Settlements in Focus - Vol.1, Issue 8: Targeting the Old City's Muslim Quarter

According to recent news reports, the Israeli government has approved construction of a new Jewish settlement in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Is this true?

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According to recent news reports, the Israeli government has approved construction of a new Jewish settlement in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Is this true?

On July 4, 2005, the Israeli Ministry of Housing and Construction gave its approval to move forward on a plan (Town Planning Scheme 9870, or "TPS 9870") to construct a new Jewish settlement in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, near Herod's Gate. This approval is not final and does not mean that the plan will necessarily be implemented; however, it does allow the plan to proceed on the path toward final approval, with the official blessing of the Ministry.

Subsequent to the Ministry's approval, on July 25, 2005, the Local Planning Committee of the Jerusalem Municipality met to consider TPS 9870. During that meeting, the Committee amended the plan (reducing the maximum number of residential units from 30 to 21, based on concerns of the City Engineer, Uri Shitreet). The Planning Committee ultimately approved the amended plan by a vote of 5-2, sending it on for the next stage in the approval process.

The plan will now be sent to the Regional Planning Committee (part of the Ministry of Interior), where it will be deposited for public review. The public may file objections within sixty days of the plan's publication, and after a hearing process the plan may be approved, rejected or approved with amendments by the Regional Planning Committee. Upon approval, a building permit may be issued and construction can commence.

Why is this one settlement a big deal?

The establishment of a Jewish neighborhood in the Old City's Muslim Quarter is another unilateral act that, in combination with others (like those discussed in Settlements in Focus, Volume 1, Issues 1 & 4, for example), would predetermine the results of final status negotiations and render a political resolution of the thorny issue of Jerusalem even more difficult. The plan conflicts with the fundamental rationale for negotiations (i.e., that competing claims should be resolved through agreements), undermines the credibility of pro-peace Palestinian leaders who support negotiations, and strengthens extremists who argue that the Road Map and disengagement are a pretext for Israel to strengthen its hold on Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In addition, the plan could be a lightening rod for the kind of friction and conflict that bodes ill for the stability of Jerusalem - the one place where Israelis and Palestinians live and work, cheek-and-jowl - and violates the delicate patterns of life in the Old City. Moreover, provocative actions in the Old City in the past have touched a raw nerve and led to significant bloodshed and loss of life. For example, Israel's decision in 1996 to open access to an ancient tunnel in the heart of the Old City ("the Hasmonean Tunnel") led to widespread rioting that ended in more than 100 dead and many injured. This highly controversial new settlement project is likely to become a similar rallying point, precisely at a time when hesitant efforts are being made to resume a political process.

Who owns the land?

The site is about 3.8 dunams in size (1 dunam = about .25 acres). The Israel Land Authority (ILA), the body appointed (by a 1960 Israeli law) to administer state lands, owns 1.9 dunams - reportedly "absentee properties" (i.e., property whose owners were in "enemy" territory at the end of the 1967 War, and whose assets thus reverted, under Israeli law, to the State of Israel).

Himanuta Ltd., a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund (a quasi-governmental body whose lands, under the 1960 law, are also administered by the ILA), owns 1.3 dunams, reportedly acquired privately from the White Russian Orthodox Church in the 1980's. As detailed in a 1992 report issued by the Klugman Committee, a governmental Board of Inquiry established to investigate covert and illegal government policies abetting settler activities in Jerusalem (discussed below), the ILA, Himanuta, and the JNF acted in the past as a front for extreme settler organizations such as "Ateret Cohanim." A January 2005 article in Ha'aretz also noted: "Tens of thousands of acres on which settlements, industrial zones and roads have been built were purchased by a subsidiary of the JNF - Himanuta, Ltd. - which specialized in buying land from Palestinians through 'straw men.'" The ownership of the remaining .6 dunam of land in question could not be definitively established for the purposes of this document.

The plan appears to be a long way from implementation. What is so urgent about it now?

Experience has shown that inflammatory initiatives - like this settlement plan - are best stopped in their incipient stages. As a project of this nature gathers momentum, the "price tag"- i.e., Israeli political capital (the political costs to an Israeli government that has to stop it), U.S. and international political capital (the efforts that must be put into pressuring Israel to stop it), and the overall political and diplomatic damage done (to peace efforts and the credibility of the parties) - increases exponentially, and the likelihood that the project can actually be halted becomes more remote. All parties concerned with the stability and viability of Jerusalem and the resumption of a credible political process between Israel and the Palestinians should be working now to stop the project, before the "price" for stopping it increases, or the process passes the point of no return.

