Settlements in Focus: Vol. 1, Issue 4 - "East Jerusalem Land Grab?"

 According to recent news reports, the Jerusalem Municipality wants to demolish a large number of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. Is this true? Yes. In November 2004, the Jerusalem town planner reportedly sent instructions to the building enforcement department to aggressively enforce building laws in a Palestinian neighborhood on the southern edge of the Old City, called ...


Posted on 6/24/05

According to recent news reports, the Jerusalem Municipality wants to demolish a large number of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. Is this true?

Yes. In November 2004, the Jerusalem town planner reportedly sent instructions to the building enforcement department to aggressively enforce building laws in a Palestinian neighborhood on the southern edge of the Old City, called Silwan (which Jewish settlers call the "City of David"). Subsequently, in May 2005, the municipality announced plans to demolish 88 homes in this area, home to about 1000 Palestinians. The affected homes make up a section of Silwan the Palestinians call "al Bustan" (which means "the grove") and the settlers call "Emek Ha'Melech" (which means "Valley of the King," referring to King David).

What is the rationale for these demolitions?

The city engineer, Uri Shitreet, who announced the demolition plans, justified the demolitions on the grounds that the area was zoned as "open space" or "green space" by Israel several years ago, and therefore is off-limits to construction. He reportedly stated that the reason for the demolitions was to return the area to its historical state, as part of an archeological park that Israel wants to establish around the Old City. He subsequently was reported as stating that the demolitions were necessary because the homes are built in a wadi (dry riverbed) and residents are at risk from floods.

Have there been other demolitions of this magnitude?

The last demolitions of comparable magnitude took place immediately after the 1967 War, when Israel demolished the Mughrabi Quarter immediately adjacent to the Western Wall, a neighborhood of Arab homes that once stood where the Kotel plaza is today.

Are the Palestinian homes in this area illegal?

Some of the homes in this area were built before 1967 (i.e., before Israel gained control of East Jerusalem). In these cases the issue of an Israeli building permit cannot apply, since Israel was not in control of the areas. Most of the other homes in the area were built, with or without the proper permits, more than seven years ago. Israeli law includes a statute of limitations on building violations under which a home that has been standing for at least seven years cannot be demolished, regardless of whether or not the proper permits were issued for its construction. As a result, nearly all of the 88 homes slated for demolition are, in fact, legally exempt from such orders.

Do the Palestinians have any chance of blocking the demolitions?

The good news for the Palestinians who live in the al Bustan area of Silwan is that Israeli law and the statute of limitations (discussed above) should, in theory, prevent the mayor from issuing the demolition orders. It is perhaps because of this that on June 8th, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski announced that the municipality does not intend to issue administrative demolition orders for the houses in the al Bustan area of Silwan and plans to enter into a dialogue with residents of the area to resolve any problems. For the residents of the area this is a positive sign: while the municipality is not admitting that the shift in plans is due to legal blockages rather than a change of heart, the Mayor is nonetheless indicating that mass demolitions are not imminent.

The potentially bad news for the Palestinians who live in the al Bustan area of Silwan is that sometimes law is used in the service of dubious justice. In this case, the Israeli law in question makes it illegal for anyone to make use of an illegally built structure (i.e., it is illegal not only to build without a permit, but also to live in a home built without a permit, even if that home is protected by the statute of limitations). As of this writing, legal proceedings already initiated by the municipality against some of the homes have not been stopped. This has led observers to speculate that the municipality may be testing to see if the courts will find a way to overrule the statute of limitations in these cases or permit the municipality to circumvent it. They could, for instance, order the eviction of residents and the sealing of homes, which would facilitate demolition at a later stage.

Given the intense interest of extremist settlers - and the apparent parallel interest of the municipality - to gain control over this land, this case is clearly not closed.

What is special about this area?

Silwan has long been the target of intense efforts by extremist Jewish settlers to gain a foothold and expand their presence in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Silwan in particular has been targeted for religious/ideological reasons, because he oldest ruins in Jerusalem lie under this area and many believe it to be the site of King David's Jerusalem.

Is it possible that the demolition plans are not related to the settlers?

