An open city?

What it's like for Arabs looking for housing in Jerusalem.

pisgat zeev 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
pisgat zeev 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Driving down the block where he lives with his wife and children in Pisgat Ze’ev, one of the giant Jewish neighborhoods built over the Green Line in east Jerusalem after the Six Day War, Ibrahim points out one house after another. “An Arab doctor from Galilee lives there... A wealthy Arab family from Galilee lives there... Every third or fourth house in this section was bought by an Arab.”
A businessman who became one of Pisgat Ze’ev’s first Arab homeowners six years ago, Ibrahim says he knows many Arabs who’ve bought homes in other east-side Jewish neighborhoods – Neveh Ya’acov, French Hill, Gilo, Ramot and Armon Hanatziv. He even knows a few who’ve bought in the old west-side Jewish neighborhoods of Kiryat Hayovel, Kiryat Moshe, Patt, Ein Kerem and Rehavia.
“I moved to Pisgat Ze’ev because of the lack of services and infrastructure in [Arab] east Jerusalem, where I was living before. I didn’t come here to make a political statement, I came here for quality of life,” he says.
“I wanted to live on a street that had a street sign, where they picked up the garbage. I wanted to drive on a street that had lights. I wanted to live in a place where I know that if somebody has a heart attack, I don’t have to wait a half-hour until the ambulance can get a Border Police escort. Once I bought a TV on the west side and when I asked them to deliver it to my home, they told me they wouldn’t do it for 10 times the money. We couldn’t even get cable TV installed. Here it’s great – we can call up Domino’s anytime we want and they bring pizza to our door.”
Whenever the world objects to Israeli plans to build new neighborhoods for Jews in east Jerusalem – such as happened when plans for the Silwan neighborhood resurfaced last week – the official response here is that Jerusalem is an “open city.” The proof offered is that Arabs not only buy and rent in the capital’s Arab neighborhoods, but in its Jewish neighborhoods as well.
MAYOR NIR Barkat declined to be interviewed for this article, but when challenged over the controversial expansion of Ramat Shlomo and other east-side Jewish neighborhoods in a March 22 interview with Sky News, he acknowledged that the “open city” policy comes with a few caveats.
Barkat started out by saying: “People can live wherever they want in the city of Jerusalem, Jews and non-Jews alike. It’s illegal everywhere in the world, including in London, to try to discriminate building by race.”
But the Sky News interviewer noted that under Israeli law, the only way a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem can buy an apartment in a Jewish neighborhood is if he becomes an Israeli citizen. “They have to give up their roots, their nationality, just to build?” he asked.
“Well,” replied Barkat, “in practically [all] other places in the world, it’s practically the same.”
The interviewer prodded: “If you want to build in London, it doesn’t matter which country you come from. [The requirement of Israeli] citizenship – it seems that it’s not equal.”
“Well,” replied Barkat, “it’s as equal as one can get.”
Orly Noy, spokeswoman of Ir Amim, an NGO that promotes Jewish-Arab equality in the capital, says the idea of Jerusalem being an open city “is a deception, basically. There is a fundamental lack of desire on the part of the Jewish and Arab populations to mix with each other. In those cases that they do, it’s either because of extremist ideology, like the Jewish settlers [moving into Sheikh Jarrah and other east-side Arab neighborhoods], or because of a lack of choice, which is the case with most east Jerusalem Palestinians.”
Hillel Cohen, a leading authority on Jerusalem Arabs at Hebrew University and the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies, concurs. “Most Jerusalem Palestinians would prefer to live in the city’s Arab neighborhoods, but there’s no place there for them to live. There’s hardly any available housing, and the little that’s available is very, very expensive.”
Says Ibrahim: “People in Pisgat Ze’ev ask me why I moved here. I tell them: Let Arabs build in east Jerusalem and I won’t have to move here.”
The Interior Ministry does not give out statistics on the number of Arabs living in the capital’s Jewish neighborhoods, but in the three with the largest Arab populations - Pisgat Ze’ev, French Hill and Neveh Ya’acov – the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies’ latest estimate (in 2007) was 3,000, out of a total population of about 70,000.
The great majority of these Arab residents are renters, many of them students at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University or nurses at the Mount Scopus branch of Hadassah-University Medical Center. (Mount Scopus is part of French Hill and stands a short distance from Pisgat Ze’ev and Neveh Ya’acov on the city’s northeast side.)
