Amid fierce opposition from right-wing leaders, the Interior Ministry’s District Planning and Building Committee approved preliminary plans for the construction of 2,200 Arab housing units in southeast Jerusalem’s Jebl Mukaber neighborhood.
The committee, also on Monday, retroactively approved 300 illegally built Arab homes in the area.
On Tuesday, Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at the pro-Palestinian NGO Ir Amim, who attended the meeting, described the plan as unprecedented.
According to Tatarsky, the approval serves as a major victory for Arab residents of Jebl Mukaber who have long sought building permits, or feared imminent home demolitions for illegal construction.
“I think this is a very unusual and very good development,” he said. “The housing shortage in east Jerusalem is enormous, and this is the first time that a plan of this extent has been approved for a Palestinian neighborhood.”
He added that “the shortage in housing units and schools is [substantial], so this is really called for,” and noted that roughly 40 Palestinians had attended the meeting to express their hopes for the approval.
“Older Jebl Mukaber residents came, and it was very moving to see the hope in the eyes of these people, knowing that they would finally be allowed to build homes for their children,” he said.
Of the 150 hectares of land that the committee approved for the project between Jebl Mukaber and Abu Dis, Tatarsky said roughly 50 would go toward housing, while the remaining 100 would be allocated for the development of open spaces, roads and classrooms.
However, he emphasized that this preliminary plan was more of an outline and would not result in the immediate issuance of building permits – a process he said would likely take several more years.
“Now the residents need to have architects and planners make a detailed plan which will be approved,” he said. “This is the first important stage of the process, but there’s still a ways to go.”
Tatarsky added that it had taken several years just to get to this point, due to fierce right-wing opposition led by city councilman Arieh King.
“[Jerusalem Mayor] Nir Barkat talked about this plan in 2009, but it was frozen in 2011 due to fear of opposition from the Right,” he said.
During Monday’s meeting, Tatarsky said between 15 and 20 right-wing politicians had vehemently protested the approval.
One day before the committee met, King sent a letter to Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, stating that the plan was a “reward for construction criminals” and would result in exponentially more illegal Arab construction at the expense of Jewish settlers.
King has long clashed with Barkat over the project. In October, the mayor fired him from the city’s Local Planning and Building Committee after he filed a petition against the municipality for approving the sprawling expansion.
On Tuesday, King again condemned the development.
“In general, approving master plans in Jerusalem is one of the most important sovereign actions that a government can take, so I’m in favor of approving master plans,” he said. “But when this kind of step is being taken where there are thousands of illegal apartments in Jebl Mukaber, and there is no condition in the new master plan to first destroy illegal buildings before building the new ones, this is a big mistake, because Arabs are translating this approval as weakness.”
Moreover, he contended that by approving the measure, the ministry and municipality would radically change demographic facts on the ground.
“When the government and municipality are approving thousands of apartments for Arabs, and at the same time are freezing new developments for Jews, what they are doing is changing the demographic status of Jerusalem,” he said.
According to King, whereas Jerusalem once had a Jewish majority of approximately 75 percent, the result of such approvals for Arab homes amid freezes on Jewish construction will result in a 50/50 Arab-Jewish split by the year 2030.
“This is the problem with our mayor,” he said. “He wants to divide Jerusalem in a de facto manner.”
While Barkat has long stated that he will continue to approve housing developments for all residents of Jerusalem, regardless of religion, last week the planned construction of some 1,500 apartments in the capital’s southeastern Har Homa neighborhood was frozen.
The decision, believed to have been an attempt to assuage diplomatic tensions with the US following last month’s election, constituted a major reversal by the municipality, which said in December that it was investing NIS 50 million in the development of the area.
Meanwhile, according to Tatarsky, Barkat’s support for the Jebl Mukaber project aided in overcoming right-wing opposition.
“I think the support of the mayor was crucial in getting this plan approved, and hopefully his support will continue to enable residents to get through the final approval process,” he said. “On the other hand, we will continue to see fierce opposition from powerful right-wing organizations.”
Still, he went on, “at the end of the day, there will be a possibility to build, so this is definitely a good start.”
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