It is possible that the Jerusalem municipality wants to demolish Palestinian homes in the al Bustan area of Silwan for the stated reasons of enforcing Israeli law regarding building permits or reclaiming an archeologically important area to create a park. However, there is a long history of settler efforts, often aided by the government of Israel, to gain control of buildings and land in this neighborhood - including through the selective imposition of building and zoning regulations, and the designation of sites as archeologically or historically important and subsequently giving the sites to the settlers. As a result, Palestinians and many outside observers believe that the stated reasons are more likely a pretext for evicting Palestinians and handing the land to the settlers. (For more details regarding Israeli government assistance to the settlers, see the section below dealing with the Klugman Commission Report).

The argument that the houses should be demolished to protect the residents from flooding rings especially hollow, given the age and apparent durability of the neighborhood and given the total lack of interest and investment the Jerusalem municipality has demonstrated since 1967 regarding health and safety issues affecting Palestinian neighborhoods.

There have also been stories recently about a controversial property deal involving two hotels in an Arab area of Jerusalem. What is the story here?

The facts of this story are not known and may never be known. At issue is the fate of two hotels and a row of stores owned by the Greek Orthodox (Christian) Patriarchate and located at the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City. Reportedly, an officer of the Greek Patriarch secretly leased these properties on a long-term basis (effectively the same as selling them) to organizations affiliated with the Israeli government or with extreme nationalist Israeli settler groups devoted to gaining control of properties in the Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City. What is known for certain is that the financial officer for the Greek Patriarchate has fled the country and the Greek Patriarch himself has been widely denounced and discredited.

Why did this story get so much attention?

The story rises above the level of internal Church scandal to Palestinian national outrage (and international concern) because it concerns not only the possible transfer of property in a Palestinian area to extremist settlers, but property in one of the most sensitive locations in all of Jerusalem. Jaffa Gate is the meeting point between the Muslem, Christian, and Armenian Quarters, and the lifeline from the Jewish center of Jerusalem to the Jewish Quarter. Any future peace agreement will require delicate arrangements in this area, and the takeover of properties by settlers in this location will make any such arrangements extraordinarily difficult.

Are all settlements in East Jerusalem the same?

Historically there have been two kinds of settlement activities in East Jerusalem. The first kind is the large, government-built settlements, established from the early 1970's through the 1990's (with expansion of these settlements continuing even today). Such activity represents straightforward government action: the formal expropriation of largely uninhabited land inside the expanded borders of East Jerusalem (but outside of then-existing Palestinian built-up areas), via a range of legal tactics, including zoning land as "green area" and thus off-limits to construction by the owners, and then re-zoning it for settlement use; the issuance of construction tenders; government investment in new infrastructure (with no similar investment in adjacent Palestinian neighborhoods); and government marketing of housing units. These settlements were established with the goals of creating a large Israeli presence in East Jerusalem (and thus making the city indivisible) and preventing the expansion of Palestinian neighborhoods already there. These settlements are viewed today by most Israelis as legitimate and permanent Israeli neighborhoods that will remain under Israeli control under any future peace agreement, with past negotiations indicating likely concurrence of the Palestinians under a negotiated agreement.

The second kind of settlement activity is the clusters of Israelis living in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. These are the ideologically-motivated settlers who have for decades sought to gain a foothold in neighborhoods like Ras Al-Amud, Silwan, and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Such efforts have nothing to do with legitimate housing needs but instead reflect a political and religious extremist ideology that seeks to establish Jewish control over all areas of Jerusalem, and especially the most historically and religiously sensitive areas.

What has been the Israeli Government role vis-à-vis settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods?

The Israeli government has played a massive, but generally covert, role in helping settlers take over property in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The most significant Israeli government support for such activities took place from the mid-1980's until 1992. During this period there was a covert Israeli government policy of targeting properties in Palestinian neighborhoods and turning them over to settler organizations like El Ad (whose activities focus exclusively on Silwan) and Ateret Cohanim (whose focus is the Old City). As revealed in an Israeli government-commissioned report (see below) the tactics included declaring Palestinian property to be absentee property (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) and turning it over to settlers; and using government pressure to convince Palestinian owners to sell to settlers. The primary player orchestrating this policy was Ariel Sharon, who was Minister of Infrastructure during much of the period in question, and who in 1987 acquired the lease on an apartment deep inside the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, opening the way for the settler organization Ateret Cohanim to begin aggressively targeting properties in the same area.

The situation changed in 1992, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin commissioned the Klugman Committee report - an interdepartmental report on settlement activity in East Jerusalem issued by a committee headed by Haim Klugman, then-Director General of the Ministry of Justice. The report revealed the extensive covert and largely illegal government activities to expedite settlement inside East Jerusalem neighborhoods, bankrolled by the Israeli taxpayers without their knowledge. As a result of the Klugman Report and the ensuing scandal, government support for settlement activities in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem ceased abruptly in late 1992, and while support resumed several years later when Binyamin Netanyahu took over as Prime Minister, it was at a much diminished level.