The number of Arabs who’ve actually purchased homes in the Jewish neighborhoods runs only in the hundreds, according to various estimates. Most are Israeli, usually from the North, while only a few are Palestinians from east Jerusalem. This is partly because Israeli Arabs, unlike all but a tiny minority of Jerusalem Palestinians, are citizens and thus legally entitled to purchase a home on state-owned land (which the east-side Jewish neighborhoods were built on). But another reason is that Israeli Arabs, unlike Jerusalem Palestinians, tend to be familiar with Jewish society, says Ibrahim.
“We went to university with Jews, we work with Jews, so living with them doesn’t seem so far-fetched. For the average Palestinian in east Jerusalem, it would be unimaginable,” he says.
Bennie Loval, long-time manager of the Jerusalem offices of Anglo-Saxon Realty, describes Arabs who buy homes in Jewish neighborhoods as “the elite. They’re doctors, lawyers, professors, senior civil servants.”
Nevertheless, he says, it’s not easy for them to buy a home from a Jewish owner.
“Even if the owner is willing to sell, even if they’ve reached an agreement, the owner may back out at the end because his neighbors don’t want him to sell to an Arab. I’ve seen this happen more than once or twice,” he says.
Out of 10 Jewish homeowners in Jerusalem, I ask Loval, how many would sell to an Arab? “Three or four,” he replies.
Told of this estimate, Ibrahim says it sounds high. “In Pisgat Ze’ev, it’s down to zero.” He notes that when he bought his house, he told the agent his name was “Avi,” and only revealed his true name and ethnicity once the contract was being drawn up and ID papers were needed.
“The agent seemed a little worried for a while, but in the end he told me the owner, a
religious Jew, asked his rabbi if he could sell to an Arab and the rabbi agreed,” Ibrahim recalls, laughing at the absurdity of it. “The truth is that the owner was very eager to sell and I had the money.”
A LITTLE background: Before the Six Day War, Jerusalem was divided by a border with Jordan. The west side was the all-Jewish capital of Israel, the east side was all-Arab. After the war, Israel drew a security-minded line around a vast amount of Arab-populated territory it had conquered on the east side of the old border – which came to be called the “Green Line” – and declared it the capital’s new municipal boundary. The Palestinians there were offered the right to become Israeli citizens, but very few took that route because it was considered treason.
Over the years, Israel expropriated great expanses of Palestinian-owned land on the east side, most of which had been under Jordanian army control before the war. Israeli offers of compensation were usually turned down by Palestinian landowners because accepting them was also considered treason. Israel built several large Jewish neighborhoods on this land.
Beginning in the 1980s, Jewish settler groups began purchasing Arab apartments by disputed means in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, later in east-side Arab neighborhoods such as Silwan, Ras el-Amud and, most recently, Sheikh Jarrah. At the same time, Arabs began trickling into Jewish neighborhoods – most of them, as noted, students and nurses renting apartments for convenience. Many of the earliest Arab homeowners in Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods were Palestinian collaborators, relocated there from the West Bank by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) after Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority took over.
But the big influx of Arabs to Jewish neighborhoods began in the middle of this decade as the West Bank security wall went up around Jerusalem’s east-side boundary. Suddenly Palestinian Jerusalemites who had moved beyond the municipal boundaries to West Bank villages, but who were still commuting to Jerusalem, faced the prospect of interminable delays at the wall’s checkpoints on their way to and from jobs, classes and other routines. Worse, from their perspective, the Interior Ministry began working at an unprecedented pace to revoke the legal right of residency in Jerusalem – the all-important “blue ID” – of local Palestinians who’d lived outside the municipal boundaries for long periods of time.
Between 2006 and 2008, the ministry revoked the blue IDs of some 6,500 Jerusalem Palestinians – roughly equal to the total number of revocations made from 1967 to 2006, said the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in a May report.
At the same time, says Ir Amim’s Noy: “Tens of thousands of local Palestinians who’d moved to Abu Dis, A-Ram, Eizariya and other West Bank suburbs came rushing back into the city. They didn’t want to be left on the other side of the wall.”
Their intensive demand for housing in Arab east Jerusalem all but depleted the supply, while driving rents and purchase prices through the roof. “Now,” says Noy, “an apartment in a so-so [Arab] neighborhood in east Jerusalem can easily cost more than one in a good neighborhood in west Jerusalem.”
Asked Barkat’s position on the revocation of thousands of Jerusalem Palestinians’ right to live in the city, mayoral spokesman Stephan Miller said in an e-mail response: “Residency and citizenship status is decided by the Interior Ministry, with no connection to the Municipality of Jerusalem or mayor of Jerusalem.”
