No Room Left to Build (FOR PALESTINIANS)

by Rose-Marie Barbeau

Jerusalem -- Promises of more Arab housing in the Jerusalem area are proving as hollow as Palestinian leaders predicted they would be. Master zoning plans were released by the Israeli municipal authorities last week for Umm Touba and Sour Baher, the two villages which adjoin Jabal Abu Ghneim and on whose land the Har Homa settlement is to be partially built. Under these plans, some 50 percent of the village land remaining, owned by 85 village residents, is to be designated a "green zone" -- meaning, theoretically, that use is prohibited in the interests of conservation. However, green zoning was a favored tactic of former Israeli Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.

A large part of East Jerusalem settlement was accomplished through the initial designation of "green zones" which banned the Palestinian owners' use of their land and was then followed, sometimes years later, by the turnover of the land for "public purposes" -- the construction of a settlement to serve the Jewish Israeli public. The communities of Umm Touba and Sour Baher, like all Palestinian villages in the Jerusalem area, have been denied the right to natural expansion, unable to obtain Israeli-issued building permits for new housing, and have watched their land taken over for green zones, settlement construction and settlement roads.

In the Jerusalem area, the current Palestinian housing density rate is double that of Israeli Jews, due in large part to this long-term strategic policy-making aimed at restricting the number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Umm Touba and Sour Baher residents have a front row seat for the construction of housing for between 35,000 and 50,000 Jewish Israelis, as the Har Homa project goes ahead. West Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert has estimated that all Har Homa roadwork will be completed by early June, and stated that completion of the settlement itself as soon as possible is "in our own interests." Meanwhile, alongside the proposals for a new green zone that will minimize the number of Har Homa's Palestinian "neighbors" is the proposal for the construction of "public facilities," as yet unspecified.

What this means in effect is that it is highly unlikely that any Palestinian in these two villages will be able to build or expand their home. Palestinian permits to build in the areas under Israeli control are subject to Israeli-authored zoning plans, the intent of which is to facilitate Israeli rather than Palestinian growth and development. No new housing for Palestinian residents has been allowed under the Umm Touba/Sour Baher zoning plan put forward by the Jerusalem municipality authorities last week. In a similar fashion, Palestinian growth and development within Jerusalem itself has been limited by Israeli settlement and road construction combined with discriminatory planning policies.

Some Palestinians, too frustrated to bear any longer the overcrowded and highly-taxed living conditions and unable to obtain building permits from the Israeli authorities, resort to building "illegally," only to see their homes destroyed by municipality bulldozers. Others attempt to sell their property, and usually they have no problem finding a purchaser. Hand in hand with the myriad policies to expand settlement and minimize the Palestinian presence is a huge private sector initiative to purchase properties in East Jerusalem neighbourhoods and villages, funded by Jewish groups from Israel and abroad, often the United States. Palestinian property owners may deal with a "front" purchaser without ever knowing that the real purchasers are fundamentalist Jewish settler organizations such as Ateret Cohanim or Elad.

The most recent takeover of homes in the village of Silwan was done "legally," according to the settlers, although one did admit that the legal process involved might have been a bit "complicated". In an attempt to offer support to the beleaguered Palestinians in Jerusalem, Palestinian and Jordanian businesspeople gathered in Amman on April 9 to discuss ways of combatting the Israeli push for demographic control. The outcome of the meeting, in which 200 businesspeople took part, was the establishment of the Jerusalem Fund for Joint Investment, a limited corporation whose objective will be to fund the purchase and/or renovation of Palestinian properties in Jerusalem. Initial target for the capital investment fund is $100 million, to be distributed at $10 per share.

The Jerusalem Fund is to be strictly a private sector initiative, bypassing the Palestinian Authority's own fund for Jerusalem, financial management of which has been heavily criticized by many, including Faisal Husseini, the PA's official in charge of Jerusalem affairs. It was Husseini who made the announcement in Amman of the Fund's establishment. The chairperson of the board of directors of the Arab Bank, Abdul Majid Shouman, one of those initially responsible for proposing the Fund, expressed the hope that the company's capital would eventually reach as high as $200 million with expanded participation by investors from other Arab countries besides Jordan and Palestine. An estimated 20,000 Palestinian homes are currently in desperate need of renovation work, according to sources at the meeting, and would be the target of investment by the Fund. However, the establishment of sub-investment funds will be included in the new company's mandate as well, each aimed at directing capital to various different development projects in the city. The businesspeople were quick to point out that, in addition to preserving the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem and combatting the living conditions which force some Palestinians out, an equally important objective for the Fund is to make a profit. Other news last week on Israeli moves to take over more land included attempts to forcibly evacuate some 500 members of the Sammoa tribe of bedouins, long-time residents of the land lying between the Nablus mountains and the Jordan Valley, currently designated as Area C. Human rights activists fear that the large area on which the bedouin live is intended for designation by Israel as a military site and will later be retained in any final settlement on the land. Israeli officials on both sides of the spectrum are clear in their intention to retain the Jordan Valley.