by Meir Margalit
The recently published Jerusalem master plan is an instructive document of some historical importance, seemingly setting out to introduce a degree of order and justice in a city that till now was managed on the basis of an outdated and irrelevant plan from 1959. However, the chapter dealing with East Jerusalem unfortunately bears witness to the manner in which prejudice, stereotypes and erroneous assumptions so easily take over and penetrate the thinking of professional elites in their work.
While the document makes a sincere effort to grapple with the difficulties of planning and construction in East Jerusalem, it suffers from a “closed circle” syndrome, within which it is subordinate to those very same basic concepts that have created the current planning chaos. The document suggests a variety of cosmetic solutions and recycles worn out ideas that are totally impractical, returning us to those paradigms that created the impasse the document sets out to undo. It can be assumed that these ideas, which led East Jerusalem to its present dead end, will be unable to provide it with a way out in the future
‘The Jews Know Better’
Where do the problems of treating the subject of East Jerusalem start? First, the 39 professional workers who put the plan together, and 31 members of the steering committee, include only one Arab, and that only following strong public pressure. Second, not only do the East Jerusalem Arabs receive negligible representation in the body whose task was to plan their lives, the planners didn’t deem it necessary to hear the views of alternative bodies that held different opinions from the Jerusalem municipality.
This paternalistic and arrogant approach is the core of the municipality’s policy in the eastern part of the city. The Jews know what is good for the Arabs and are more capable of running their lives. This approach is characteristic of colonial regimes everywhere, which believe that the “natives” are neither worthy of suitable representation nor of being masters of their own fate. The planning team apparently assumed that, in any case, one is dealing with a Jewish city and therefore there is no reason to ask the opinion of anyone who does not belong to the Jewish people. This is the logic of a repair contractor who believes that he should confer about repairs with the owner of the house, and not with the tenant who is living there.
Thus, once again, the East Jerusalem Palestinians are not partners in decision-making, neither at the political level (which is said to be largely their own fault because of their refusal to participate in municipal elections) nor at the professional level. This approach, which is contrary to every professional standard in community work and urban planning, would never have been accepted if it were to be applied to the Jewish public. While the style of life of the Arab community is dictated, regardless of their real needs, by the overwhelmingly Jewish planners, basic principles in work with communities, like strengthening the status of the residents and encouraging their independence are altogether missing in the East Jerusalem. Since this is the approach of the planners, the document is inevitably replete with unfounded and defective operational proposals.
What Lies behind Illegal Construction?
The chapter called “The Existing Situation” asserts that the present planning chaos in East Jerusalem is the result of the growing illegal construction that is directed by “both political and economic factors.” In other words, it is the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and criminals or businessmen without a conscience out for easy profits that stand behind the illegal construction. It is as if East Jerusalem has no legitimate needs, no real distress, no ordinary families seeking to acquire a roof over their heads who are compelled to build without permits because, having tried everything, they come against a wall of bureaucratic imperviousness. The politicians and businessmen in East Jerusalem are presented as building only to undermine Israeli rule or to make easy money.
This is a theory of conspiracy like “The protocols of the elders of East Jerusalem.” Every additional house built without a permit is considered another brick in the wall of struggle over the control of Jerusalem. Like it or not, every room, every balcony, every tree becomes part of a worldwide plot. Money from the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia or Hamas supports the building of every house, and every tile on the floor is comparable to a terrorist bomb. Every householder is viewed as a saboteur waging a war of attrition against Israeli rule. In the eyes of the planning team, in East Jerusalem there is not a building without political motivation in a reality of land grabbers and cunning politicians.
Such a superficial approach is surprising in light of the criticism expressed, not without hesitation, in the document itself on the prevalent statutory situation in East Jerusalem. The document explicitly states that a resident requesting a building permit faces many difficulties because of the lack of a suitable engineering infrastructure, problems of registering land, almost insoluble difficulties in joining and dividing lands, and the lack both of reasonable budgets and of any agreed planning policy between the planning authorities. But none of these appear in the planners’ eyes to provide sufficient justification for illegal construction. In spite of the difficulties noted in the document, the planning team still thinks that the central problem is to be found in “the disregard by the residents of the planning and construction law on the one hand, and on the other hand, in the major weakness of the enforcement mechanism.”
The authors of the document seem convinced that the Arabs are a mob that is not prepared to honor the law since they are known from birth to be lawbreakers. It is significant that those responsible for the document did not consider the possibility that
Palestinians are forced to build illegally for those very reasons enumerated by the authors in the same document, namely all those difficulties and obstacles which make it absolutely impossible to receive a permit. At the same time, the authorities are said to have “failed in their task” because they did not enforce the law with a heavier hand, i.e., did not demolish more houses or impose more severe punishment on transgressors. This fits the prevalent assumption that the Arabs understand only the language of force, and what can’t be achieved by force can only be achieved by more force.
A Jewish Majority
The fundamental defect of the document stands out in the chapter dealing with the goals of the new master plan, which remain, as before “preserving a firm Jewish majority in the city”: 70 percent Jews and 30 percent Arabs. The team is indeed aware that the goal is unattainable and that present demographic trends will result within years in a 60 – 40 percent ratio. Nevertheless the document makes a considerable effort to preserve the Jewish majority through a series of plans designed to attract Jews to the city and stem the negative emigration from it. A series of seemingly positive proposals regarding the Jews deal with improvements necessary to encourage them to remain in the city. Not a single sentence in the document suggests getting rid of the Arabs in order to preserve the demographic balance.