ANOTHER MAJOR reason for the housing shortage in the Arab neighborhoods goes back to 1967. “Despite the fact that the Arab population of east Jerusalem has increased 450 percent since the annexation of east Jerusalem, the possibility of issuing legal building permits for new construction in east Jerusalem has been practically nonexistent for decades on end,” said the ACRI report.
The situation hasn’t changed, says Cohen, author of the 2007 book The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem. “Barkat says he gives many permits for Arab construction, but it’s not true,” the researcher/author maintains.
To this, Miller responds: “It’s a nice narrative, but doesn’t fit the facts. Mayor Barkat is moving forward with a master plan for Jerusalem that calls for an additional 50,000 new housing units over the next 20 years to fit the needs of the growing population. Arab residents are approximately one-third of the population of Jerusalem, and as such, we expect a third of those new housing units to be for Arab residents in their neighborhoods. In addition, this week’s Municipal Planning and Construction Committee has 41 items on the agenda for approval, 18 of which are plans by Arab residents of Jerusalem for new apartments and construction in Arab neighborhoods.”
Asked, however, about Barkat’s record to date – how many local Arab building plans he’s approved since taking office in December 2008 – Miller says the municipality doesn’t keep such statistics.
ON A WALL overlooking a main Pisgat Ze’ev street are two posters – one of Moshe Ben-Zikri, captioned “Local hero,” and another of Neria Ofen, captioned, “Daughters of Israel belong to the people of Israel.”
Ben-Zikri and Ofen are the most extreme voices in the neighborhood calling for Arabs to be kept out. In late May, following the torching of local Arab-owned cars, Ofen, who came here from the militant settlement Yitzhar, was ordered by the IDF Homefront Command to stay out of Pisgat Ze’ev and Neveh Ya’acov for three months.
A block down from the posters, Ayman Abu Shusha, sitting in the back of his furniture showroom, recalls the protest march on this street last Shavuot. “There were about 20 people shouting, ‘Arabs out!’ and ‘Stinking Arabs!’ Can you imagine what would happen if in France people were chanting ‘Jews out!’ and ‘Stinking Jews!’ outside Jewish shops?” he insists, noting that anti-Arab marches in Pisgat Ze’ev have become an annual event.
His son, Fathi, 18, who helps out at the shop, says he and his friends can expect to be stopped and questioned by police whenever they go to the Pisgat Ze’ev mall at night. “Once a friend and I were in the mall,” he says, “and a Jewish guy and his girlfriend were walking by, and the Jewish guy looks at me and says, ‘What are you looking at her for?’ He calls the security guard, who comes over and says, ‘You carrying drugs?’ and tells us to empty our pockets. We didn’t say anything, and they finally left us alone.”
This charge that young Arab men are “starting up with,” “harassing” and even “kidnapping” Jewish women is the red meat of the campaign to keep Arabs out of Pisgat Ze’ev. Asked about these claims, a Jerusalem police spokesman says, “Starting up with girls isn’t against the law, and we don’t keep separate statistics on Arabs and Jews for sexual harassment and kidnapping.”
Ibrahim says the kidnapping scare is “bullshit. The Israel Police control all of Jerusalem – no Arab guy here can hold a Jewish girl against her will. I can think of only one marriage between a Jew and an Arab in the Jerusalem area – a Jewish girl from Ma’aleh Adumim married an Arab and went to live with him, but from what I hear she wanted to, she’s happy. If a Jewish girl goes to live with an Arab, it’s a terrible embarrassment for the Jewish family, so they call it kidnapping.”
As for Arabs “starting up” with Jewish girls or “harassing” them, he says: “You’ve got Jewish girls, usually poor, a lot of times Russian, and they see some Arab guy who works at a restaurant and lives at home and he’s got money to spend, and a nice used car, and they go out with him. The Arabs are looking for fun and sex and they can’t find it with girls from their villages, so they come here. It happens, but not regularly. It’s not an ‘epidemic’ like these fascists make out.”
There have been street fights between Arabs and Jews, and arrests on both sides, says the police spokesman. By far the worst violence came on the night of Holocaust Remembrance Day 2008, when several dozen Jewish youths, some armed with knives, bats and sticks, gathered outside the Pisgat Ze’ev mall and fell upon two Arab teenagers from nearby Shuafat. One victim was stabbed in the back, the other was “jumped on, kicked and stepped on by everyone,” according to one of the accused. A shocking video of the attack was widely seen, and 11 local Jewish assailants, eight of them minors, were indicted.
ON IBRAHIM’S street, Arab families don’t put their names on signs in front of their cottages like many Jewish families do. Ibrahim’s intercom has been shattered twice and he suspects it was “nationalistically motivated,” to use police terminology.
