Today’s (April 5) edition of the Israeli daily Haaretz featured a news article on Israel’s ambassador to the US Michael Oren and his reassurance that all is well between his country and the United States. While that is hardly a shocker, one of Oren’s statements in regards to Jerusalem is. "Any Jew or Arab has the right to build legally in Jerusalem, as in any other city in the country," Oren said when asked about the recent spat between Israel and the US over the former’s increased settlement expansion in east Jerusalem. Was that some sort of sick joke? An Israeli delusion? Or, is it what we all know it to be, an outright lie.
Perhaps, if it weren’t for Israel’s recent escalation of home demolitions and evictions not to mention the ever continuing expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian land in Jerusalem, Mr. Oren’s lie may have passed unnoticed. It is only logical that a "democracy" such as Israel would allow building in its cities for any ethnic group under its jurisdiction. However, anyone who knows anything about the lopsided legal system in Jerusalem and the discrimination against its Palestinian residents in just about every aspect of their lives will dismiss Oren’s comments as just another Israeli attempt to distort the truth.
But, even though this truth is as glaring as the sun, the world either does not know or, worse, chooses not to see. Truth be told, Israel has set up a set of laws, which seem even-handed on the surface, but which are horrendously racist in substance. On paper, Palestinians are "allowed" to build in Jerusalem. There is no law against it. However, the first obstacle is space. With Israel’s tightening clutch on east Jerusalem land and its all Jewish neighborhoods expanding outwards towards the city’s peripheries, there is not much space left for the growing Palestinian population to settle. But, let’s assume one of the more fortunate Palestinians was somehow able to keep hold of their land and has the funds to build on it. This would require a building license, a rare and valuable piece of paper that Israeli authorities in Jerusalem hardly ever grant the Palestinians. If they do, the licenses cost hundreds of thousands of shekels, money the Arab residents of the city seldom have.
The norm, however, has been for Palestinians to build "illegally" usually adding a room or a floor to an already existing structure, which may have even been built prior to Israel’s occupation of the city in 1967. That is, when they can find the space and the funds to do so. This is where Israeli authorities jump at the opportunity. Still using the guise of the law, Israeli municipal authorities assess these houses, which coincidentally fall within strategic Israeli areas –” the best current example is the Bustan neighborhood in Silwan –” and deem them illegal, thus making them eligible for demolition. In Al Bustan, some 80 homes are now being threatened with demolition. Once these homes are torn down and their residents made homeless, Israeli authorities in Jerusalem plan to build King Solomon’s Gardens in their place.
Let’s not forget how Israel evicts Palestinians from their homes without batting an eyelid. In Sheikh Jarrah, families have literally been kicked out of their homes by belligerent Jewish settlers, who had no problem throwing the family and their children out of the house along with their belongings. They have since moved in, hanging oversized Israeli flags from the windows as the families camp right outside their home on mattresses and makeshift tents, refusing to leave. The settlers, says Israel’s High Court, have proven prior ownership of the homes, and thus have a right to live in them.
This raises another inconsistency in Israel’s declared policy of equality in Jerusalem, which Ambassador Oren so adamantly defends. If Israel’s High Court upholds that prior ownership, no matter how old, is sufficient for present claims to property (apparently a 1970 Supreme Court ruling was passed on this matter), then shouldn’t that apply to all residents of the country? There are Palestinians who hold deeds to their homes from which they were forced out of in 1948, far more recent than these settlers’ bogus claim on Palestinian homes. Some families still have the original keys, have belongings that adorned their homes in what are now Jewish neighborhoods in west Jerusalem. Why doesn’t Israel’s High Court serve them as well? Because Israel does not grant any form of reciprocity when it comes to Jewish and Palestinian property or land ownership in Jerusalem or anywhere else for that matter. If they did, all those whose homes and villages were destroyed or who were evicted during the 1948 war would have been recompensed or allowed to return to their homes once they proved ownership.
There is hardly the concept of reciprocity when it comes to the building of illegal Jewish settlements either. According to the Israeli rights organization Ir Amim, since the occupation and unilateral annexation of east Jerusalem in 1967, consecutive Israeli governments have expropriated over 30 percent of Palestinian land to build settlements. The unfortunate people whose land is now built up with red-roof all-Jewish neighborhoods have been subsequently squeezed into the constantly-diminishing areas left for Palestinians. They cannot build in Maaleh Adumim, or in Har Homa, both settlements built largely on Palestinian land. They have not even been compensated for the land that was stolen from them.
Hence, when Mr. Oren says "Jews and Arabs" have the right to build legally in Jerusalem, it is surprising that anyone with a conscience would lend him an ear. Jews cab build in Jerusalem, that’s for sure. But ff they don’t want to go through the trouble of actually building a home, Israel’s legal system will just as willingly grant them someone else’s.