However, anyone reading between the lines observes a concealed message. In what is called “the future picture desired by the City Fathers,” one receives an impression that behind the document is an attempt to restrict the natural increase of the Arabs in East Jerusalem. With its historical experience, the planning team understands that this cannot be achieved by doing away with all the first-born sons, but the plan assumes that by restricting the Arabs’ living space, they will be compelled to leave the city and move into places in the periphery where they will be able to build without restriction.
This was the premise behind the Interior Ministry’s previous attempts to deny residency rights and confiscate blue identity cards from Arabs who could not prove that Jerusalem was “the center of their lives” (the required amount of documentary proof was deliberately made unattainable). This policy of restricting the Arab presence in Jerusalem acted like a boomerang. If the policy-makers had been familiar with Arab tradition, they would have known that the Arabs would not leave their land so easily. When the state refuses a building permit, they simply build without a permit. In the end, those who wanted to solve the demographic problem were left with two problems: the demographic and the urban.
Freedom of Movement, Family Reunion and Demographic Balance
There is another shocking clause in the document that restricts Arab demographic growth: a proposal to prevent Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) from entering Jerusalem. An apparently naïve formulation which lacks any trace of racism, in effect denies the Arabs freedom of movement, one of the central values of a democratic regime. An even more elementary right — family reunion — is likewise denied. The state already refuses to grant residency rights in Jerusalem to an Arab Jerusalemite married to a man or woman from the OPT, compelling them to live without rights in the city, under the threat of arrest or deportation. There can be no doubt that the planning team, composed of intelligent people who may well read Haaretz, is aware that it is legitimizing a grave denial of elementary human rights
Moreover, the team provides professional authorization for this, one of the main injustices existing in East Jerusalem. A Jerusalemite marrying a woman from the OPT is prevented from living with her in his own home. The state generously allows him to move to the OPT if he wishes to live with her, but this involves the loss of his Jerusalem residency status and the accompanying rights. The state is not concerned that in Arab tradition the woman lives in her husband’s house because she is considered to be a ticking demographic bomb. Her womb would appear to threaten the sacred demographic balance and to endanger Jewish sovereignty in the city.
Once again, the policy-makers did not correctly evaluate the strength of tradition and failed to appreciate that it is stronger than the Interior Ministry’s regulations. These families live in the city regardless of the policy of the authorities. The state has found an original way of facing this demographic threat. Ostrich-like, it simply ignores the existence of such families and excludes them from the population registry. About 20,000 men and women live in East Jerusalem without their names appearing in the registry. Mainly women and their children, the latter do not even appear in the identity cards of their mothers, which would enable them to receive children’s allowances. Thus the state can deceive the statistics — if these people are not registered they do not exist. What is amazing is that the planning team is aware of the real numbers but prefer to overlook them. When, through demographic considerations, there is a failure to recognize the situation on the ground, all the accompanying statistics are erroneous and misleading.
The embarrassing chapter dealing with the so-called demographic balance is an absolute disgrace. While one can understand why politicians signed it, it is hard to grasp how cultured professional men from whom one might expect an objective approach, could sign such a racist and discriminatory document. Were such a document to be written in a European state on the need to preserve a demographic balance between Christians and Jews, the whole State of Israel would accuse it of anti-Semitism. Here, the demographic bug overcomes any sense of reason so that liberal and progressive academics lend their hand to a document that openly and unashamedly discriminates against part of the population because of their national affiliation. In any civilized country this would be called racism. In Israel, however, it is not nice to call a Jew a racist for are we ourselves not the ultimate victims of racism? Yet the insufferable ease with which we harp on the demographic argument as a central goal in city planning proves that something has gone wrong in our own application of human values toward others.
Some Correct Recommendations
It should be noted that alongside the basic defects appearing in the document, there is also a series of correct recommendations, though the degree of their implementation is doubtful. It is rightly recommended to preserve the set-up of regional separation, not to mix populations. This would maintain the multicultural character of the city and would serve to restrict potential foci of friction. Here the team correctly condemns Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, for rather than the Arabs penetrating into West Jerusalem, the opposite is true. Yet the planners lacked the courage to state who is at fault. Day by day this recommendation is crudely countered by rightist bodies, through the massive acquisition of private property over which the municipality has apparently no control, and through the establishment of whole new Jewish areas in the heart of Arab neighborhoods, that are almost automatically authorized by the local committee for planning and construction.
There is a series of positive recommendations rooted in the reality of the city, such as the welcome proposal to permit a percentage of additional construction so as to allow Arab residents to add further building units on their land. This sort of denser building will cheapen infrastructure costs and facilitate a more correct exploitation of land resources. There is also a positive recommendation to simplify the process of proving ownership to make it easier to receive building permits. Actually, to overcome problems of land registration in the city, the committee recommends returning to the system adopted until recently by the municipality; based on combining traditional forms of proof — the signature of the village muchtar and of neighbors — with judicial proofs: a lawyer’s declaration and payment of property tax.
There is, however, a general feeling that the chapter on East Jerusalem in the document is intended more to meet formal obligations than to deal with actual implementation. When the planners write that any change depends on the direction of adequate resources to East Jerusalem, they know that the state is incapable of doing so, and has no real interest in assuring the necessary budgets for carrying out their plans. In the light of budgetary cuts for health, education and welfare, there is no prospect of finding the hundreds of millions needed to establish the engineering infrastructure imperative for planned construction. The recommendation to rehabilitate the Shu’fat refugee camp is good for the professional conscience but nobody believes that it can be implemented. This is a problem not only of budget but also of land. Rehabilitating the camp with its 15,000 residents requires finding alternative land in order to destroy the existing set-up and build anew. Funds can be forthcoming from international foundations but there is simply no alternative land on which to rebuild.