For the first time in five years, Jerusalem’s local planning constructing committee has rejected more than 20 requests for construction permits submitted by Arab residents of east Jerusalem.The word that came out of the committee, led by deputy mayor Eliezer Rauchberger (Degel HaTorah), was that these permits were the first being rejected as a result of the decision to cancel the use of what is known in Hebrew as “Nohal Mukhtar” (chief of village procedure).Right-wing activists saluted the decision, as it is this procedure, they say, that has in the past deprived Jews who own plots of land in the eastern side of the city of their assets. From the Arab perspective, there is a concern that the Nohal Mukhtar ruling will set planning back a decade, to the time when almost no building permits were issued for Palestinian neighborhoods.However, Safra Square officials immediately denied the announcement.“There is nothing changed or new in the procedure called Nohal Mukhtar,” said a spokesman for the Jerusalem municipality.Rauchberger said that there was no intention to cancel the procedure, but rather to “refresh” the list of mukhtars (neighborhood heads) included in the list. Rauchberger didn’t say why there was a need to refresh the list.In 2014, the procedure was put in place to address the widespread illegal construction in the Arab sector in Jerusalem. It aimed to oblige Arab residents to comply with the law and obtain construction permits – and pay the relevant fees. The procedure also was intended to put an end to unsafe construction without supervision by a licensed engineer.In the years before 1967 when Jerusalem was a divided city, Jordan began registering all the plots in the east, north and south parts of the city under its control. The registration was incomplete when the Six Day War broke out. As a result of the war, the east Jerusalem municipality was disbanded, and merged with the western, Israeli portion of the city.Since then, many plots of land which were formerly in the Hashemite kingdom have remained unrecorded in the Land Registry. Without this documentation, Arab residents of east Jerusalem – who today number 350,000 people – can’t obtain municipal construction permits. Hence, many Arab Jerusalemites were forced to build without a permit, and without engineering supervision.In 2014, aiming to resolve this problem, the municipality proposed to use a local procedure which, albeit not customary in Western jurisprudence, presented a viable solution to the situation. Under the Nohal Mukhtar procedure, in cases where a resident wants to build without a clear deed, the local planning and constructing committee asks the local chief, called a mukhtar in Arabic, to determine ownership.While well intended, the procedure quickly turned into a means to cheat the Jewish heirs of land purchased in the Ottoman and British times of their rights. Lawyers representing dozens of Jewish owners discovered that Arab residents had obtained permits to construct houses on their plots without consent.“The idea was to regularize the situation,” said Noya Geva, who represents some of these cases, “but the municipality didn’t take the necessary means to insure that it wouldn’t be done at the detriment of Jewish owners. No steps were taken to verify that the mukhtar’s declaration would fit the reality on the ground, even though Jewish land is clearly registered in the Israeli administration and easy to find. The result is that in too many cases, the harmed owners appealed to the court. But after houses have been constructed and inhabited, it is almost impossible to revert the situation.”City council member Arieh King, a former member of the local planning and constructing committee, has been warning against the Nohal Mukhtar ruling for years. He cited a case in Beit Safafa, currently before the court, where a construction permit was approved based on a mukhtar’s declaration, notwithstanding that the name and details of the rightful owner were easily verified in the Land Registry.“There are ways to use this procedure,” added Geva. “You need an expert, but presently, there is not such a person in the committee, and hence most of the failures [happen].”Sources indicate that a mukhtar currently receives a NIS 3,000 fee for testifying before the committee.“What happened is that they have raised their prices too much, and someone at the municipality apparently decided that it was time to remove those who have become greedy,” said a source in Safra Square.“The problem is elsewhere,” said King.“Is this municipality going to put an end to this scandalous robbing of Jewish properties?” he asked.