Jerusalem approves plan to build 2,200 homes for Arabs

Mayor Barkat and allies push measure through committee over vociferous opposition from right-wing council members

A bird's eye view of the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A bird's eye view of the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

After several years of wrangling between the mayor and right-wing city councilors, the Jerusalem Local Building and Planning Committee passed on Wednesday a development plan that calls for the construction of 2,200 new homes in the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Arav al-Swahara.

“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,” Mayor Nir Barkat said.

He warned that a lack of municipal planning opens the door to illegal construction “and the takeover of large areas, along with harm to the environment and the Israeli sovereignty over a united Jerusalem.”

Arab residents of Jerusalem often accuse the municipality of failing to approve plans for housing in their neighborhoods while actively promoting Jewish housing in the east of the city, forcing many Arabs to resort to illegal construction. Hundreds of illegally built Arab houses have been demolished in East Jerusalem over the past decade, according to figures compiled by Israeli NGOs.

Barkat and Deputy Mayor Koby Kahlon, who chairs the committee, had been thwarted in bringing the plan to a vote on numerous occasions by right-wing aldermen, such as Aryeh King, head of the Israel Land Fund, and Jewish Home’s Mati Dan. The plan was only brought to a vote following a court order by the Jerusalem District Court.

King waged a concerted campaign against the plan leading up to the vote, threatening to bolt the municipal coalition and taking to Facebook to lobby Jewish Home party cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel to pressure ultra-Orthodox council members to vote against the plan.

His efforts proved futile, however, as the ultra-Orthodox bloc abstained and the plan passed with support from Kahlon, the Yerushalmim party’s Tamir Nir, Hitorerut’s Hanan Rubin, and Meretz’s Pepe Alalu.

King ripped into Shas after the vote, accusing the party of helping Barkat pass the measure.

“Shas city councilman Michael Malkieli unfortunately ‘disappeared’ and was absent from the committee meeting despite his promise that he would oppose the plan, and because of him the leftist plan passed,” he wrote on Facebook.

Despite helping to pass the plan, several of those who voted in favor expressed reservations.

“This is not a good plan, but we don’t have another option,” Alalu said. “It’s not possible now, after four years of procrastination, to tear it down and start from scratch.”

Alalu noted that there were severe restrictions on building sizes and that the residents were referred to as those of a village. He acknowledged that “2,500 units are a welcome thing, without a doubt,” but questioned how they would get built when there were no equivalents to the Jerusalem Development Authority for the city’s Arab neighborhoods.

“We must establish an East Jerusalem development company, otherwise it will be very hard,” he said.

Rubin said that supporting the plan was not a simple choice, even though it dealt with a basic principle of “building a normal neighborhood in East Jerusalem,” because it was important for him to ensure the committee would require detailed plans and that, “unlike in the past, all building offenses would be dealt with seriously and immediately.”

Rubin also expressed hope that the next step of the committee would be to approve “thousands of affordable housing units for young people in other parts of the city.”

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