Zoning and east Jerusalem: We told you so...

Though we didn’t need Mayor Nir Barkat’s approval, still, a right-wing mayor who confirms our arguments shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Damascus Gate and Salah Al-Din Road in East Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Damascus Gate and Salah Al-Din Road in East Jerusalem
This week we learned that Jerusalem City Hall has approved the new zoning plan for the Sawahreh neighborhood, drawn up by the architect Senan Abdelqader.
For seven years the plan sat on the municipal shelf, and the decision to approve it was made far too late. It was only made following an appeal by Tel Aviv University’s Law Clinic, and due to real concern that the Supreme Court would order the local committee to relate to and discuss the plan, reinforced by a hint from the court that the municipality might be culpable of administrative negligence. Such a ruling would encourage many suits by homeowners injured over the years because of the refusal to discuss the plan.
Though this is a major decision, it’s important to place matters in the right proportions, and to point out that the move will not result in the immediate issuance of building permits. Many more obstacles – bureaucratic, planning, economic, etc. – must be removed before permits are issued.
Much needs to be said about the approval and the moves preceding it.
What particularly interests me in this case is that the approval provides a good opportunity to look back at city hall’s east Jerusalem policy. The municipality’s press release – like a time machine allowing us to return to the past, or a newly discovered archaeological document that proves one of two different interpretations of historical events – finally settles a historical argument. The left wing always maintained that city hall deprives and discriminates against east Jerusalem, while city hall always held there was no discrimination and the leftists’ arguments stemmed only from political considerations.
The press release, longer and more detailed than usual, lists the reasons why the plan is vital, claiming among other things that without a zoning plan, “The alternative is illegal construction of thousands of homes,” adding that “the lack of planning has led to extensive illegal construction, currently estimated at around 20,000 illegal structures.” Tough words, indeed.
Note that this explanation cites the arguments of the Left, which always emphasized that illegal construction would be the inevitable outcome of the lack of zoning-plans. It also contradicts previous claims by the municipality – that east Jerusalem’s residents build illegally to avoid paying fees, or for political reasons, or because of the widespread tendency among Arabs not to abide by the law. But now city hall, out of the blue, confirms what we always said – that the municipality’s negligence made unwilling criminals of residents of east Jerusalem.
Another section of the press release, designed to praise the mayor, expressly adds that “in light of this systemic failure, the mayor decided not to apply the ostrich policy of his predecessors,” using terms seemingly copy-pasted from the left-wing lexicon: “systemic failure” and “ostrich policy.” This time a competent person (not just “leftist enemies of Israel”) has reaffirmed what we have claimed for years. He admits that municipal policy in east Jerusalem has been a systemic failure in all respects, and that since 1967 the city’s mayors buried their heads in the sand to avoid seeing and understanding the significance of their policies. Responsibility for the resulting bleak condition of east Jerusalem is thus wholly their own.
THE PLAN’S approval is a reasonable step, though it won’t change the actual situation. Even if the initial barrier to obtaining building permits is removed, many other obstacles will arise to prevent Arab citizens from building legally.
What’s more, the press release spits in the faces of residents of east Jerusalem.
The move is presented as “strengthening Jewish sovereignty in east Jerusalem and the unity of Jerusalem,” a pointless and provocative statement that is simply lip-service to calm the Right, while violating the dignity of east Jerusalem’s denizens.
Either way, city hall’s press release is a gem for historians intent on unraveling the situation of Arab east Jerusalem since 1967. It supplies unequivocal confirmation for the claims made over decades by human rights organizations in Jerusalem, and contains an inherent admission of guilt – whose timing may be related (who knows?) to the Selichot ritual and Yom Kippur, when Jews make an accounting and apologize for their wrongdoings.
Though we didn’t need Barkat’s approval, still, a right-wing mayor who confirms our arguments shouldn’t be taken lightly. With a certain wicked satisfaction, we can say, “We told you so.”
But with the same degree of confidence we argued that city hall was depriving the eastern part of the city, we can now say that the announcement will change nothing; deprivation continues full speed ahead, and the occupation systematically creates oppression and discrimination. In a few years’ time another mayor will approve this plan or another one, will publish a press release using the same terminology, and blame his predecessors. Because when it comes to discrimination and east Jerusalem’s citizens, Mayor Nir Barkat is no better than others, and the situation persists.
The author is director of the Center for Advancement of Peace Initiatives, and was formerly a member of the city council for Meretz and the Office of East Jerusalem.