With much of the West’s political elite, including its Greater Tel Aviv branch, on extended angst duty over the prospect of President Donald Trump relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, major swaths of world Judaism’s signature city and its surrounding areas are illegally and virtually unopposedly being swallowed in an Arab vortex of stone and cement. The past few years have borne witness to the construction of more than 15,000 unlicensed, unregistered housing units in east Jerusalem and its tributaries by “thugs” and “criminal gangs posing as contractors,” as described by Bassam Tawil in a recent report for the Gatestone Institute.
In a process conspicuously devoid of subtlety, “they lay their hands on private Palestinian plots, preferably land whose owners are living abroad,” Tawil avers, and quickly move in to seize control. One east Jerusalem victim of this broad daylight hijacking related to the reporter that “they tell you if you don’t like it, you can go to court, knowing that by the time the legal procedures are over, they will have succeeded in completing another tall building and even selling some of the apartments. They tell us it is a national duty to build as much as they can on empty land, otherwise the Jews will be building there.”
The Gatestone correspondent’s disclosures are totally in sync with the facts uncovered by human rights lawyer and Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs scholar-in-residence Justus Reid Weiner in his new illustrated book Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon. Based on interviews across the political spectrum, it documents a pattern of politically motivated behavior and criminal profiteering that characterizes much of the construction in and around the Arab sector of Israel’s capital. “Illegal construction,” Weiner writes, “has reached epidemic proportions.” He recalls one senior Arab official boasting “they have built 6,000 homes without permits during the last four years, of which less than 200 were demolished by the city.”
Moreover, Weiner informs us, this frantic pace of unlawful construction continues unabated in the face of the city’s authorization of more than 3,600 permits for new housing in the Arab sector, ”more than enough to meet the needs of Arab residents through legal construction until 2020.”
The excuse offered by sympathetic Israeli NGOs that Arab Jerusalemites are forced to build illegally because of systemic municipal rejection of their permit applications is glaringly at odds with the facts. “Arab residents who wish to build legally,” Weiner submits, “are free to consult urban plans translated into Arabic and to receive individual assistance from Arab speaking employees.” Arab and Jewish applicants are subject to an indiscriminant wait of 4-6 weeks for approval, which includes the payment of an identical fee (about $3,600) for water and sewage connections.
The charge of attempting to further “Judaize” Jerusalem–directed at a municipal planning commission Arab leaders have boycotted over the last 35 years–does not hold water. Jerusalem’s Arab population share has risen from 27 percent to 32 percent since the city’s reunification and legitimate new Arab housing construction has outpaced Jewish construction. In contravention of these facts, Weiner declares, we have seen an Israeli Arab and Palestinian leadership spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize and encourage massive felonious construction in the conduct of a “demographic war” against the Jewish state and its capital.
The parameters of that war defy the imagination. From Ras Al-Amoud to Jabal Mukaber at the southern and eastern perimeters of the city, from Kalandrya to Anata in the north, unlicensed, unplanned, whole villages have been slapped together for the sole purpose of creating “irreversible facts on the ground.” They fail even the most minimal engineering and architectural standards with safety concerns thrown to the four winds. Virtually all of this wildcat invasion of stone and cement-block, moreover has been directed at “Area C,” the 59 percent of the “West Bank” supposedly under exclusive Israeli civil and military control per the Oslo Accords, in a city reunified under Jewish sovereignty 49 years ago. All of which makes it fair to ask, as Tawil does, whether “building a great collar of cement” north, east and south of Jerusalem, choking it off from all but westward Jewish expansion, was part of the Oslo Accords or simply in its unread footnotes?
Nothing more definitively disposes of the notion that the products of this construction putsch– single family dwellings to high-rise apartment blocs–inform a legitimate Arab housing need than the fact that hardly anybody is buying them. Priced at $25,000 to $50,000 per apartment unit in a city in which two bedroom flats fetch upwards of $250,000, they are on the receiving end of the biggest no-confidence vote in Jerusalem real estate history. The reasons are self-explanatory. No bank worthy of the name is about to grant mortgage loans on these jerry-built creations thrown up by “contractors” who did not own or otherwise knowingly stole the land on which they were building. Few of their prospective buyers have the money to put down for an outright purchase. Those who do are smart enough to give these “bargains” the widest possible berth.
So there they stand, empty, haunted symbols, Tawil contends, of the “hypocrisy and raw malice” of their European financial enablers, among others, and “a Western mainstream media–those dozens of correspondents who see with their own eyes the Palestinian settlements rising on every side of Jerusalem but choose to report only about Jerusalem. The sheer enormity of the project,” he adds, must raise the inescapable question: “Why?”
Israel will be pondering the answer long after its bulldozers have hopefully exposed the limited shelf-life of “facts on the ground.”
William Mehlman represents AFSI in Israel.