Can the plan be stopped?

The State of Israel, in its capacity as landowner (through the Israel Lands Authority) or in its capacity as plan sponsor (through the Ministry of Housing and Construction) can withdraw the plan or prevent it from proceeding to the next phase of approval (i.e., deposit for public review by the Regional Planning Board). In addition, it is possible (though unlikely) that if the plan were to proceed to the next stage it would be rejected by the Regional Planning Committee.

There is also the possibility of stopping the plan in Israeli court, via a range of legal challenges. However, no court case may be filed prior to the final approval of the plan (at which time the project will be close to implementation), and the Israeli Supreme Court has historically shown reluctance to embroil itself in politically sensitive cases, even if a compelling legal case can be made.

Future court cases may be based on technical flaws (the plan lacks the legally-required signatures of the sponsor and the landowner - problems that led to it being thrown out by the planning board last time around). The plan also appears to be at odds with policy changes implemented based on the findings of the Klugman Committee. In addition, it may conflict with a Supreme Court precedent, in which the court ruled that in order to preserve the historic patterns of residence in the Old City a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem could be denied the right to purchase a home in the Jewish Quarter. Finally, the plan may conflict with Israeli laws protecting antiquities; opposition to the plan from the Israel Antiquities Authority, however, has been muted, with some observers suggesting that political pressure has been brought to bear.

Where would the settlement be built?

The site of the planned settlement is a vacant area at the northeastern tip of the Old City, adjacent to the city wall, near Herod's Gate. One of the few remaining open spaces, the site is deep inside the Muslim Quarter, accessible only via pedestrian walkways through residential areas of the Muslim Quarter. It is in no way connected to or directly accessible from the Jewish Quarter, which is located in the southern part of the Old City.

According to the TPS 9870, what would be built?

TPS 9870, as approved by the Local Planning Council, includes 21 residential units and additional public buildings - including a gold-domed synagogue to tower over the Old City ramparts.

What is the legal (zoning) status of the land?

Consistent with Plan AM/9, which governs all land in the Old City, all of the open areas adjacent to the internal wall of the Old City are preserved " order to prevent construction near the wall, protecting its uniqueness and allowing the public at large access to a site of unparalleled historic and archeological value." The site of the settlement is consequently designated as Public Open Space. The approval of TPS 9870 required over-ruling this ban on construction close to the Old City walls.

It is worth recalling that even as the Jerusalem municipality is seeking to change the zoning in this site to permit construction that will nearly abut the Old City walls, it is still seeking to raze a Palestinian neighborhood located adjacent to the Old City, on the ground that the area should be restored to its historical state (this case is detailed in Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 4).

Has Israel previously built any settlements inside the Muslim Quarter?

This is the first time the State of Israel has officially and openly initiated the construction of a Jewish project in the Old City, outside the Jewish Quarter. In fact, it is the first time in history that the State of Israel has officially sought to build a Jewish settlement within the confines of an existing Palestinian neighborhood anywhere in East Jerusalem.

Non-governmental settlers groups have taken over, through legal and illegal means, properties throughout the Muslim quarter. However, these projects have been of a much smaller scale than the current plan and were never officially initiated or sponsored by the government. Settler efforts to target the Old City were dealt a blow by the Klugman Report, which, for a time, brought to an end surreptitious official assistance for the settlers groups. Support resumed several years later when Binyamin Netanyahu took over as Prime Minister, but at a much diminished level, until now.

What is the population of the Old City like?

Note: All population figures come from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics as of December 31, 2003.

With 35,372 residents and a total area of about 900 dunams, Jerusalem's Old City is one of the most densely populated areas in Israel, and the Muslim Quarter is the most densely populated area of the Old City. Population density varies dramatically within the Old City; details for each quarter, and for Jerusalem as a whole, are as follows:

