percent of the area of the West Bank, which it has annexed to Jerusalem), and earmarked it for construction for Jews.

That’s how, for decades, Israel has created a system that channels, supposedly unintentionally, Jerusalem Palestinians into a life of poverty, want and low-paying service jobs in the city’s upscale Jewish neighborhoods.

Quantification of the above sums in the past and present is beyond the abilities and aspirations of this column. We’ll just say that at least 20,000 demolition orders are pending against Palestinian-built structures in Jerusalem – whether homes for nuclear families, buildings that house extended families, commercial premises or apartment buildings that house a number of different families, such as that in the Khalat al-Ayn section of the large neighborhood of A-Tur. The demolition orders against it have been delayed a number of times in court for technical reasons, not due to moral considerations.

Lives that don't matter

It was attorney Daniel Seidemann who last week shared with me this estimate, of 200,000 Jerusalem Palestinians whose houses were constructed without a license. Seidmann not only used to represent Palestinians facing the hardheartedness of the municipality and the judges, but 25 years ago, he also initiated advocacy activity to expose the methodical and intentional policy of non-planning and non-construction for Palestinians in Jerusalem, as opposed to intensive planning and construction for Jews.

This is what Seidemann had to say when we discussed 182 buildings in the neighborhood of Silwan, where all possible legal action against their demolition has been exhausted: “What characterizes the forced disintegration of Palestinian East Jerusalem is a consistent policy in all areas except medicine. The life of Palestinians does not matter very much, and sometimes does not matter at all.”

The ruins of a residential building in the A-Tur neighborhood.Credit: Tali Meir

That is something we can quantify: 59 percent of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and 66 percent of Palestinian children there (as of 2018, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research) live below the poverty line. Non-planning for the Palestinians costs them dearly – and it’s intentional. The impoverishment that screams from every alleyway and street in Palestinian neighborhoods, is a fundamental by-product of this. Economic impoverishment of a population of subjects and impairing their chances for higher education and a profession that such education allows, is yet another tested item in the toolbox of the colonizer.

The sophistication and the enthusiasm with which Israeli Jews make use of this toolbox stem directly from their position as oppressors. The talent to oppress, squeeze money from and impoverish others is not genetic, but acquired, by any group who over the years creates its privileges and strives to preserve them.

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