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“I don’t see a future,” said Hani Dweik, a pipe welder and father of six who lives with his father inside the walled Old City. “How will I be able to make a house for my sons?”
The housing squeeze highlights another issue contributing to East Jerusalem’s economic descent. While the government has supported extensive construction for exclusively Jewish neighborhoods, it has sharply restricted development and building for the Palestinian population.
According to a January 2011 report by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, since annexing East Jerusalem and many surrounding areas to form Jerusalem’s current borders, Israel has expropriated about one-third of the annexed territory — most of it privately owned Arab property — for residential construction reserved exclusively for Jews and for “green areas” within which building is not permitted.
No Palestinians sit on the planning boards that make these zoning and construction decisions. Wary that participating in elections would legitimize Israeli annexation, Palestinians have refrained from seeking posts on the city council and have no influence on the municipality. The key decisions impacting their daily lives are made entirely by Israelis.
The consequences of Israeli policy are evident in Palestinian neighborhoods. According to ACRI figures released in May, housing density in Arab neighborhoods is almost twice that of Jewish neighborhoods. The lack of available land forces many Palestinians to build homes where they can without first obtaining a building permit. Alternatively, Palestinians feel forced to leave the city and relocate to the West Bank, whereupon they lose the special residency status that gives them the right to enter Jerusalem freely as Palestinians.
Yakir Segev, a city councilor from Mayor Nir Barkat’s Jerusalem Will Succeed party, dismisses these restrictions on Palestinian construction and East Jerusalem’s cut-off from the West Bank as root causes of Palestinian poverty there. He instead views it as an outgrowth of Palestinians “having trouble fitting in with the dominant language and culture, just as you will see happening with immigrants in any place…. No one is limiting their right to work or study.”
The Palestinians, he said, must address their current reality as residents of a unified city now joined irrevocably to Israel, not the West Bank. Their economic opportunities, he explained, now lay in attracting Israeli shoppers and investors. Segev faulted the educational system in East Jerusalem, saying that it does not place enough stress on sciences and Hebrew, and thus fails to provide graduates with the tools necessary to find decent jobs.
The school system is run by the municipality and the Israeli government, but the vast majority of students study according to a Palestinian curriculum, which relegates Hebrew to a third language after Arabic and English.
Menachem Klein, a dovish political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, attributes the worsening plight of East Jerusalem Palestinians to Israeli policymakers who, he says, view the city’s Arabs as a threat to the city’s Jewish demography and Israeli sovereignty.
“There has been a deliberate Israeli policy to disconnect East Jerusalem from its social, economic and political hinterland through the wall for political purposes, and that brings a poverty crisis,” Klein said.
But Amir Cheshin, former adviser on East Jerusalem to the late mayor Teddy Kollek, rejected the notion of a purposeful Israeli policy behind the economic failure. Israeli policymakers simply failed to plan ahead when they built the separation barrier, he said.
“They needed to make preparations so that the economy wouldn’t be harmed or would be harmed less,” Cheshin said. “This could have been done with more crossing points and more entry permits. The barrier was built because of a security problem, but there is a catch-22 because the economic decline and growing poverty it creates will also cause security problems.”
But it’s not only the Israelis who are to blame in the view of some Palestinians. Independent Palestinian journalist and blogger Said Ghazali said that Arab states are strong on rhetoric about Jerusalem but do not provide the practical assistance that is most needed, such as funds to alleviate the housing crisis.
“To stay in Jerusalem, people need to have houses,” Ghazali said. Noting the high cost of housing permits even in those cases when Palestinians are able to obtain them, he said, “The Arab League should be giving people loans so they can afford housing permits.”
But for many, buying a home is not the immediate problem. In Wadi Joz, a Palestinian area known for its car repair shops, Salah Sharabati, who manages a butcher shop, dismissed a question about whether he was planning to buy a house for his wife and their 2-year-old. “This is not the time to think about projects,” he said. “At this time, if you eat and drink, it’s an achievement.”
Contact Ben Lynfield at firstname.lastname@example.org