The number of illegal buildings in east Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood has increased tenfold from 13 to 130, according to a State Comptroller Report released on Wednesday.
There were 13 illegal structures in the Al-Bustan section of Silwan before 1967, according to the report. When the building code first started being enforced in Al-Bustan in 1995, there were 30 illegal structures, mostly residential buildings that had been built decades earlier.
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By 2004, 80 illegal structures had been built in the area.
The municipality had started legal proceedings against 43 of the buildings and had demolished 10 buildings, though new buildings were built in their place.
In 2009, a comptroller’s audit counted 130 illegal structures in the area. The municipality should focus its energies on stopping new illegal construction rather than dealing with the old illegal structures, the report said, due to the amount of time that has passed since their construction and the amount of illegal structures still standing.
The comptroller blamed the decades of lax enforcement for the explosion of illegal building in east Jerusalem and Silwan in particular. There are estimated to be about 20,000- 30,000 illegal structures in east Jerusalem, growing at a rate of almost 1,000 a year.
“The municipality did not act decisively enough against illegal construction in the area, and could not stop it in its early stages,” the report stated.
The report focused on the Silwan neighborhood of Al-Bustan, where Mayor Nir Barkat has proposed a controversial rezoning plan called “Gan HaMelech,” which includes an open green space with public parks and a community center.
The municipality sent a letter to the prime minister and the Interior Ministry urging them to accept the municipality’s rezoning plans, in light of the report’s conclusions.
“The State Comptroller’s Report released today describes the failures of law enforcement in recent decades that was laid before the Mayor Nir Barkat took office,” the municipality said in a statement.
The report noted that since so many years have passed since the construction of the illegal structures and since so many of them are still standing despite demolition orders against them, the municipality should focus instead on stopping illegal construction before it starts.
The mayor’s plan will retroactively legalize 66 of the buildings in the Gan HaMelech plan, and allow 22 houses to be rebuilt in the same neighborhood but in a different area.
The municipality also hopes to re-zone four additional neighborhoods – Isawiya, Arab al- Sawahra, Ein El Loze and Wadi Yasul – to allow residents to legally build and improve infrastructure in the area. The plan passed the initial approval stage with the Local Planning and Building Committee in June, and is currently waiting for approval from the Interior Ministry’s District Planning and Building Committee.
In his most public criticism of what he sees as the prime minister’s inaction in east Jerusalem, Barkat also asked the prime minister for support to have the courts put a hold on all demolition orders in east Jerusalem.
“The mayor believes that while we are re-zoning an area, there should be a halt on the court’s demolition orders because we’re working to legalize the vast majority of them,” said Stephen Miller, the mayor’s spokesman.
The Ir Amim NGO criticized the comptroller’s report for ignoring what it said was the fact that Arab residents built illegally because they were systematically denied permits to build legally.
“The authorities did not give a minimal response to the building needs of this population, which has quadrupled in size in recent years,” Ir Amim said in a statement.
Because the Al-Bustan neighborhood has been zoned as a green open area ever since it was incorporated into the municipality after 1967, Arab residents could not receive permits to build.
“While the comptroller indicated the severity of the symptoms, [he] should go down into the roots of the problem and order the municipality to find a solution,” said Yehudit Oppenheimer, the executive director of Ir Amim.
On Tuesday, members of the Knesset State Control Committee toured Beit Yehonatan, a seven-story apartment building for Jewish residents of Silwan that also lacks a building permit, in anticipation of the report’s release.
“I learned from the tour that there’s real evidence of a problem of illegal building in Jerusalem, and it’s an issue that we haven’t dealt with,” MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima), head of the committee, told The Jerusalem Post
“We came to solve this issue. [When someone] does not take care of this issue of illegal building, it [becomes] impossible to live in cooperation with each other – that’s what’s happening with Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem.”
The state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, noted that the illegal building was the source of friction between residents and authorities, and that an improvement in the enforcement area would be of great benefit.Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.