Palestinians in East Jerusalem enjoyed a more than 250 percent bump in building permits in 2018 compared to their average over the past three decades, but approvals for Arabs during that time lagged significantly behind those granted to Jewish residents of the capital’s annexed sections.
Data going back to 1991 released on Thursday by the Jerusalem municipality after two years of requests from the Peace Now settlement watchdog showed that for just the fourth time since 1991, the number of permits granted for Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem in 2018 (841) exceeded the number granted to Jews (740).
However, the average number of permits granted annually to Palestinians during that 28-year period was 340, compared to 780 for East Jerusalem Jews. Palestinians make up over 60% of the roughly 533,000 people who live in East Jerusalem, the part of the city annexed by Israel in 1967.
The fate of the city, which is home to holy sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, is a significant issue in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, while Israel views the entire city as its unified capital. Tensions have soared since US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moved the US embassy there in May 2018, breaking with a longstanding international consensus that the city’s fate should be decided in negotiations.
Trump has argued that his recognition does not preclude a final settlement. But the Palestinians and rights groups say his unbridled support for Israel’s nationalist government has given it a free pass to tighten its grip on war-won lands sought by the Palestinians.
The municipality data showed that in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, authorities approved 1,861 housing units for Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, a 60% increase over the 1,162 approved in the previous two years. The figures show that 1,081 permits for Jewish housing were issued in 2017 alone, the highest annual number since 2000. A total of 1,233 housing units were approved for Palestinians in 2017 and 2018.
“In the planning vision of Jerusalem there was no planning for the expansion of Palestinian neighborhoods,” said Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran, adding that the burden of planning and permits was placed entirely on the residents themselves.
Palestinians say the expense and difficulty of obtaining construction permits forces them to build illegally. Peace Now estimated that of the 40,000 housing units in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, half have been built without permits.
Homes built illegally are at risk of demolition by Israeli authorities.
At least 112 housing homes in East Jerusalem were demolished in the first seven months of 2019 — more than in any full year since at least 2004, according to the B’Tselem rights group.
On a hot, sunny day earlier this week, Jamil Masalmeh, 59, used a crowbar and power tools to destroy an apartment he had added to his home in the Silwan neighborhood years earlier. When he failed to secure a permit, municipal authorities gave him the option of destroying it himself or paying more than $20,000 for the city to demolish it.
He said he began trying to get a permit 20 years ago, when he built the extension, which consisted of two bedrooms and a kitchen, for his growing family. Eight years ago, the authorities forced him to dismantle it, but he built it again, hoping to eventually get a permit.
“Every time they tell me to get something different. Get this document or that document, get whatever we tell you to, and then in the end they say you can’t build on this land. Why? There’s no answer,” he said. “I’ll die before I ever get a permit.”
Spokespeople for the government and municipality did not respond to requests for comment.
Around 208,000 Jews and 325,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem.