Top 10 Myths Likely to be Heard from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in Washington this week

This week Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat will be in Washington.  He will be holding meetings with Members of Congress, Administration officials, think tanks, and the press.
These interactions offer an excellent opportunity to hear the mayor's views about the Jerusalem-related issues of contention right now between his government and the Obama Administration. 
While Mayor Barkat has a right to hold any opinions he wishes, the facts are important and, when and if he deviates from them, he should be challenged. 
To help prepare the mayor's Washington interlocutors for what will no doubt be a lively exchange of views, Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann and APN's Lara Friedman have assembled this guide to some of the most prominent - and inaccurate - assertions often heard about Jerusalem.

Top 10 Myths Likely to be Heard from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in Washington this week

 

Myth #1:  "Arabs can build and live anywhere in Jerusalem, so Jews must be allowed to build and live anywhere, too."

Myth #2:  "We are not targeting Palestinian homes for demolition - we go after all illegal construction."

Myth #3:  "Palestinians can build legally, if they want to."

Myth #4:  "Demolitions are about respecting the rule of law, not politics. I have no authority to stop them and trying to do so would be disrespecting the rule of law. 

Myth #5:  "My development plans in East Jerusalem are for the benefit of everyone - Israelis and Palestinians.  Palestinians would support them if radical left-wing agitators weren't causing trouble."

Myth #6:  "There is nothing controversial about what we are doing in East Jerusalem - everybody knows these areas will always remain part of Israel."

Myth #7:  "The planning and approval process is so convoluted that there is no way the government can keep track of, let alone stop, East Jerusalem settlement plans - even if it wants to."

Myth #8:  "The land we are building on in East Jerusalem wasn't being used by anyone until we built on it."

Myth #9:  "East Jerusalem settlements have never bothered Palestinians and don't impact their lives negatively in any way."

Myth #10:  "Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is not an obstacle to peace."


Myth: "Arabs can build and live anywhere in Jerusalem, so Jews must be allowed to build and live anywhere, too."


Fact:  While Israelis and Jews living abroad may purchase real estate anywhere in both East and West Jerusalem, this is not the case for the 270,000 Palestinian residents of the city. Most of West Jerusalem, like most of Israel, is "State Land" (in all, 93% of land in Israel is "state land").  Under Israeli law, to qualify to purchase property that is "state land" the purchaser must either be a citizen of Israel (Palestinian Jerusalemites are legal residents of the city, not citizens of Israel) or legally entitled to citizenship under the law of return (i.e. Jewish).   This means an Israeli or a Jew from anywhere in the world can purchase such property in West Jerusalem, but not a Palestinian resident of the city.  (Technically, by the way, these are actually not purchases but long-term leases.)

This ban on purchase of property on "State Land" by Palestinian residents of Jerusalem extends to East Jerusalem.  Not only are Palestinian Jerusalemites barred from purchasing property in most of West Jerusalem, but they are also barred from purchasing property in the 35% of East Jerusalem that Israel has expropriated as "State Land" since 1967, and on which Israel's East Jerusalem settlements have been built.  This means that in more than 1/3 of East Jerusalem, Israelis and Jews from anywhere in the world have a right to buy property, but not Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, including the very residents whose land was expropriated to build these settlements.

With respect to private land in West Jerusalem, there are no legal limitations on purchases by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.  Similarly, there are no legal limitations on Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem renting in West Jerusalem. However, so few Palestinians actually reside in West Jerusalem, either through purchase or rental of property, that experts on the issue could not come up with a single example of a Palestinian doing so.  The reasons for this are social, cultural, and economic.  There is also anecdotal evidence of discrimination, indicating that Israelis prefer not to rent or sell to Palestinians.  (This is distinct from Arab citizens of Israel, who by virtue of their citizenship have the right to buy property that is "State Land" or private property, and a small number of whom do live in West Jerusalem).

A small number of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have rented apartments in some East Jerusalem settlements (principally French Hill, Pisgat Zeev, and Neve Yaacov - all settlements that are so far "east" that they are increasingly less attractive to Israelis).  This does not appear to reflect any political agenda to move to these areas, but rather is a byproduct of the severe housing shortage that exists in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.  And it should be noted that these are short-term rentals from their Israeli owners (as opposed to formal leases by the titular land owner, the government of Israel, to Palestinians).


Myth: "We are not targeting Palestinian homes for demolition in Jerusalem - we go after all illegal construction."


Fact: In 1967, there were 12,600 residential units in East Jerusalem, for a population of 70,000 Palestinians. Today that population has grown to 270,000, with an accompanying need for more housing - and the number of units has grown to in excess of 43,000. However, since 1967, Israel has granted fewer than 4000 building permits - allowing for the construction of only around 8000 units - to Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Consequently, well over 50% of the homes in East Jerusalem were built without permits, for the simple reason that Israel did not allow such permits.  This refusal to grant permits was part of a well-documented policy seeking to artificially cap Palestinian growth and maintaining an Israeli majority in "unified" Jerusalem.  Thus, most of the Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem are vulnerable to demolition.

While most (about 66%) of the building violations documented by Israeli authorities are located in the Israeli sector, generally 66%-70% of demolitions are in the Palestinian sector. Municipal officials will respond, with some justification, that the violations in the Israeli sector are usually "minor" (e.g. an illegal extension), while the Palestinian violations are "major" (e.g. entire buildings) and therefore cannot be overlooked. However, this argument ignores the fact that while the town plans in Israeli neighborhoods of the city are geared to accommodate or even accelerate development, the town plans in East Jerusalem (to the extent that they even exist) are geared to contain or even prevent any reasonable development.  The nature and scope of violations reflects this discrepancy.

Moreover, while in the past demolitions in East Jerusalem were random, following no particular pattern, in recent years demolitions have clearly focused on specific neighborhoods. These are the neighborhoods that are, not coincidentally, the focus of the most intensive ideological settlement activity - Silwan, Ras al Amud, Sheikh Jarrah, etc.  In this way not only are Palestinians as a whole being targeted by the municipality for home demolitions, but home demolitions have been transformed into a blunt political tool to further the right-wing settlement agenda in East Jerusalem.   The most glaring example is the Bustan neighborhood of Silwan - an area long- coveted by the settlers, who now enjoy the close support of Mayor Barket on the issue.   Legal proceedings have now been instituted against 57 of the 88 homes in this area - demonstrating that how the previously random crime of punitive demolitions is morphing into pattern crime.

Finally, it is worth noting that he number of home demolitions in East Jerusalem in 2008 rose by about 32% in comparison to 2007, and by about 217% in comparison to the multi-year average between 1992 and 2006 (the number of demolitions in the first two months of 2009 is 16% higher, annually, than in 2008). However, the Municipality has proudly asserted that in the last few years, the scope of building violations in East Jerusalem has dropped by as much as 70%.  Thus, as illegal Palestinian construction plummets, the number of demolitions has increased in recent years.


Myth: "Palestinians can build legally in Jerusalem if they want to."


Fact:  Since 1967, Israeli planning in East Jerusalem has almost invariably been driven by the calculus of national struggle, the goal of which is to maintain a large Israeli majority in the city.  One way Israel has tried to achieve this is by artificially putting a cap on Palestinian development.  Since 1967, Israel has expropriated 35% of the land of East Jerusalem - upwards of 24 sq. km. - for the purposes of constructing new Israeli neighborhoods/settlements. On these lands the government sponsored the construction of almost 50,000 residential units for Israelis only - and none for Palestinians. In contrast, since 1967, less than 600 government-sponsored residential units have been built in the Palestinian sector, the last of which was built more than 30 years ago.

Most of the land that remains in Palestinian hands subsequent to these expropriations - approximately 45 sq. km. - cannot be built on, either because Israeli authorities have approved no town plans at all (and no permits can be issued without a valid town plan), or because large swathes of these lands have been designated "open spaces" where no legal construction can take place. Thus, only a fraction of the land of East Jerusalem is even theoretically available for construction, and even this theoretically available space is largely limited to the existing built-up areas of Palestinian neighborhoods, where the construction potential has been virtually exhausted.

Over the past forty-two years, the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem has almost quadrupled, rising from 70,000 in 1967 to approximately 270,000 today. The existing town plans that have been approved throughout the years subsequent to 1967 accommodate only a small fraction of the housing needs of this additional population.

For those few Palestinians who are lucky enough to own land in Jerusalem that is located in an area that does have an approved town plan and where the land is zoned for construction, a building permit is still a remote possibility at best.  If these Palestinians do apply, they encounter a process geared to accommodate the Israeli sector, meaning extraordinary legal, financial and bureaucratic obstacles for a Palestinian applicant. In sum, today there is little incentive for Palestinians to even begin the costly, time-consuming process of applying for a permit when they know in advance they will have rather questionable chances of success.


Myth: "Demolitions are about respecting the rule of law, not politics.  I have no authority to stop them and trying to do so would be disrespecting the rule of law."


Fact:  The authority to carry out, suspend or freeze home demolitions is vested in the courts and an independent state prosecution - not with politicians, such as Mayor Barkat. In spite of this,  Mayor Barkat has intervened in the judicial process, acting to spare the illegally built settler house called Beit Yehonatan, and attempting to accelerate the pace and scope of demolitions of Palestinian homes in Silwan, He has done so in defiance of the Attorney General and the Municipality's own legal adviser.

Allowed to fulfill their independent discretion, the courts and the state prosecutors have at times exercised their authority to suspend or freeze home demolitions.   In 2000 the number of home demolitions in East Jerusalem dropped to 9, demonstrating that if the genuine public interest is considered - a public that includes the Palestinians - home demolitions have been and can be kept to a bare minimum.  The same mechanisms and methodology that allowed the authorities to virtually suspend demolitions in 2000 - and additional methods as well - are still available to the authorities today.


Myth: "My development plans in East Jerusalem are for the benefit of everyone - Israelis and Palestinians.  Palestinians would support them if radical left-wing agitators weren't causing trouble."


Fact:  Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat is pushing a major development plan for part of Silwan.  Under the plan tens of Palestinian homes would be demolished, others would be legitimized, and the area would be turned into a settler-inspired, settler-run Biblical park.  The plan would also legalize an illegally-built settler high-rise known as "Beit Yehonatan" (named for Jonathan Pollard) in an adjacent area of Silwan. 

Barkat has launched a personal PR offensive, giving interviews in the Israeli press where he explains - patiently, calmly - that the plan is really and truly for the benefit of everyone, including and especially the Palestinians.  It is only a question of the Palestinians being sensible and recognizing what is in their own interest, and it is a question of dangerous Israeli leftists not poisoning the well.  This, however, is transparently dishonest.

Barkat's plans have nothing to do with the needs of the Palestinians, but are a transparent effort to accommodate the aspirations of the settlers: to place the settlers above the law, "legalizing" an illegal outpost not on some isolated hilltop in the West Bank but a settler high-rise located close to the Old City, and reducing the Palestinian presence so they do not get "under foot" while the settlers create their pseudo-Biblical domain.  Indeed, the two major plans commissioned by the Municipality for this area are being carried out by town planners who are also employed, separately, by the Silwan settlers.  Indeed, it has been documented that representatives of the settlers have regularly participated in the Municipality's internal planning deliberations. The Municipality's own legal adviser has concluded that both of these constitute a grave conflict of interest.

Barkat has posted details of his plan on the website of the Jerusalem Municipality, including media-friendly talking points that try to portray the plan as reflecting only pure intentions:  preserving/restoring Jerusalem, repairing the environment, and building a new community in the area that will thrive on tourism. 

The plan, it claims, reflects a "sense of commitment to the past and consideration for the present" and as such, "the municipality is working on the development of the King's Garden neighborhood, restoration of its groves, in addition to providing an appropriate and fitting solution for the neighborhood residents." (emphasis added).  What would such a solution look like?  According to the website, it means that some "currently existing buildings...will be diverted to other areas" - with "diverted" apparently being a euphemism for "forcibly displaced." 

