By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Besides facing limitations on building in East Jerusalem, Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs live outside (but adjacent to) Jerusalem for the same reason a lot of secular Israelis live in settlements: It’s cheaper. For the price of a cramped apartment in the city, you can buy or build a decent-size house in the West Bank, maybe even with a yard. Before the separation barrier started going up, Palestinian Jerusalemites living outside the city before the separation barrier didn’t even feel "outside," because they were so close to the city; when most of the people around you have a Jerusalem ID and are driving cars with Israeli license plates, outside can start to feel like simply another neighborhood of Jerusalem.
In a similar way, many residents of Ma’ale Adumim — more than 30,000 Israelis living a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem in one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank — feel that for all intents and purposes, they are part of the greater Jerusalem sprawl. They’ve been encouraged in this view by the letter President Bush sent to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last April acknowledging "new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers" and stating that any final peace agreement must "reflect these realities."
I SAT ON THE BALCONYof Yusuf’s almost-completed apartment with him and his brother while they pointed out all the illegal construction. Five buildings within eyesight, just off the top their heads. That’s not including both next-door neighbors, who have also added illegal sections to their houses.
"Down the street, there are more than 50 houses built during the last two years, the majority without licenses," said Yusuf’s brother, Mohammed (also not his real name), who’s been a construction contractor for more than 20 years. He’s building the extra floor for Yusuf’s family on the cheap. He’s also building one for his own family on top of Yusuf’s.
He said illegal construction is a specialized industry in Jerusalem, with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Contractors are experts not only at building but also at finding ways to hide construction from inspectors. On one site, Mohammed used ropes to pull tree branches in front of the building, like a curtain; they built three floors there. For other houses, Mohammed puts a giant white sheet over the whole site, like the tents Palestinians use for weddings. Builders wait for Jewish holidays to do big projects, work around the clock to finish fast, and put rugs and potted plants on the balconies of half-finished houses to make them look lived-in rather than new.
"We learned [construction] from the Israelis — you know, the settlements," Mohammed said, smiling, referring to the fact that Palestinians did a lot of the construction on Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. "Now they are paying the price for that."
The more Mohammed talked about it, the more illegal construction seemed like a bloodless guerrilla war, all stealth and speed and strategizing honed to the point of philosophy.
"This is security by Mao Zedong: The safest place is near the enemy," said Mohammed, after Yusuf described how they decided to go ahead with putting the roof on Yusuf’s building, even though an hour before, the same roofing company had been caught by inspectors while putting a roof on another illegal building across the street.
It is a war, agreed Mohammed.
"People in Jerusalem struggle by building houses," he said. "In the West Bank, they send suicide bombers."
There is a way to see Palestinians’ illegal construction in Jerusalem as the only sustained nonviolent protest that Palestinians have ever mounted. But that romantic view is clouded by several factors. Not everyone who builds illegally is like Yusuf: a decent man trying to house and educate his family and continue being able to get to work every day. Also, the net effect of illegal construction in East Jerusalem is worse neighborhoods for Palestinians, as well as significant changes to the city that are not being governed by any overall plan. Illegal buildings aren’t regulated by city safety codes, and they create pockets where there’s no longer room for parks, sidewalks or other communal structures. Neighbors, meanwhile, are dependent on each other’s goodwill, rather than the law, to keep a street livable. No one dares complain about someone else’s illegal construction, however much of an imposition it is, because so many have built illegally themselves.
Ben-Nun emphasized these long-term downsides to illegal construction when I spoke to him. He said his department is just trying to keep the city orderly for all its residents. He knows, however, that he is dealing with an issue that is much bigger and deeper than his office can handle.
"This is supposed to go to the [national] government to deal with, because of the size of the problem," he said, clearly frustrated. "It’s not like just here and there are illegal buildings. It’s a huge problem."
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