  • Jerusalem: Jerusalem (not including the Old City) is about 125,398 dunams in size, with 657,845 residents, for a population density of about 5 persons per dunam.
  • The Jewish Quarter: The Jewish Quarter is 122 dunams in size and has 2,387 inhabitants, for a population density of around 20 persons per dunam. Of these residents, 1,811 are Jewish, 560 are Muslim, 12 are Christian, and 4 are "unclassified." According to a 2002 report by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel studies, the Muslim population is composed of around 100 families living mainly on the edge of the Quarter, in homes that were designated for expropriation after 1967, but never actually taken from their owners.
  • The Christian Quarter: The Christian Quarter is 192 dunams in size and has 5,276 residents, for a population density of around 28 persons per dunam. Of these residents, 3888 are Christian, 1,242 are Muslim, 143 are Jewish, and 3 are "unclassified."
  • The Armenian Quarter: The Armenian Quarter is 126 dunams in size and has 2,461 residents, for a population density of around 20 persons per dunam. Of these residents, 1205 are Christian, 748 are Jewish, 504 are Muslims, and 4 are "unclassified."
  • The Muslim Quarter: The Muslim Quarter has a population of 25,248 residents and is 461 dunams in size, of which about 142 dunams is taken up by the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif - an area not available for residence. This yields an overall population density (for the habitable 319 dunams) of about 79 persons per dunam. Of these residents, 23,461 are Muslim, 431 are Jewish, 1354 are Christian, and 2 are "unclassified."

What is the history of Israeli attempts to build a settlement at this site?

In 1982, Ariel Sharon was the Minister of Agriculture when he established a special committee to deal with "government" properties in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Committee actively worked to help settler groups like "Ateret Cohanim" gain control of properties in the Muslim Quarter, including a scheme to allow "Ateret Cohanim" to build a settlement at the Herod's Gate site. The plan was eventually shelved, following an expose in the Israeli press.

In 1991, Ariel Sharon was the Minister of Housing and Construction when he tried to fast-track an "Ateret Cohanim" plan to develop the Herod's Gate site through a special planning committee established to expedite construction of homes for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He was blocked by opposition from professional planning authorities: the Town Planner determined that use of the accelerated track was illegal; the plan was found to conflict with the patterns of life in the Old City; and the plan was found to violate all of the of the principles geared to preserve the Old City as a site of unique historical and cultural value. The plan was never brought before the committee.

In October 1991, following the takeover by settlers of several Palestinian homes in Silwan, Member of Knesset Haim Oron and lawyer Daniel Seidemann exposed the existence of policies which covertly handed Palestinian properties to settler groups. Following protracted legal proceedings, the Israeli government established an official Board of Inquiry, headed by Haim Klugman, then-Director General of the Ministry of Justice. On September 13th, 1992, the Klugman Committee submitted its findings to the Israeli Government (the report was and remains classified). The Committee determined that the policies implemented by Minister Sharon in East Jerusalem were tainted by systematic and blatant illegality, from illegally funneling government assets to settler groups, to using falsified documents to seize Palestinian properties as "absentee properties" and then handing them over to settlers.

In May 1998, Ariel Sharon was the Minister of Infrastructure (a position that gave him control over the ILA) when "Ateret Cohanim" submitted to the Local Planning Committee a planning scheme for the Herod's Gate site. Minister Sharon attempted to intervene on the settlers' behalf when, after the plan was rejected by the Local Planning Committee, the settlers began to build illegally on the site. Then-Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, under threat of legal action, issued a demolition order (which caused the settlers to demolish the structures). At the same time, in an unprecedented act that both exceeded his official mandate and conflicted with the authority of the municipality, then-Minister Sharon attempted to prevent the demolition and grant official sanction to the settlers' claim to the site, issuing a press release stating: "Ateret Cohanim has legal possession of the site adjacent to Herod's Gate since it was leased to them by the ILA for various purposes... [no such lease existed]. In the event that they lack any required approval it will be issued forthwith, thereby nullifying the excuse used by the Municipality to justify such a drastic measure as issuing an administrative demolition order... " [under Israeli law, no such "approval" could be issued, since the area lacked an approved town plan].

In July 2005, Ariel Sharon is the Prime Minister of Israel, and the plan to build a Jewish settlement at the Herod's Gate site has resurfaced, in the form of TPS 9870.

Could TPS 9870 have moved without high-level approval?

Given the political sensitivity of all things related to Jerusalem, it is improbable that a plan of this nature could have proceeded without high-level approval, including the approval of Prime Minister Sharon. Moreover, this is not the first attempt to establish a settlement at this particular site, and Ariel Sharon (who himself owns a home in the heart of the Muslim Quarter), in his various roles in government, played a central role in each previous attempt.

Produced by Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now (USA), with the assistance of Daniel Seidemann, Ir Amim, Jerusalem