The website offers assurances that the Municipality is taking the concerns of these residents into account: "The process requires determination on the part of government factors and cooperation on the part of the local residents and their representatives. Whenever the residents cooperate, the municipality will be flexible, but when they attempt to undermine the plan, the municipality will remain firm in its implementation..." (emphasis added).    Which appears to translate as:  if the residents agree to the plan, then it will be implemented with their cooperation.  If they don't agree, it will be implemented anyway. 


Myth: "There is nothing controversial about what we are doing in East Jerusalem - everybody knows these areas will always remain part of Israel."


Fact:   In 1993, when the peace process was taking off, the settlement of Ramat Shlomo -- which recently caused such a headache for Vice President Biden -- didn't exist. If in 1993 you had asked what areas "everybody knows" would stay part of Israel under any future agreement, the area that is today Ramat Shlomo -- territorially distinct from any other settlement and contiguous with the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat -- would not have been mentioned.  

The same can be said of the massive settlement of Har Homa. Here, again, the argument is that "everybody knows" this area will forever be part of Israel. But again, this is an area that at the outset of the peace process was empty land -- devoid of Israelis, belonging mainly to Palestinians, and contiguous entirely with Palestinian areas -- that anybody drawing a logical border would have placed on the Palestinian side.  

The real question, then, is what does Barkat mean when he says that "everybody knows?"  If he meant that everybody understands what areas will be Israeli and what areas will be Palestinian in Jerusalem, this could be good news: it could mean that an agreement is possible, at least on Jerusalem, tomorrow.   

But that's not what he means - because for Barkat there is no place in Jerusalem that "everybody knows" will be Palestinian.  What he means is that East Jerusalem can be divided into two categories: areas that "everybody knows" Israel will keep and where it can therefore act with impunity, and areas that Israel hopes it can keep by dint of changing enough facts on the ground that such areas move into the first category. It is an approach that can be summed up as: "what's mine is mine, and everything else will hopefully be mine, too."

Those who embrace such an approach are acting under the premise that the status of Jerusalem and its borders will be determined by Israeli deeds rather than by negotiations.  It is an approach that appears to be being implemented on the ground today in the area surrounding the Old City in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods like Ras al Amud and Jabel Mukabbir Some settler groups appear to be targeting, for the first time, areas like Shuafat and Beit Hanina.  In all these area, Israeli policies - construction, demolitions, displacement, changes in the public domain - appear aimed at transforming them into places that Israel can also claim that "everyone knows," will always be Israel.

It is only in this context that one can grasp the logic in the Palestinian authority's rejection of Netanyahu's proposal to negotiate a Palestinian State in temporary borders without also freezing settlement activity in East Jerusalem. Acceptance of such a position would allow Israel to use the negotiations as an opportunity to create additional facts on the ground that would make any political agreement in Jerusalem impossible.


Myth: "The planning and approval process is so convoluted that there is no way the government of Israel could keep track of, let alone stop, East Jerusalem settlement plans - even if it wanted to do so."


Fact:   The planning and approval process for East Jerusalem settlements is long and convoluted, but that does not mean it is impenetrable or impossible to oversee.  Indeed, notwithstanding the flow charts that Netanyahu has gleefully shown to officials in Washington, the fact is that  outside parties with no access to internal government information have still been able to track and predict virtually every plan that has come up, not only since Netanyahu came to office but in the years before that.

The planning/approval process has clear and well-known "bottlenecks" - hurdles through which plans must pass and at which they can be stopped.  By monitoring activity in 5 of these "bottlenecks" (the Local Committee and its Licensing Subcommittee; the Jerusalem Municipality and Ministry of Interior websites; and the Regional Committee and its Objections Subcommittee) there should be zero surprises.

While Netanyahu and Barkat may be justified in arguing that the process is so complex that it calls for legislative reform, it is patently false to use this argument in an effort to absolve themselves of responsibility for knowing about planning and construction activities in East Jerusalem.  If motivated outside groups can track these by simply monitoring what is on the public record, the government of Israel can certainly be expected to do no less, and indeed should be expected to do far more.


Myth:  "The land we are building on in East Jerusalem wasn't being used by anyone until Israel built on it."


