Mohammed al-Shalabi, the father of five, stands with his children as he and a friend destroy his own home in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 19, 2012. Shalabi decided to demolish his own home to carry out an Israeli court order and avoid the high cost of paying for Israeli government bulldozers or being sent to prison for being unable to pay. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/GettyImages)
At a time when an Israeli government-appointed judicial commission denies the occupation and concludes that “according to international law, Israelis have the legal right to settle in Judea and Samaria”; when Israel has intensified its demolition of Palestinian structures built without permit; and when peace negotiations are at a standstill, Jersualem is facing a serious housing crisis. Not surprisingly, this crisis impacts Israelis and Palestinians differently, with the latter feeling more anxious, disempowered, often stranded—and sometimes homeless.
In addition to the rising costs of housing and consumer products in Israel, there is the squeezing out of the Israeli Jewish middle class, the disparity between rich and poor, and the lack of social justice. Since the mid-1980s, Israel has invested little in public and low-income housing for its Jewish citizens within the Green Line, while continuing to support the building of and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In August 2011, the government of Binyamin Netanyahu approved more than 5,500 units in the East Jerusalem Jewish settlements of Ramat Shlomo, Pisgat Zeev, Givat Hamatos and Har Homa, the latter known to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim (see July 1996 Washington Report, p. 13). In late September 2011, the Israeli Interior Ministry gave the green light for constructing 1,100 new housing units in Gilo, the enormous settlement which sits on land occupied in the June 1967 war.
Young Israeli Jews, who make average salaries, find housing costs prohibitive. Some of them are forced to live with their parents. Close Israeli friends of mine have remodeled their house to create an apartment for their eldest son; the younger son plans to renovate the garden apartment. It is cheaper than buying or renting elsewhere in the city. A new two-bedroom apartment sells for approximately $300,000, and the monthly rent for the same is roughly $800. One-third to one-half of Israelis’ income is spent on mortgage payments or rent.
Conditions are even worse on the Palestinian side, where the housing demand and prices are even higher, the family size larger, and income levels lower. Moreover, housing is more complicated because of several factors.
First, the city of Jerusalem is highly prized by all. It is a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims, a national symbol and a living place for both Israelis and Palestinians. Any shift in its demography, geography and topography becomes a cause célèbre. The struggle for dominance and survival is intense on all sides. Israel continues its efforts to spread Jewish presence and influence in the Arab sector of the city, often with American funds. A Jerusalem housing plan for 2,500 units which Palestinians would be allowed to buy was blocked by the political right at the Jerusalem municipality in June 2011. The Palestinian Authority and Arab governments and banks have spent millions of dollars subsidizing housing construction and some infrastructure in the Arab sector.
Second, permanent residency rights for Palestinians living in Jerusalem, which are established primarily through physical presence (i.e., home ownership or rental), come with entitlements of work and travel within the city’s boundaries and beyond, health insurance rights, and social welfare benefits. Such entitlements are not available to Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied territories. Even though Palestinian Jerusalemites are meticulous about doing anything that would jeopardize their Israeli-conferred residency rights, Israel resorts to a variety of methods to cancel their residency so as to alter the city’s demographic nature. In 2008 alone, more than 4,500 Palestinian Jerusalemites lost their residency rights.
Third, Palestinians unable to buy houses in Jerusalem are renting modest one-bedroom apartments there in order to maintain their residency, even though some of them own spacious houses on the West Bank. It is becoming more difficult to ask Palestinian renters to leave voluntarily once their leases expire, necessitating adjudication and eviction that could take five to seven years to materialize. Some owners have taken the law into their own hands in order to preserve their property rights. Others are stuck with anxiety and pain, while lawyers earn the big bucks!
