Nir Hasson
June 29, 2009 - 12:00am

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is set to announce a plan to freeze demolition orders on around 70 percent of unauthorized construction in the east of the city, Haaretz has learned. The municipality would also negotiate compensation terms with families evicted from the remaining 30 percent.

The plan represents a departure from earlier statements, in which Barkat spoke out against illegal construction by Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

According to various estimates, Jerusalem has some 20,000 unauthorized buildings, home to around 180,000 people. The demolition of each house requires considerable legal efforts and a heavy police presence, amid fears that protests by residents and housing activists can escalate into riots. In recent years, the municipality did not have the time or resources to demolish more than 100 houses a year.

"Since the mayor took office, the municipality has been working on housing planning in the east of the city, which includes increasing construction opportunities in some areas, expanding housing in others and stopping illegal construction in areas where no construction is allowed," the mayor's office said in a statement.

"The reality on the ground is being taken into consideration in the planning process when possible. City Hall will present the plans when the time is right."

Upon taking office in November, Barkat spoke out several times against unauthorized construction, which soon provoked a clash between him and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In March, Barkat told reporters that Clinton's statements against house demolitions in East Jerusalem were "air" and that avoiding demolitions could "send the wrong message out to lawbreakers."

He was quoted by The Associated Press as saying he rejected "the claims we're throwing people out of their homes. If you're building a house without the appropriate permits you need to be prepared to suffer the consequences." Sources close to Barkat said they were "astonished" at the forcefulness of the American reaction to what they perceived to be a purely municipal matter.

The deputy mayor for East Jerusalem affairs, Yakir Segev, who is preparing the plan with Barkat, said it was the permits policy that pushed residents to build illegally, as only 18 permits were issued in 2008.

"To get a construction permit in East Jerusalem you have to be more than a saint," said Segev. On the other hand, he said the municipality simply did not have the means to enforce all the demolition orders, and that there was no formal way to resolve the crisis.

Gray houses

Sources at City Hall told Haaretz that these two factors prompted the municipality to begin working on a new solution. The program was inspired by the Goldberg Committee's report, which recommended the legalization of certain unauthorized Bedouin villages in the Negev.

In the Jerusalem plan, retroactive construction permits will not be handed out, but homes will be listed as "gray houses" - they will stay illegal but all legal actions against them will cease. Their new status will allow City Hall to collect municipal taxes, which will be invested in a separate municipal company to improve East Jerusalem, while the residents will be able to legally sell their houses if they wish.

Owners of houses that do not receive formal status will have the chance to take part in negotiations on voluntary eviction with compensation. Barkat is currently seeking a project manager for the program. Sources in the municipality said the role had been offered to former Meretz MK Ran Cohen, but Cohen declined.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017