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Court halts sales in new East Jerusalem neighborhood amid discrimination claims

Two months after Israeli authorities opened bidding on 1,257 housing units in Givat HaMatos, judge freezes process, gives government a week to respond to Palestinian petition

The Givat Hamatos neighborhood, Jerusalem (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)
The Givat Hamatos neighborhood, Jerusalem (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

A Jerusalem court froze the auction of 1,257 new units in the controversial Givat HaMatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem on Friday after Palestinians submitted a petition arguing the manner in which many of the units were being sold discriminated against them.

If built, Givat Hamatos would become the first new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem in two decades. The neighborhood’s location, however, has drawn controversy, with some left-wing groups arguing that it would make a contiguous Palestinian capital in Jerusalem far more difficult to achieve.

Right-wing politicians, including members of the ruling Likud party, have defended the site as necessary for strengthening “Jewish contiguity” in the capital.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem, including the eastern section, which it captured in the 1967 Six Day War, as its undivided, eternal capital. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount and Old City, as the capital of a future state.

On November 15, the Israel Lands Authority and the Housing Ministry announced that bidding would start on 1,257 new units in the controversial area, drawing reproof from the Palestinian Authority and the European Union, who view Israeli construction in East Jerusalem as settlements.

The auction was scheduled to finish on January 18, but the left-wing Ir Amim nonprofit, along with 25 Palestinian clients, submitted a petition last week alleging that the auction of the units discriminated against Palestinians. In response, a Jerusalem district court on Friday froze the proceedings.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks with media at the Givat HaMatos hill in Jerusalem on December 19, 2019. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

According to court filings, 501 units — around forty percent of the Givat HaMatos apartments — are being auctioned off as part of a new Israeli government program that subsidizes cheap housing for young families. But only Israeli citizens are eligible for the program — and East Jerusalem Palestinians are defined as permanent residents, not citizens, under Israeli law.

East Jerusalem residency cards grant Palestinians many of the benefits of citizenship: membership in Israeli health insurance companies and National Insurance. But they cannot vote in national elections, and if they leave the city, they are liable to lose their residency status.

“Those eligible for subsidized apartments are only Israeli citizens. The meaning of this is that East Jerusalem Palestinians, whose status is that of ‘permanent residents’ rather than citizens, cannot buy any of the apartments being sold as such in this auction,” Ir Amim wrote in the petition.

While Israel theoretically offers Palestinian residents of the city a path to becoming Israeli citizens, the numbers of applications accepted have been staggeringly low; many applicants reported being strung along for years by Israeli authorities seemingly uninterested in processing their applications.

Ir Amim argued in the petition that the court ought to either find a solution that allowed Palestinians to participate in the program or to cancel the subsidies altogether.

“This is forbidden discrimination and a violation of their right to housing and social benefits,” Ir Amim wrote.

Even though East Jerusalem Palestinians constitute around 40% of the population, they live in only 26% of the city’s housing units. Rights groups allege that because new construction is rarely approved in Palestinian neighborhoods, Palestinians are forced to build illegal homes which the municipality subsequently demolishes.

The plan for construction in Givat Hamatos was first advanced in 2012, earning widespread condemnation from the international community. It was postponed repeatedly for nearly eight years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in February that he had lifted restrictions on construction there, sparking further controversy.

A map showing the controversial Givat HaMatos neighborhood in southern Jerusalem, bordering Gilo and Beit Safafa (Credit: Peace Now)

“Coexistence in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu declared at the time. “Jerusalem is being built and expanded. We are connecting all parts of the united Jerusalem. I have removed all the restrictions, and now Jerusalem is being built under my authority.”

Finally, on 15 November, bidding opened on the 1,257 units in Givat HaMatos. The auction was scheduled will run until January 18. The timing raised eyebrows, as that is only two days before the relatively settlement-friendly administration of US President Donald Trump is replaced by that of President-elect Joe Biden.

The Jerusalem District Court, sitting as the Jerusalem Court for Administrative Matters, gave Israeli authorities a week to respond to the petition.

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