By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A decision on September 3, 2014, by the Jerusalem Municipality’s Planning and Construction Committee to approve a plan to build 2,200 housing units and around 340 acres of parks and infrastructure in East Jerusalem is being hailed as a major initiative, as The Jerusalem Post reported, for Arab residents in the city. Haaretz called it a “major housing plan.” Reports are similar but inconsistent on what exactly it entails. ‘Haaretz’ says “The plan for the Arav al-Swahara neighborhood extends over 1,500 dunams (375 acres) and calls for building 2,200 homes.” The online site ‘Times of Israel’ claims “a development plan that calls for the construction of 2,200 new homes in the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Arav al-Swahara.”
The decision comes after years of neglect of East Jerusalem and numerous petitions involving lack of housing and classrooms. For instance a 2013 report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel noted that Israel’s High Court had ordered the city to create 2,200 new classrooms in East Jerusalem. If classrooms were not built, the city has now planned to build homes, and oddly, the exact same number.
So what’s going on? City Councilman Meir Margait of the left wing party Meretz which claims to represent East Jerusalem residents (only 2% of Arabs vote in Jerusalem elections) told the ‘Post’ it is “too little, too late…this plan was waiting for seven years for approval.” Mayor Nir Barkat had said “The planning of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem by the Jerusalem municipality is a clear expression of Israel’s sovereignty over every part of the city and the unified strength of Jerusalem.” Margalit didn’t like that, arguing that the city was presenting this as a pro-Israel issue, strengthening Israeli control, which would “offend” the residents.
The reason the plan took so long to approve was because of long-term opposition as ‘Haaretz’ noted. “Following legal action by neighborhood residents, with the help of the Hebrew University’s International Human Rights Legal Clinic and attorney Ziad Kawar, the Jerusalem District Court ordered the city council to debate the plan and make a decision.” The plan was passed over the objection of right wing members of the council, reports noted the Shas and Haredi parties abstained, and the plan received support from Hitararut’s Hanan Rubin,Yerushalmim’s Tamir Nir and Meretz’s Pepe Alalu. Rubin told reporters that he supported this as part of normalizing construction in East Jerusalem and dealing with illegal building offenses. Barkat was reported by Haaretz to have said “The alternative to orderly planning is the illegal construction of thousands of housing units and the takeover of large areas in a way that undermines the environment and Israeli sovereignty over united Jerusalem.”
But in fact this whole story is part of the multi-faceted lie that is housing construction and planning in Israel.
When Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967 there were thought to be about 195,000 Jews in the city and 68,000 Arabs (including 12,000 Christians). Today there are almost 800,000 Jerusalem residents of which 300,000 are Arabs (including 14,000 Christians).
One of Israel’s first decisions after 1967 was to expand the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to encompass a larger area of the West Bank, encompassing the former boundaries of Jordanian Jerusalem (6.4 sq. km) and a larger area of 70 sq. km that took in several Arab villages like Isawiya and areas that would become suburbs such as Beit Hanina.
Initial decisions to build over the Green Line were taken soon after the war, in the Old City especially where a Kotel Plaza was paved and in French Hill to link the area of Hebrew University with the Western Jewish part of the city. The major construction in Pisgat Zeev would not begin until after the Jerusalem Law of 1980 was passed which enshrined in law the annexations. Over time, from 1970 through the contentious construction of Har Homa in the 1990s, large Jewish planned neighbourhoods arose in East. Jerusalem.
The planning and construction of these areas was in line with the planning and construction methods of Israel and its Zionist socialist roots as a planned society. Since the country’s birth in 1948, and even before with the construction of ‘garden cities’; the ideology was to have logical and efficient planned communities. Natural growth was unacceptable and eschewed. Individual building styles were abhorred. In place the Germanic theories of Central Place Theory and were grafted onto the landscape of Mandate Palestine and then Israel.
When we look at Jerusalem we have to understand therefore that Israel looked at East Jerusalem as it had West Jerusalem and other parts of Israel before 1967. Any new neighborhoods would be for Jews, not out of a concept of “ethnic cleansing” as some on the left accuses Israel’s policies of but rather rationalizing human settlement. This was always the blind-spot when it comes to understanding East Jerusalem’s planning. It was a crime also against the individualism of Jewish residents who moved into Pisgat Zeev and Gilo and places like that because they were expected to move into these “rational” building projects. Planning was for Jews-only for decades, but seeing that as a positive thing for the Jewish residents is not altogether clear.
Consider the two sides of the neglect coin. Jerusalem planners did come up with various plans for East Jerusalem. Some envisioned large boulevards and planned neighbourhoods. But none of the ideas came to fruition. When the city sought to “zone” East Jerusalem it basically assumed that Palestinian construction would continue along “natural” lines, and Jewish construction would be “rationalized.”
Over the years various “human rights” and other activist NGOs sought to create plans to “save” the Palestinian residents. Ostensibly this was to end discrimination, but there was also a “we know best” mentality; which was the idea that Palestinian living conditioned should be shoe-horned into an Israeli “modern” way of life. Groups like Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine also put forward proposals that they probably knew would never be accepted.
