|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
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
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
“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
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
“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,”
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
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.”