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Separate, Unequal — and Turned Away

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.

 

"I was reluctant [to build illegally]," he says. "That’s why this was the last option after I tried other options. I tried to rent a house. I tried to buy a house. This [education] is very important for the future. But now it is about existence. Our existence is threatened, jeopardized by this barrier."

Illegal construction has been going on in Jerusalem for years, and with the barrier going up, it may be increasing. The city has not been able to stop it. Even demolitions have been ineffective against the 20,000 illegal buildings the city estimates now exist in East Jerusalem. When I went to the municipality to meet Micha Ben-Nun, the head of inspections and permits, he had a book on his desk to show me called Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon.

According to the book, the two main reasons Palestinians build illegally in Jerusalem are because the P.A. encourages them to, including providing funding, and because criminals want to make a quick buck. Real estate scams in East Jerusalem are definitely a problem, especially now that many people are desperate to find a place inside the city. Yusuf, when he went looking for an apartment to buy or rent, was sure that some of the places he was being shown had been built illegally, meaning they could end up demolished by the municipality. The owner, meanwhile, would skip town with everyone’s money.

"I tried to buy from these people," he said. "They claimed they have permits and everything. I said, ‘Show them.’ They said, ‘Well, it’s still in process.’ Mostly these people get a license for one floor and build seven floors."

The P.A. has definitely added to the complications in the city by discouraging Palestinians in Jerusalem from voting or participating in the city’s governance. Many Palestinians wouldn’t participate anyway, of their own accord; they want to vote in Palestinian elections. They believe that by voting in Jerusalem, they would legitimize Israel’s rule over the entire city and obscure the fact that East Jerusalem was conquered by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, along with the West Bank and Gaza. Since then, East Jerusalem has been at least an unresolved issue (the United States’ position) and at most occupied by Israel (the United Nations’ position). The upshot is that Palestinians have no political clout in Jerusalem and no representatives on the City Council, even though they are about a third of the city’s population. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, by comparison, are a fifth of the city, yet almost half the City Council members, including the mayor, are Ultra-Orthodox.

The extent of the P.A.’s involvement in funding illegal construction in East Jerusalem is less clear. There’s no question the P.A. believes it’s in a turf battle with Israel in Jerusalem. The book cites an agreement in which a P.A. minister got a onetime contribution of more than $1 million to do illegal renovations on buildings in the Old City. The book also refers to some individual letters to the P.A. asking for money for illegally built houses that were under threat of demolition, and quotes P.A. members boasting openly about supporting illegal construction in Jerusalem. But what P.A. members brag about and what they actually do are different; many Palestinians, like Yusuf, build illegally out of their own pockets.

The one major factor influencing illegal construction that the book doesn’t explore is the fact that for the last several decades, Israel has had a policy in Jerusalem of "maintaining the ratio that existed in 1967 between the Jewish and Arab populations, 70:30, according to government policy." This statement is the first guideline listed in a Jerusalem municipal booklet entitled "Planning in the Arab [Palestinian] Sector: 1967–1996." To this day, the 70:30 policy goal is in effect; it was reiterated in the Jerusalem master plan issued this fall by the municipality, under the heading "Population Goals and Population Forecasts": "This goal, as it was presented by the municipality and adopted in cabinet meetings on the subject, aims to maintain the balance of 70 percent Jews as against 30 percent Arabs."

The implications of the 70:30 policy are detailed in another book about development in East Jerusalem called Separate and Unequal, written by two former longtime advisers to the mayor and a journalist. According to the book, in order to try and maintain the 70:30 ratio, in the face of Palestinians’ higher birthrate and Israelis’ increasing emigration to the suburbs, Israel has resorted to "expropriation of Arab-owned land, development of large Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and limitations on development in Arab neighborhoods."

The book tells story after story like the one about the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shuafat, which waited more than 20 years for a zoning plan that would allow residents to build, and during that time watched two Jewish neighborhoods — Pisgat Ze’ev and Neveh Ya’acov — be planned and built, with full support of the government, on land expropriated from the Palestinian neighborhoods after the Six-Day War. Just last September, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Jerusalem’s mayor, Uri Lupolianski, sent a letter to the Housing Ministry proposing to take a Palestinian-populated neighborhood called Wadi Joz and rezone it "for a Jewish population."

 

Jerusalem’s "limitations on development in Arab neighborhoods" have been documented not only in Separate and Unequal but also in a forthcoming report from an organization called Bimkom ("alternative" in Hebrew), a group of Israeli architects and urban planners who try to make planning in Israel more transparent and accessible to the public. According to Bimkom, there are five neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that still have no master zoning plan, making it impossible for residents even to apply for building permits. Other areas are zoned so that almost no further construction is allowed. Even the Jerusalem master plan states flatly that Palestinians in the city "suffer from a dire housing shortage" and that "in recent decades few new neighborhoods have been built for this population."

"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 inspections and 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
29 resident 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?

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 BALCONY of 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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