Separate, Unequal — and Turned Away 

What it’s like to be a Palestinian looking for a house in Jerusalem

Thursday, Jan 6 2005
Illustration by Brooks Salzwedel

JERUSALEM — A Palestinian businessman I’ve known for more than a year — an educated man who likes to live by the rules — is standing and pointing at the mailboxes in front of his apartment building, just outside Jerusalem.

"This one moved into Jerusalem, this one moved to Jerusalem, this is me, this one moved also," he taps each one, counting how many of the building’s residents have moved in the last several months. In total, seven out of the 12 families, including his own, have moved into Jerusalem, he says. An eighth family wants to move.

Yusuf is one of thousands of Palestinians who hold Jerusalem residency cards, work in Jerusalem, pay city taxes and have children in school there, but who have been living for years just outside the city, in the West Bank. (They will be voting in the Palestinian presidential election this week.) These adjacent communities, where land and housing are relatively cheap, are often only steps away from the city itself; sometimes they’re indistinguishable. Most Palestinians and Israelis could not say, if they were driving out of Jerusalem, exactly when they left the city and entered the West Bank. There are large numbers of Israelis and Palestinians living in both places, and there is no agreed-upon border between Israel and the West Bank.

This vagueness, and some of the living arrangements that went along with it, are coming to an abrupt end in Jerusalem. Israel is building a barrier — which is a 25-foot concrete wall in some places and a system of fences in others — around Jerusalem to prevent suicide bombers from getting into the city. There have been 31 suicide attacks in Jerusalem in the last four years, more than any other place in Israel. But since Jerusalem’s population has been spilling over into the West Bank for years, the barrier is driving thousands of Palestinians (city officials have no reliable estimate) back into the heart of the city, where many of them work, go to school and get medical care. Jerusalem, meanwhile, has a long-standing policy of trying to keep the city’s demographic ratio between Israelis and Palestinians at 70:30. The barrier is unraveling that plan and is physically transforming the city: Many Palestinians, as they rush in to find housing however they can, are building illegally.

Yusuf (not his real name) is not an ideologue, either nationalist or religious. He has no use for the Palestinian Authority. He grew up in Jerusalem as a religious Muslim, but he slipped into secularism over the years and is now entrenched there. He likes a drink now and then. He doesn’t pray. He often finds his situation funny. He says that once he realized he would have to move his family back into Jerusalem, where he works and where his children go to school, he spent months looking for a place to rent, a process he describes as a series of absurd demands from landlords, even in undesirable neighborhoods.

"I went to Isawiya [a neighborhood in East Jerusalem]," he says, laughing as he tells the story. "Isawiya is not a great place to live. They asked for two years’ rent in advance. I found a house and it is on top of a mountain in Isawiya, a beautiful stone house but still not finished. The interior is not finished. You [yourself] have to put tiles, do plastering, put dry walls. And he asked me to pay 100,000 shekels [about $22,000] in advance."

The numbers seem small compared to housing prices in the United States, but Jerusalem is the poorest city in Israel, and the average family income is less than $2,000 a month, according to the latest Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook. Buying a house, for most people, is even more out of the question than renting. Yusuf makes significantly more than the average, but he couldn’t afford to pay $170,000 for a small house or apartment. Even selling the place he already owns just outside the city wouldn’t help; the market there has dropped so sharply from people leaving and moving into Jerusalem that he estimates it’s worth less than half what he paid for it.

So Yusuf decided he would take the money he’s spent years saving for his children’s college education and instead use it to build a new place inside the city, illegally. That is, he’s a legal resident, but he’s building the house without getting the necessary permits. Most likely, the city would not give him a permit to build in the one place he can afford to do it: on top of his parents’ house. The house is only zoned for two floors, he said, and he is building beyond that.

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