Despite all the nice talk and even those groups that supposedly met with residents in places like Isawiya, the planning was almost always done by outsiders, “those who know best”, either from Israel or the EU. This manifest destiny approach to planning was never going to work for residents of Jerusalem that anyway had no connection to the Israeli municipality. With 2% voting and only 5% having acquired Israeli I.Ds over the years (Palestinian residents of E. Jerusalem have residency but not Israeli citizenship; several thousand apply a year, of which 1/3 are rejected)
Some forty years of neglect of East Jerusalem has always been punctuated by various government plans to make short-term changes. This is part of the Israeli government way of “managing” the conflict through short-term fixes to long-term problems. In March 2012 therefore an article appeared claiming some half-billion shekels would be plowed into East Jerusalem. Supposedly “As part of the plan about 30 projects of multi-lane roads will be executed, among them 8 roads in the Bet-Hanina neighborhood, 2 roads in the Wadi al-Joz neighborhood, 8 roads in the Ras al-Amud, A-Tur and Silwan neighborhoods, 7 roads in Bet Tzafafa, Shuarafat and Dahara neighborhoods, 7 roads in the Sur Bahr, Um Tuba, Jabel Mukabr and Arav al-Swahara, and two roads in Isawiya and more.”
And that brings us back to “Arav al-Swahara”, the supposed location of the 2,200 new housing units.
The area is called actually “Arab al-Sawahre”, after the bedouin tribe that once ranged east of there in the Judean desert. Maps from the 1880s made by the Palestine Exploration Fund show the location of the tribe, closer to the Jewish community (settlement) of Kedar.
When one looks at the area where the supposed houses will be built, one sees it adjoins the Jerusalem Jewish neighbourhoods of Armon Ha-Natziv.
And this brings us back to the whole planning paradigm. Even if the Jerusalem municipality wants to build 2,000 houses there, it won’t be able to construct houses that the Arab residents want to live in. To put it simply, most of them don’t want small standardized apartments, the want to live in houses, often multi-level for their extended families. They don’t want 70 sq meter apartments to be packed in like sardines; but large homes with areas to welcome guests and parking and privacy.
In the end of the day, even if East Jerusalem is poor and neglected and doesn’t have road signs or post office boxes, public bus service, no police presence; it also doesn’t see the trade off of living like a sardine, packed into a “rational” development, and then packed onto a public bus to work all day to pay high taxes to a government for a small luxury of getting a “public park.” Its residents don’t like the lack of infrastructure, but they also don’t want to have to pay for the “right” to park near their own house and have constant checks from public officials and high “arnona” or property taxes. It is the fundamental difference between socialism and an individualistic mentality.
It is what some people don’t understand about Americans and their mobile homes. Why would someone want a mobile home? Maybe because they like the idea that even though they are poor they can have their own little bit of freedom on their own property. It is why Israel’s Beersheba will never look like Tucson, Arizona. It is also why Tucson grows wealthier by the day and Beersheba stays the same. It is why Israelis who have an MA and who spent years in the army as officers can’t barely afford a small apartment or a car; because the ideology of socialism says “the commoners don’t need cars and houses,” and says “the government knows best for you, you need a small apartment and a public park,” even if the citizen says “I’d prefer a small yard and my own space, than a public park.”
Israel’s refrain is always “there is no room for people to live as they want; no room for private property.” Oddly in Jordan or Lebanon, other small states, there is room for private homes. In the areas in Israel where there is room, such as the millions of dunams in the Negev, there is no private land for citizens. The idea is “people must live in large apartment towers”, so that 99% of the land is “free from human settlement” and only reserved for kibbutzim.
Shockingly the Negev has some 50,000 residents who chose to live like Americans in Arizona, preferring the metal hut and mobile home over the sardine-like cookie-cutter apartment. Those Bedouin residents, when you get past all the stories about “indigenous rights”, want to live a life of individualism.
When we look back at East Jerusalem we see that the discrimination or housing issues in East Jerusalem have much more to do with inherent ideologies of individualism and state imposed socialism; and the fact that Arab residents refuse socialism, while Jewish residents have been shoe-horned into it and gotten used to it to the extent that some parrot back the theory that “this life is better” and “there is no room for private houses.”
The Jerusalem city council is talking again about “housing for young people.” It is more talk. Whatever “housing” will be build won’t be dignified, it will be more and more apartments, more things that look like some future settlement on the moon, with everyone living the same, with barely an privacy, everyone packed into apartments, and only the wealthiest one percent allowed the luxury of a “free standing home.” Those living in Beit Safafa, Abu Ghosh, Ein Rafa, the Arab suburbs near or in Jerusalem, will continue to build private homes, and continue to receive less funding per capita and continue to hear about “housing initiatives.” The 2,200 units for “Arab Sawahre” will never be built; either it will consist of retro-active approval of “illegally” built structures or a decade of planning and bids and tenders will amount to nothing and the area reserved for the homes will be built on by residents anyway.