By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"Cities have to have plans, but cities also have to give a proper answer for the needs of their population," said Bimkom spokeswoman Shuli Hartman. "I think that planning is a tool of politics in Jerusalem. They wanted to keep it 70:30. But even there the plan is unsuccessful because you can’t do that unless you find a solution for people. Otherwise they go and illegally build thousands of homes."
BEN-NUN, THE HEAD of inspectionsand permits, took me on a driving tour of illegal construction in East Jerusalem. We sat in the back while Ophir May, who directly oversees construction inspections in the city, drove. Ben-Nun is a 45-year-old architect with silver-and-black hair who speaks English in a slow voice that makes him sound older than he is. He has headed the inspections and permits department for almost four years. He also designed the apartment building I live in, we discovered. May (pronounced "my") is 36, has small, serious eyes and a close-cropped brown beard, and resembles Viggo Mortensen in his role as Aragorn, King of Men.
Ben-Nun said illegal construction in Jerusalem has been a serious problem for at least 10 years. The city has only eight inspectors for East Jerusalem, versus hundreds of new illegal buildings every year. Ben-Nun and his department have started a new campaign of leveling huge fines on the drivers of cement trucks, but he said they are still facing a lot of illegal construction, especially with the barrier going up. Not all of the Palestinians now flooding into the city are building illegally, but many are. Ben-Nun said the root of the problem is not that the city denies permits but that Palestinians refuse to apply for them.
"I’m not saying the bureaucracy is very simple," he said. "It’s not. But people have to deal with that. You cannot hide and think that because of difficulties in the bureaucracy, you don’t need to have a permit."
It’s true that according to city statistics, most of those who apply for permits get them: Out of 60 building-permit applications for East Jerusalem filed in 2003, all but one were granted. The question is why the rest of the 800 to 1,000 people who build illegally every year, according to Ben-Nun, didn’t even apply.
Palestinians in the construction business say the low application rate is due to the fact that only people who are fairly certain they’ll get a permit bother applying for one. Ben-Nun has a different explanation, along the lines of the argument in the book he showed me: political ambition of the Palestinian Authority and criminal greed. When I told him about Yusuf — a man who is not a criminal and is not getting money from the P.A. — Ben-Nun offered another reason.
"Cultural mentality: ‘This is my land, I’ll do whatever I want,’" he said. "Ignore the law and ignore the authorities, and then after you are caught, you are trying to deal with that."
He said this attitude exists among both Palestinians and Israelis in the city. He showed me two tractors his inspectors had interrupted that very day, working on a yeshiva that had been in the process of building on more than 7,000 square meters when it had only been allocated 5,000.
Twice, we all got out of the car so Ben-Nun and May could point out large clusters of illegal Palestinian buildings, east and north of the city. They explained the clusters’ purpose.
"There is a [Palestinian] plan to have a situation where Jerusalem is a dead end," said Ben-Nun. "You come from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and you are coming to a dead end."
I asked, what do you mean by dead end?
"No connection with Ma’ale Adumim [a large settlement near Jerusalem] or east of Israel — you have like a wall of illegal buildings," he said.
East of Israel, in this case, means the West Bank. It seems like both sides have a plan: Palestinians want to keep Jerusalem connected to nearby West Bank villages and cities, and Israelis want to keep Jerusalem connected to nearby Israeli settlements like Ma’ale Adumim.
"But we are dealing with the law," said Ben-Nun. "We are dealing with the town planning. We don’t deal with political ideas or political fights."
I asked if it’s hard to keep the city’s demographic ratio at 70:30. Ben-Nun shrugged and sighed. He said the ratio is not his day-to-day concern but rather an overarching goal.
"We want to have it at 70:30, but now it’s more 60:40 because of illegal immigration of Arab people in Jerusalem," he said. "There are people trying to go inside Jerusalem before the wall is finished."
The whole issue of who is legally a 30
29resident of Jerusalem and what that means is one of the great unresolved messes of the Six-Day War. Many of the Palestinians trying to get inside the city are like Yusuf: legal residents, in that they have what’s known as a Jerusalem ID, a card that labels them officially a Jerusalem resident and entitles them to live in Jerusalem and to work and travel inside Israel. They also get Israeli health insurance, unemployment and Social Security benefits and are obliged to pay municipal taxes. The ID is a halfway measure that’s been in place for more than 40 years and has allowed Palestinians to stay in the city without having to become Israeli citizens. It’s also allowed Israel to claim that it is governing a unified city. But a Jerusalem ID, unlike citizenship, does not allow people to move out and then return; if Palestinians are caught living outside Jerusalem, Israel can take away their IDs. So why would anyone risk moving outside the city as Yusuf did?