Fourth, housing is becoming a prerequisite for getting married. In the old days, prospective in-laws would ask about the groom’s family background and educational status. These days, the motto is “no housing, no marriage”—and, most often, the preference is for the housing to be at a distance from the groom’s parents! In Jerusalem, where housing is at a premium, the average marriage age for its Palestinian residents is estimated at 30, compared to 22 on the West Bank, where property is cheaper and more available.
Fifth, the city’s population increase and the expansion of Jewish settlements in its Palestinian neighborhoods have augmented the demand for housing and reduced the availability of space for Palestinians, thus hiking the price of both land and property. These population increases have also concentrated Palestinians in specific neighborhoods, such as in Beit Hanina and Beit Safafa to the north and south of the Old City, respectively. There are instances in which a dozen or even two dozen people are jammed into a single house, resulting in dangerous and unhealthy living conditions.
Sixth, even though Palestinians and Israelis typically wait less than two months for permit approval and pay identical fees for water and sewage hook-ups, Palestinians charge that Israeli officials are intentionally preventing Arab Palestinian economic and social developments in Jerusalem, as evidenced by the burdensome rules and regulations imposed on urban zoning and the issuance of building permits. For Palestinians, building permits not only are expensive, but difficult to obtain.
Seventh, those who do build without permits run the risk of having their houses demolished. This happens to Israeli owners as well, but to a much lesser degree. Some Palestinian owners receive building permits for a maximum of two stories, but sometimes end up building three or four stories, which they sell or rent. Under “good” circumstances, the violator must pay hefty fines. When the demolition order is carried out, the owner (if still in the country, instead of having escaped with the profits), the buyer, and/or the renter are adversely affected. Demolition is rather costly; a Jerusalem Palestinian opted to demolish his own “permit-less” house instead of being stuck with a more than $40,000 bill from the municipal authority.
Eighth, contestations over property between Israeli Jews and Palestinians (such as in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah or Silwan neighborhoods) add to the tragedy of the housing shortage for the Palestinians. Israeli authorities evict some families from their homes on the grounds that they possess no ownership, when they have lived on the land for decades. Israeli Jews argue that they own the property fair and square. There are instances where Palestinians’ houses are bought from absentee landlords or through intermediary agents or criminals, who often are accused of falsifying documents. The innocent and unknowing are sacrificed on the altar of expediency, lawlessness and profit.
Ninth, all privately owned property is supposed to be registered in the District Lands Registry office, commonly known as “Tabu.” This allows owners and prospective buyers to determine whether there are any liens, mortgages, rights of use and/or passage, and appropriations by public authorities on the property. Tabu registration involves paying all back taxes on the land or house. That is a main reason why many owners are reluctant to initiate Tabu registration. They instead use “transitional powers of attorney,” which enable the owner and the buyer not to divulge the true price of the property, thus avoiding or postponing payment of huge taxes. Even when there is a declared or formal transaction, there is a tendency not to reveal the actual price. The Israeli authorities most probably know the real or approximate property prices, but usually go along with the suggested price.
Tenth, Palestinian families must make housing decisions based on their “informed calculations” as to how future Palestinian-Israeli peace talks will include or exclude their neighborhoods. Some would prefer to live in a Palestinian state, while others would opt to remain in the state of Israel. Caught in between, individuals and families become more pragmatic as they seek more favorable conditions of human security.
While the issue of housing is complex, the fact remains that when people do not have a roof over their heads and do not enjoy healthy living, they feel threatened and vulnerable. In the absence of sufficient and equitable public funding for housing, it is vital that the relevant parties (e.g., civic organizations and religious authorities) step in to fill the void. These parties must cooperate in order to formulate a common vision and action plan based on inclusion, respect, peace and the practical needs of all Jerusalemites, whether they be Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Job creation also would go a long way to generating economic viability and ownership. The goal is empowerment of all people and the attainment of what the United Nations Development Program calls “freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom to live in dignity.”
Saliba Sarsar, Ph.D., born and raised in Jerusalem, is professor of political science and associate vice president for global initiatives at Monmouth University in New Jersey.