Corridors of Power: UN-likely?

A United Nations request might finally trigger some legal construction for Arabs in east Jerusalem.

Illegal structure is demolished in Silwan 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Illegal structure is demolished in Silwan 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It was the most unexpected request the mayor’s office could foresee, yet it was made, and answering it involved quite a lot of work. Following a special debate at the United Nations Security Council, a request was sent to the Foreign Ministry regarding the allegedly unfair conditions faced by Jerusalem’s Arab residents regarding permits for construction in Jerusalem.
At the debate in New York, a representative of the UN Relief and Works Agency testified that Arab residents cannot obtain construction permits in their neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
While the feeling among those close to Mayor Nir Barkat is that the answers provided presented a fairly balanced picture of the reality on the ground, city council member and Arab residents’ portfolio holder Meir Margalit sounds a little less enthusiastic.
The municipality told the UN that the lack of building permits is not a result of a discriminatory policy and that there has been a significant change in the municipality’s policy in east Jerusalem. The taxes levied on a building permit are the same for all Jerusalem residents, the city told the UN.
The basis of the UN request was complaints from several Arab residents, mostly represented by human rights organizations, that they were being discriminated against with regard to construction rights in the city. The complainants alleged that Israel’s sovereignty over east Jerusalem – which is not recognized by the UN – has been used to deprive them of their rights to build in their neighborhoods in favor of enabling increased Jewish settlement there.
Their argument goes that Barkat’s well-known position that Jews should not be prevented from living or building anywhere in the city must also apply to the city’s Arab residents. It’s true that since Barkat’s entry into office three and a half years ago, he has included construction projects in Arab neighborhoods in the framework of the new Master Plan for the city. The plan was first conceived during Ehud Olmert’s time as mayor, but upon being elected Barkat decided to review it before submitting it to the Interior Ministry.
While some, mostly in left-wing circles, are convinced that these plans are mere lip service, paid quite cynically by a right-wing mayor in the interest of preserving and promoting his plans to enhance Jewish presence in east Jerusalem, nevertheless, the bottom line is that applications for construction permits for Arabs are, for the first time in over four decades, being seriously considered by the committees.
What remains a painful issue for too many Arab residents is the impossibility of obtaining construction permits in the neighborhoods closer to the Old City.
This is due to legal considerations – if land is not properly registered with the Land Registry it is almost impossible to determine who its owner is, a primary condition for issuing a building permit.
In an interview given to this reporter a few years ago, then-city engineer Uri Sheetrit said that the situation of the properties in the Old City and surrounding neighborhoods was “so explosive, nobody will ever dare to touch it.” Well, it seems that with the UN’s request the time to deal with this issue has come – no one seems to dare to avoid submitting serious answers.
Meaning that perhaps now, after the State of Israel has applied sovereignty over both sides of Jerusalem for more than 40 years, it is about time to solve this problem.
Until recently, the only “solution” to the lack of construction permits in east Jerusalem has been to demolish illegally built structures. Now that the issue has been brought to the UN’s attention, perhaps someone will find the courage to propose and promote some serious solutions.
In this regard, Barkat’s administration seems to be making efforts to rise to the challenge – a special committee has been designated for this purpose, which will work within the framework of the local councils in the Arab neighborhoods.
The idea is that members of the councils’ boards will sit together to establish a list of property owners, based on testimonies.
If this plan, for the moment defined as a pilot project, works well, it will mark the first time Arab residents won’t have to break the law to build the houses they desperately need, only to see their money and effort reduced to ruins when the inevitable demolition orders arrive.