Jerusalem Arab housing expansion plan hits snag

Plan calls for construction of 1,285 new housing units in area outside existing planning boundaries and 450 more in built-up area.

isawiya 88 (photo credit: )
isawiya 88
(photo credit: )
A town planning scheme for the east Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Isawiya aimed at resolving an acute shortage of housing and illegal construction is facing opposition from the Jerusalem Local Planning Council and concerned individuals. The plan covers Isawiya's built-up area and surrounding lands currently designated for agricultural use that were not included in the current plan, which has been in effect since 1991. The plan calls for construction of 1,285 new housing units in the area outside the existing planning boundaries and 450 more in the built-up area, either by filling in empty plots of land or building above existing housing. Some of the housing in both areas could be up to six stories high. According to Efrat Cohen-Bar, an architect who coordinates activities in east Jerusalem for the human rights organization Bimkom, the plan provides for the expansion of the neighborhood from 12,000 to 18,000 residents. A town planning scheme is a land-use plan that determines building densities in different neighborhoods, lays out the road system and designates plots of land for public buildings and green spaces. It does not parcel out the land for building plots, which is a more detailed step along the way to the construction of housing. Nevertheless, the outline plan is crucial in determining the shape, size and density of the neighborhood. The 1991 outline plan calls for very low-density housing and only covers part of the land belonging to Isawiya's residents. As a result, it did little to accommodate the neighborhood's population expansion and forced residents to build without permits on land they owned outside the boundaries of the plan, or to violate the permits by building more floor space or higher structures than what the permit allowed. According to Cohen-Bar, Bimkom decided to prepare the outline plan after looking for a way to honor Sarah Kaminker, a town planner who served as a municipal councilwoman and was one of the founders of Bimkom. Bimkom had thought of building a community center in Isawiya, where Kaminker was especially active, in her honor, but discovered that according to the existing outline plan it could not erect a large building there. Two weeks ago, the Jerusalem Local Planning Council met to consider the plan and called for changes that Bimkom is unhappy about. One of the key decisions was that the planners had to constrict the boundaries of the plan. For example, one issue had to do with the amount of land belonging to Isawiya that was supposed to be handed over to the Nature and Parks Authority. After two years of negotiations, Cohen-Bar said, the planners and the Nature and Parks Authority had reached an agreement on how much land would be given over. The compromise had been satisfactory to the planners, she said. But now, despite the hard-earned agreement, the planning committee had ordered Bimkom to give back all the land that the Nature and Parks Authority had conceded to it, she said. Meanwhile, other institutions, including the neighboring Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an adjacent army base, are also calling for changes in the plan. Furthermore, Aryeh King, a Moledet Party activist who regards himself as a protector of Jewish interests in east Jerusalem, said several Jews and Arabs who own land in Isawiya had not been consulted in the planning process and opposed it. He said the Bimkom planners had relied on the heads of Isawiya's hamulot (extended families) to determine who owned what land. None of the Jews, whom, King said, own at least 90 out of the plan's 1,800 dunams, had been consulted, nor had many Arab landowners. King said he had been authorized to act in their name.