Even though Israel adamantly insists that other countries recognize Jerusalem as its capital, even planning a festive day next month with the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem, ever since 1967 Israel itself has not treated the city as a capital. Palestinians in Jerusalem, comprising almost 40 percent of its population, are not citizens of the country and many aspects of sovereignty are missing in the city. One of these is land registration.
Despite the annexation, the state avoids registering land ownership in East Jerusalem, putting a halt to a British and Jordanian initiative to sort out property rights there. The lack of land registration has direct effects, including a shortage of infrastructure and schools, with massive illegal construction and deep, pervasive poverty. According to a report published by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, the lack of land registration means much of the equity owned by East Jerusalem residents cannot be realized, engendering a loss of 80,000 shekels ($22,700) per family, on average.
Recently, the director of land registration at the Justice Ministry decided to renew the registration of land in East Jerusalem. This would seem to be a positive step that will greatly help residents there. However, the manner in which this is being done raises suspicions that it is not their benefit which is of paramount interest for decision makers, but the interests of settler groups, which find a responsive ear in the ministry headed by Ayelet Shaked.
Contrary to the recommendations of the Jerusalem Institute, the ministry is not cooperating with the Palestinian public. Worse, the ministry is refraining from announcing that registration will not serve as a means for the state to take over land through the custodian of absentee property, who is empowered to expropriate the property of anyone who is currently living in an enemy country, or who lived in one in the past. Thus, for example, if a father leaves a house to three brothers, two of whom are in Jordan (an enemy until 1994), the custodian can take possession of two thirds of the house. The thing is that nearly every family in East Jerusalem has a relative in Jordan. The concern is that the state will exploit the opportunity and take over such houses and plots which, judging by past experience, will immediately be transferred to settler groups.
The state has rightfully earned the suspicions of the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. The process of land registration could be a positive one that will empower these residents and improve the quality of their lives. It could also be a destructive move that will continue to fragment Palestinian areas in Jerusalem through the taking over of buildings by settlers, and through increased violence, destroying any hope for a political settlement in the city. The government should quickly issue clarifications regarding this process and declare that areas in East Jerusalem are intended for its residents.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.