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“One hundred percent they were forced into this,” said Sari Kronish, an architect at Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights. “It is ridiculous that the state keeps insisting Palestinians in East Jerusalem who build without permits are criminals. They live in neglected and dense neighborhoods, and they don’t have an opportunity to build legally because of discrimination.”
But Sprung denied that the municipality discriminates. “The municipality on a regular basis provides building permits in the west and the east,” she said.
Currently the ethnic makeup of Jerusalem is about two-thirds Jewish and one-third Palestinian. Though the Palestinians have certain rights as residents of the city that Palestinians in the West Bank are denied, they are not Israeli citizens and, by and large, don’t wish to be. Israel’s 1967 annexation of the city’s eastern sector is not recognized by the international community, including the U.S., and under the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, the city’s final status was to be settled in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem, including Ras Khamis, boycott municipal elections, in which they could vote, on the grounds that their participation would be seen as endorsing Israeli sovereignty. They also do not serve in positions of city political leadership or participate in the local political process that makes decisions affecting their lives.
Why the city chose to act against the buildings only now and not five years ago, when the high-rise construction began in plain and open sight, is a matter of dispute. Sprung said the city did not enforce the law earlier because of Ras Khamis’s unique geographic position and security situation. Due to its position beyond the separation barrier, which can be crossed only via a checkpoint, city workers require a police escort to enter Ras Khamis. It is otherwise not safe for city employees to work behind the daunting grey separation barrier, said Sprung. That is also why the municipality has not provided the area with municipal services, such as garbage removal and street cleaning, she said.
“This is not like any other neighborhood in Jerusalem,” said Sprung. “It is challenging for us because we can’t go in whenever we want.”
Yehudit Oppenheimer, head of Ir Amim, a group that advocates for Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem, said the city did not act against the construction immediately because it was pleased that Palestinians were moving out beyond the barrier. “They were happy to turn a blind eye and push people to move out of the center of Jerusalem,” Oppenheimer said.