Fact:  This argument rests on the assumption that it is permissible to confiscate someone else's property - not for public domain but for commercial development that does not benefit the existing community - based solely on the argument that the owner doesn't really need it or isn't using it.  

Moreover, this argument rests on the false assumption that Palestinian non-use of property is voluntary.  This is patently not the case.  Shortly after the 1967 war, Israel expanded Jerusalem municipal boundaries to include not only Jordanian East Jerusalem but much of its West Bank hinterland.  Shortly thereafter, Israel expropriated much the open land in East Jerusalem, designating it for settlement construction and placing it off-limits for Palestinian development.  

It is misleading to assume that East Jerusalem's Palestinians - whose population since 1967 has grown at a much higher rate than Israel's Jewish population - didn't need or weren't interested in developing their land, when the fact is that Israel barred them from ever doing so.

Moreover, it is a fact that there is massive overcrowding in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Yet, while the government of Israel has planned and built more than 50,000 units for Israelis in East Jerusalem settlements since 1967, fewer than 600 residential units have been built for Palestinians in East Jerusalem with any kind of government support, the last of which was more than 35 years ago.  

Similarly, while the government of Israel has been generous in approving planning and permits for private Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, including in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods, it is well-documented that since 1967 East Jerusalem's Palestinian residents have had a difficult and sometimes impossible time getting permits to build on their own, privately-owned land, and the government of Israel has refused to approve new neighborhood plans that would allow for any systematic expansion.


Myth:  "East Jerusalem settlements have never bothered Palestinians and don't impact their lives negatively in any way."


Fact:  East Jerusalem settlements are a bone in the throat of Palestinian East Jerusalem. Almost invariably they are built on land that prior to expropriation had belonged to Palestinians, and that under normal circumstances would have been the natural sites for Palestinian development.  They cut off access to the West Bank and between Palestinian neighborhoods.  The infrastructure to serve them is built at the further expense of Palestinian land and generally designed to suit the needs of the settlers, while infrastructure for East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods resembles that of third-world villages.  The claim that the Palestinians "didn't mind" losing one-third of the privately owned property in East Jerusalem - for the clear purpose of Israel marginalizing their community - is reminiscent of colonial double-speak of a bygone and shameful era.


Myth: "Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is not an obstacle to peace."


Fact:  Jerusalem is the epicenter of the bitter national conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is the place where the conflict is at its peak and also the place where the conflict will come to an end.  There can be no Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and no two-state solution without an agreement - agreeable to both sides - on the future status of Jerusalem.  Furthermore, any notion that Palestinian aspirations regarding Jerusalem can be satisfied by permitting them to call some outlying area in the West Bank "Jerusalem" and making that the Palestinian capital must be recognized as pure fantasy.  

Should current settlement trends in East Jerusalem continue, the day will come sooner rather than later when the two-state solution will be irrevocably lost.  This will be because the demography and geography of Jerusalem have become so Balkanized that no reasonable, viable solution in Jerusalem will be possible.  And if there is no solution in Jerusalem, there is no two-state, conflict-ending resolution.  In short, we are hanging on by our fingernails to the two-state solution itself.  And contrary to those who would argue otherwise, there is no other solution. The loss of the two-state solution does not create alternative solutions.

But that's not all.  We are also hanging on with our fingernails to the nature of the conflict.  For now it is still a bitter, nasty national-political conflict that is at times fueled by religious extremism.  As such, it is manageable and ultimately resolvable by statesmanship and diplomacy.  However, what is transpiring in and around the Old City - both in terms of settlements and government-backed plans that are turning the public domain over to extremist, exclusionary settlers and colluding with them in turning the area into an evangelical theme park - threatens to transform this resolvable national-political conflict into an intractable religious conflict.  That is what is at stake.

By using his authorities as Mayor to support and accelerate settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, and by extending all possible support to the extreme, exclusionary settler organizations, Barkat has embraced policies that undermine the cultural and historic integrity of the city, that exacerbate already high levels of tension and volatility, and that threaten to destroy the very possibility of the two-state solution. In so doing, Barkat and his policies pose a grave threat to Israel's genuine interests in Jerusalem.

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