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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Rare hope for Palestinians as Israel approves Jerusalem housing project

An Israeli committee recently approved the largest Palestinian housing construction project in occupied East Jerusalem since 1967. Foreign Correspondent Kate Shuttleworth reports
Silwan is one of the most condensed and impoverished neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. The proposed housing development would be located near by and some of the landowners currently live in Silwan.  Heidi Levine for The National
Silwan is one of the most condensed and impoverished neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. The proposed housing development would be located near by and some of the landowners currently live in Silwan. Heidi Levine for The National

JEBEL MUKABER // Light falls through the gaps in the spaced stone and concrete-framed facade of the home of leading Palestinian architect Senan Abdelqader.

Inside, floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors frame long, white work tables where Mr Abdelqader sits surrounded by detailed plans for a rare housing project that would provide hundreds of homes for Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.

After years of objection from right-wing Israeli groups, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee this month approved initial plans for 2,500 houses on 370 acres of land in the Kidron Valley in Al Sawahra.

The decision was a rare glimmer of hope for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem, where Arab neighbourhoods have suffered from decades of neglect, a lack of basic services, and critically, a chronic shortage of housing.

For Mr Abdelqader, the plans on his desk are the first example of Palestinian participatory planning — whereby hundreds of landowners submitted joint plans to the Jerusalem municipality. With Palestinians rarely being granted permission to build homes, the “en masse” approach may have finally paid off.

“When we are acting under the conditions of occupation we have to find different tools to succeed,” says Mr Abdelqader as he pored over maps and drawings of the valley in his self-designed East Jerusalem home.

“The Jerusalem municipality is not giving people the right to plan, not on the collective level and not even privately.

“If there’s goodwill, construction could begin in the next two, to three years, but again it could be another very long and winding road if the municipality will put up more barriers and obstacles.”

Plans to develop the Kidron Valley have been around for 17 years. The valley sits beneath the slopes of the Jebel Mukaber neighbourhood and snakes between the basin of Silwan on one side and Israel’s separation wall on the other.

The wall cut off the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem from the West Bank and sliced through Palestinian communities when construction started 14 years ago.

Mr Abdelqader was brought on board six years ago to develop a basic model for the valley to present a collective idea on behalf of the landowners to the municipality.

But the plans to construct in the area stalled for more than four years due to infighting within the planning and building committee. Right-wing members, who see Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, opposed any development for Palestinian residents.

Last year, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat publicly backed the development. Around the same time, frustrated residents took the matter to the district court in 2014 which ruled that the municipality needed to make a decision either way but could not continue to stall.

For those living in East Jerusalem, home to more than 300,000 Palestinians – 75 per cent of whom are living below the poverty line, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) – the project could not come soon enough.

East Jerusalem suffers from a shortage of 25,000 homes, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a human rights organisation. Other groups place the shortage higher at about 40,000.

Just 14 per cent of East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian residential construction, forcing many residents to build illegally and run the risk of demolition orders, ACRI said. Only 13 per cent of applications for building permits are granted to Palestinians in East Jerusalem each year. The streets of Jebel Mukaber, which overlooks the planned development site are littered with rubbish. The sewerage systems are failing, the schools do not have enough classrooms and there are few parks for children.

Naim Aweisat, 44, one of the landowners who was involved in the planning application, says he is wealthier than many in his neighbourhood, but still 16 families live in ten houses on his property.

“Most of the buildings here have no permits, we pay fines on top of our municipal taxes — so that’s about 50,000 to 60,000 shekels [Dh46,000 to Dh55,700] every two years,” says the businessman.

The concern now for residents involved in the project is that the next stage of the planning process will lead to further delays.

Landowners now need to submit detailed plans, a process which some fear could be used by opponents to create years of delays.

Consultant on Jerusalem municipal planning processes Hassan Abu Asleh, 79, stands on a hill in Sur Baher village among olive trees looking out toward the valley of the proposed housing.

Mr Abu Asleh worked for the Jerusalem municipality for 35 years, one of few Palestinian residents of Israel to do so.

“I was almost a one-man-band — I was considered to be the municipality for the Arabs,” he says.

He spent much of his time working to resolve requests for building permits and planning permission for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Despite his success in helping fellow Palestinians, he said he was not confident the construction of the houses in the valley below would start anytime soon.

He now refers to it as that “dreaded site” and is reluctant to drive down to the area.

The mayor’s adviser on East Jerusalem David Koren, however, was more optimistic about the project.

“The residents have already waited a long time and at the end of the day a flourishing neighbourhood with all the amenities is what would happen - we will do the best we can,” said Mr Koren.

Back at the top of Jebel Mukaber another resident Aymad Bashir, 48, is eating harissa at Abu Kaff sweets.

Mr Bashir says permits are the main issue for residents in the area and he estimates that 30 per cent of the houses there do not have permits.

He says eight families are squeezed into the eight homes on his land.

“Two of them are without permits and are facing a demolition order,” he says.

He is sceptical that the approved housing construction will alleviate the housing crunch in their area.

“If it’s implemented according to the plans it would solve a bit of the problem but it won’t solve the entire problem. How can we believe them when they can’t even decently pave the road I live on?” Mr Bashir said.

He then points across to a nearby Jewish neighbourhood Armon HaHetziv.

“If you compare the two sides, this is like Tel Aviv and the other side, here, is like South Africa,” he says.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae