Israel's planning policy in East Jerusalem since 1967 has largely been dictated by the desire to achieve full Israeli sovereignty over the area and maintain a solid Israeli majority in the city. The city official in charge of East Jerusalem, Yakir Segev, said in a press interview, of the use of the planning instrument to maintain a desirable demographic balance: "We will not allow the residents of East Jerusalem to build as much as they need… I do not think the most important goal is to resolve East Jerusalem's housing shortage. Ultimately, even if it is not politically corrected to say this, we will look at Jerusalem's demographic situation to make sure that in 20 years we do not wake up to an Arab city."
Indeed, since 1967 the government of Israel has built some 50,000 housing units in East Jerusalem for Israeli citizens; during the same time less than 600 apartments were built for Palestinian residents of the city with government help -- the last of them more than 30 years ago. Israel has also obstructed and continues to obstruct the development of Palestinian neighborhoods through private construction. First, some 35% of the land in East Jerusalem was confiscated to build major Israeli neighborhoods on it (Gilo, Har Homa, French Hill and others). Construction on most of the land that remained in Palestinian hands after that confiscation (45 km²) is impossible for a number of reasons:
1. "Green zones:" 30% of the land that remained in Palestinian ownership after the confiscation was declared as "green zones," where building is not allowed.
2. Lack of outline plans: The Israeli authorities have hardly approved a single outline plan for the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem and without a valid outline plan it is impossible to issue construction permits. Anywhere else in Israel statutory planning is the government's responsibility. In East Jerusalem, most of the burden of statutory planning falls on the shoulders of the Palestinian residents. Since 2000 a comprehensive outline plan for Jerusalem has been in the planning but even though the plan was approved by the district committee for deposit for public review (in 2009), Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been holding up deposit of the plan because he thinks it is too generous in terms of the building possibilities it opens to the Palestinian residents of the city.
3. Unregistered land: To obtain a building permit an applicant has to present registration of the land in his name at the land registry. In cases of land that is not registered, which is the common case in East Jerusalem, the law requires proof of an ownership relationship between the applicant and the land as a substitute for proof of ownership (through depositions of neighbors, the village head, a lawyer, etc.). From the beginning of this decade, the planning authorities in Jerusalem have introduced a new requirement that exceeds the requirements of the law, according to which a resident who owns unregistered land and applies for a building permit will act to register the land by drawing up a "plan for the purpose of registration," and must open a registration file at the land registry. This requirement in many cases actually freezes the registration procedure from the outset.
4. Low building ratios: In the few areas where there are outline plans, the building ratios granted are very low: construction is permitted on only 25-75% of the land, compared to much higher building ratios in West Jerusalem (75-125%).
The few building permits granted over the years do not meet the needs of the growing population: since 1967 the Palestinian population has grown from 70,000 to 270,000 but during that time building permits were issued for only 14,000 housing units. The Jerusalem municipality assesses that based on the natural growth of the Palestinian population it requires 1500 new housing units a year.
The municipality of Jerusalem recognizes the responsibility of the Israeli government for the under-planning of East Jerusalem. In an official document, it enumerates the reasons for the illegal construction: "Along with the problem of population growth versus a land shortage or impossibility of saturated construction, other reasons are the lack of outline plans and insufficient master-plans… lack of land registration in East Jerusalem and lack of government services to register land… (and) lack of coordination between the government agencies" (from the document "Comprehensive resolution of construction violations in Jerusalem," December 2009).
The results of the policy of under-planning:
• Illegal and unplanned construction: Due to the almost absolute impossibility of obtaining a building permit in the Palestinian neighborhoods, many people have built their homes illegally. Current estimates are that half of the houses in East Jerusalem, 20,000 houses, were built without permits. As a result of the unplanned building there is a problem of overcrowding in the Palestinian neighborhoods, hazardous construction, numerous homes that are not connected to the water, sewage and electricity systems and a lack of roads, sidewalks and parking spaces. Likewise, the families who built houses without permits pay high fines to the city reaching tens and even hundreds of thousands of shekels, and their homes are under the perpetual threat of demolition.
• House demolitions: Every year the municipality of Jerusalem demolishes about 100 houses. The issue of home demolitions in East Jerusalem draws international attention and criticism and has even led to conflicts between the Israeli administration and the US and European governments, and therefore since the end of 2009 there have hardly been any home demolitions. For further reading see Ir Amim report, "A Layman's Guide to Home Demolitions."
• Emigration from Jerusalem and return to the city because of the separation wall: When they despaired of obtaining building permits and for other social and economic reasons, many Palestinians, at least 45,000, opted for relocation to the suburbs and moved to towns such as Abu Dis, al-Azariya and al-Ram. These residents built outside of the city but maintained their addresses and properties in Jerusalem so they would not lose their rights as residents of the city (blue identity cards). Since the separation fence was built these people, who are permanent residents of Jerusalem, remained on the east side of the fence and need to pass through checkpoints and make large bypasses to enter the city every day. As a result, many of them moved back to the city, which has made the existing housing shortage even worse.