Over the past year or so there are clear indications that Israeli government support for such activities has resumed - something that is unlikely to have occurred without the knowledge and consent of the Israeli government at the highest levels.

Currently, what is the Israeli Government role in building East Jerusalem settlements?

What we are now witnessing is a mingling of the two kinds of settlement activity discussed above. This means that for the first time in a decade - and for the first time since the establishment of official Israeli-Palestinian relations and the onset of the peace process - the Israeli government has resumed active support for extremist settler activity in East Jerusalem. The plan to build E-1, for example, would appear to be a straightforward, government-led plan to build a settlement in an open area on the periphery of Jerusalem (for details of this controversial plan, please see Settlements in Focus, Vol 1, Issue 1). However, extremist settlers are involved in this project as well. One of the first things the Israeli government wants to build in E-1 is a new headquarters for Israel's police force for the West Bank, currently housed in a large compound located in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhood of Ras al Amud. When the police leave the compound for their new home in E-1, there is an understanding in place that the compound will be handed over to the settlers, who have plans to expand it into an even larger Israeli settlement. Similarly, there is clear Israeli government backing for a planned settlement of a couple of hundred units in the Palestinian neighborhood of Abu Dis (politically important because this neighborhood has often been discussed as the possible site for a future Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem).

In fairness, it should be said that the current Israeli Minister of Housing and Construction is far less sympathetic to such efforts than his predecessors were, although he does seem to support building in E-1 and the potentially draconian implications of that plan.

Why do settlers want to live in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem?

The settlers who target Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem are driven by both messianic/religious reasons and political/nationalist reasons. On the messianic/religious side, they seek to establish Jewish predominance, if not exclusivity, in those areas that resonate with religious-messianic significance: the entire Old City (and especially the Muslim and Christian Quarters), Silwan (a.k.a. the City of David), the Mount of Olives and Ras al Amud, and any places in sight of these areas. They also seek to promote messianic aspirations regarding the Temple Mount. On the political/nationalist side, they seek to establish a Jewish-Israeli presence in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods and thereby block any kind of territorial compromise in Jerusalem. Many also seek to use the issue of Jerusalem to derail peace negotiations and progress towards a peace agreement.

Who funds these efforts?

It is difficult to answer this question. As discussed above, until 1992 there was a covert and largely illegal government policy to expedite settlement inside East Jerusalem, paid for with public funds without and taxpayer knowledge. Today, it is hard to determine whether direct funding of these activities by government sources has resumed, since funding streams are difficult to pin down within the broader budget. Aside from about 33 million shekels a year provided by the Israeli government to subsidize private security guards for settlers living in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, the Israeli monetary contribution is in all likelihood negligible.

Government funding aside, it is clear that since 1992, private donations have served as the key driver of settlement activities in East Jerusalem. All the major settler groups have sister organizations and foundations that fundraise for them abroad (many with non-profit status in the United States). For example, El Ad, which focuses exclusively on settling Silwan, solicits on its website ( donations for an organization called "Friends of Ir David," with a Brooklyn address; the website states that donations will help "reclaim lands and resettle Jewish people," and notes that donations are tax deductible. Similarly, Ateret Cohanim maintains a U.S. sister organization called "American Friends of Ateret Cohanim - Jerusalem Reclamation Project" with a New York address as well (; the website also notes that all donations are tax deductible.

The most prominent backing - verifiable through public records - comes from American multi-millionaire Dr. Irving Moskowitz (for more details about the activities of Irving Moskowitz, as well as extensive background and articles about settlement in East Jerusalem, see There are also indications that some funding is coming from right-wing Evangelical Christian sources in the United States, but this remains largely conjecture.

What has been the US government position vis-à-vis these efforts?

Historically successive U.S. administrations have recognized the dangers extremist Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem pose not only to security and stability in Jerusalem, but also to the hopes for ever achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. As a result, these successive Administrations have weighed in strongly in opposition to settler efforts in places like Ras al Amud and Abu Dis, with some effect. The Bush Administration has expressed disapproval for settler activities in East Jerusalem but, unlike past Administrations, has been more reluctant to intervene to prevent them from blossoming into full-fledged crises.

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