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Palestinians Feel Cheated in Housing Plan

Jerusalem: Israeli pledges of homes for Arabs continue to go unfulfilled. Vows are not a ploy, Netanyahu says.

March 09, 1997|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Anwar Jayusi waved an arm toward the garbage cascading down a slope near his home and said he could not help but be skeptical of Israeli promises to improve neighborhoods like his in East Jerusalem.

In nearly 30 years of Israeli occupation, said Jayusi, a Palestinian house painter who lives with his family near the trash-strewn hill, "we have not received anything from Israel. We should believe them now?"

Jayusi lives in Abu Tor, a neighborhood of rundown Arab apartments near luxurious Jewish enclaves that is one of 10 mostly Arab sections of Jerusalem designated to receive government funds to repair rutted roads and aging sewer lines. The work will pave the way for construction of thousands of new homes, the government says.

The government made the announcement Feb. 26, pairing the pledge for Arab areas with its approval of a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the historically Arab side of the disputed city.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even visited Abu Tor last week, declaring his commitment to upgrade the area as he stood beside a pile of unloaded building materials. "It's not a ploy," the Israeli leader said of the promise.

But Palestinians, and some Israelis, say it is--or that, at best, it represents an extremely rosy view of the realities of Arab housing in East Jerusalem.

The reasons, they say, include history, politics and bureaucracy, all of which indicate that Abu Tor and other mostly Arab areas of Jerusalem will remain much as they are today, even as groundbreaking for the new Jewish neighborhood takes place within weeks.

"Let's assume that there really is the political will and intention to go forward with these plans," said Sarah Kaminker, a former Jerusalem City Council member and veteran city planner. "But there are so many ways we prevent Arabs from building in Jerusalem [that] it just won't happen."

The Netanyahu government has repeatedly linked the Jewish and Arab projects, portraying them as a model of a "peaceful coexistence" within the city, both aimed at alleviating housing shortages for their target populations.

At the news conference to announce the decisions, Netanyahu said the government plans to construct 2,500 Jewish homes--the first phase of a 6,500-unit project--and "to build a total of 3,015 apartments" in 10 Arab neighborhoods, including 70 in Abu Tor.

Government officials went to some lengths to portray the decisions as parallel, or to argue, as Netanyahu did in an interview with David Frost, that Israel was building "a greater number of Palestinian houses" than Jewish units.

But the government later acknowledged that it was not actually planning to build the Arab homes but to spend about $40 million to prepare the areas for private construction--paving roads, building sidewalks and installing sewage and water lines.

A spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality said last week that she did not know whether the permit process will be expedited for Arabs wishing to build once the infrastructure is complete.

For the Jewish project, on a hill known as Har Homa to Israelis and Jabal Abu Ghneim to Arabs, the government has taken ownership of the land, divided it into parcels and drawn up a plan for the neighborhood. Each step of the zoning and permit process is likely to be expedited, with financial incentives to contractors and future residents, former city officials said.

Equating the plans for Har Homa and for the Arab districts is "like throwing dust in the eyes," said Amir Cheshin, who worked as an advisor on Arab affairs to former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. "The leaders are misleading the public. There is nothing the same in these two proposals."

To understand the realities of East Jerusalem, Cheshin said, it is necessary to understand the various ways Israel has sought to consolidate its hold on the eastern half of the city since capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Through the years, Israel has expropriated more than one-third of East Jerusalem, mostly from private Arab owners, according to Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups. The land, about 5,800 acres, was expropriated for "public purposes," according to government records researched by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

Since then, Israeli governments representing both the Labor and Likud parties have built more than 38,500 housing units for Jews on the expropriated land. None have been built for Arabs--despite an Arab housing shortage estimated in a 1992 study for the Jerusalem municipality at 21,000 units.

Through a series of regulations, Israel also has severely restricted the ability of Arabs to build within the city and has demolished hundreds of homes built without permits.

Cheshin and others said the building restrictions are part of a municipal strategy intended to keep the Palestinian population from growing at a rate faster than that of the Jews.

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