“I’m ashamed to let my children see the neighborhood weekly papers – there are articles openly inciting against Arabs,” he says. “I’ve stopped smiling and saying good morning to my neighbors because they usually turned away. When friends come over on the weekend and we’re sitting in the backyard, I tell them to keep their voices down because the neighbors will get upset if they hear loud talking in Arabic.”
He says the tension has gotten worse in the last couple of years, which he puts down to the mood in the country at large. “The irony,” he notes, “is that since I moved here, the threat of terror has gone way, way down, the wall has been built and Israelis have a much greater feeling of personal safety.”
I ask Ibrahim, an extremely well-connected man about town, if Arabs in French Hill, Neveh Ya’acov and other Jewish neighborhoods live in such an antagonistic atmosphere. “No,” he replies. “Only here. And I don’t know why.”
Cohen suggests it’s because Pisgat Ze’ev has the largest number of Arab residents – an estimated 1,300 – of any Jewish neighborhood in the city, and also because of the panoramic view. “Pisgat Ze’ev is surrounded by Arab neighborhoods – Beit Hanina, Shuafat, A-Ram, Hizma. Evidently, some of the Jewish residents there look around and feel besieged,” he says.
South of Pisgat Ze’ev, in French Hill, the mood seems very different. A young black man and a couple of young white men walk by laughing. With the Hebrew University, Hadassah and the Hyatt Regency Hotel in the neighborhood, French Hill, with 7,000 residents, has the feeling of a little crossroads of the world.
Ofer Levy, who lives here and runs the local minimarket his father opened 30 years ago, has Arabs for neighbors and customers. “They’re very nice people. Jews and Arabs get along fine here and always have. You hear more noise in the media lately about tensions, which may be because of the general situation – but tachlis, there’s nothing really to talk about.”
In fact, there has been some talk about young HU women in the French Hill dormitory being verbally hassled by young Arab men when they go out at night. Levy says he’s heard about Arab guys “making provocative remarks,” but stresses, “They don’t live here, they come from outside.”
The old Arab homes near the Hyatt Regency show that not all the Arab residents in French Hill are newcomers. “My family has been living on this land since 1936,” says Abdallah Abu Liel, sitting in front of his popular felafel stand across from the dorm. Inside, the counterman and the customers are talking in Arabic and Hebrew. A Border Police van is parked in front as one of the troops waits for his food order.
Asked about Jewish-Arab relations in the neighborhood, Abu Liel replies, “Thank God, everyone gets along.” Pointing, he adds, “A few years ago they built 25 houses over there, and 15 were bought by Arabs, the others by Jews.” Suddenly he calls out, “Kif halak! [How are you!]” and trots across the street to talk to a friend.
So it seems that along with the bad blood in Pisgat Ze’ev, there are signs of an “open city” atmosphere here and there in Jerusalem. But even underneath the smoother surfaces lies “the taboo, the social pressure on Jews not to sell their homes to Arabs,” says Cohen, seconded by Anglo-Saxon’s Loval. And then, underneath the taboo, there is the law.
By law, only Israeli citizens and foreign residents eligible toimmigrate under the Law of Return – i.e. foreign Jews – are entitled tobuy state-controlled land. Ir Amim estimates that 80% of the land inJerusalem available for housing is state-controlled – an estimate themunicipality doesn’t challenge – with much of the remaining, privatelyowned land being taken up by old haredi neighborhoods that Arabs aren’tabout to try moving into.
This means that while foreign Jews can and do buy land anywhere inJerusalem from whoever will sell it to them, foreign gentiles,including Arabs, can buy in only limited, privately owned parts of thecity, says Cohen. And now that additional state land is due to be soldoff, the Knesset has given preliminary approval to a bill granting thehousing minister veto power over any such sale if he deems the buyer tobe “hostile” to the state.
Regarding the home-buying rights of Palestinians living in eastJerusalem, Barkat told Sky News they all have a “path” to legalequality with Jews: “Any resident in the city of Jerusalem can become acitizen and live anywhere he wants,” he noted.
There are 303,000 Palestinians living in east Jerusalem. Some 12,000have taken out Israeli citizenship, according to the Jerusalem Centerfor Israel Studies. The remaining 291,000 have not.
So does Barkat encourage these 291,000 Palestinians in east Jerusalemto take out Israeli citizenship so they, too, will become legallyentitled to buy, build and live in any neighborhood of the city?
Replies mayoral spokesman Miller: “It’s a personal decision for the residents to make themselves.”