Behind the Headlines Arab Building Boom Around Jerusalem
Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines Arab Building Boom Around Jerusalem

Download PDF for this date

When Israelis boast of the unprecedented growth in the Jewish population in Jerusalem, they ignore a significant demographic factor–that the Jerusalem Arab population increased at a higher proportion and at a faster rate. Of the 344,000 people living in Jerusalem at the end of 1974, 92,000 were Gentiles. Since 1967, the number of Jews in Jerusalem has risen from 199,000 to 252,000–an increase of 27 percent at a yearly rate of 3.5 percent.

But during the same period, the Gentilemainly Arab–population of the city rose from 68,000 to 92,000–an increase of 35 percent at a yearly rate of 4.5 percent. Although the Israeli government is constantly building new Jewish suburbs, with the aim of keeping a ratio of three Jews to every Arab in Greater Jerusalem, this balance now seems to be threatened.

The Arab population of Jerusalem is growing continuously, partly natural growth and partly a result of internal “immigration” from the West Bank–mainly from the surroundings of the large Arab city of Hebron, 30 miles south of Jerusalem. This sort of immigration is illegal, because it means that residents of the occupied territories are moving into Israel proper. (East Jerusalem and the neighboring villages were officially annexed to Israel after the Six-Day War.)


However, the authorities find this phenomenon difficult to cope with. It is an age-old process, going back further than the Six-Day War. Moreover, the authorities only recently became aware of its scope. True, there are statistical data on the Arab population of Jerusalem. But only air photos taken recently by the city authorities revealed that the little villages around the city have become an ever-thickening Arab wall between Jewish West Jerusalem and the Judaean desert.

The Arabs, unaccustomed to large apartment complexes–shikunim, so common in Israel–live in spread-out villages, with one family per house. The houses are usually one story high, and never higher than two stories. Some 1000 new houses have been built in the villages around Jerusalem, almost all of them without a legal permit.

The city, deeply preoccupied with a plague of illegal construction by Jewish contractors, could hardly find the time and, more important, the manpower, to deal with this problem in the Arab sector. The city planning authorities continuously explain to Arab leaders the importance of obtaining legal permits for construction, but under existing laws this procedure is tiresome and long, widely condemned as inadequate, but still not replaced by a better law. As long as the Jewish contractors flagrantly disobey the law, the Arabs say they can hardly be expected to do otherwise.

Of the 24,000 new Arab residents of Greater Jerusalem since 1967, 11,500 live in these outlying, illegal village homes. Deputy Mayor Meron Benvinisti, noted for his doveish polities, told the JTA he was in no way perturbed by the increase in Jerusalem’s Arab population. In fact, he contended, the number of homes built does not meet requirements, and many newcomers are forced to live in slum conditions within the crowded Old City.


The nature of the Arab expansion does, however, alarm some residents of the newly built Jewish quarters on the outskirts of the city. These quarters had been intentionally built in the northern, eastern and southern extremities of the Jerusalem Jewish belt around the Old City. As the Arab villages expanded, they stretched out towards the new Jewish quarter, drawing an Arab chain around the Jewish housing projects.

In some cases only a narrow street separates between the edge of the Jewish neighborhood and that of the Arab village. Arab and Jewish children play together, Arab women work as maids at their Jewish neighbors homes (this does not happen vice-versa) and then they shop together at the local supermarket.

Paul Lederman, an immigrant from Denver, Colorado, who now lives in the neighborhood of Talpiot-East, plays pool at an Arab pool hall in Arab-A-Sawahre across the street. He made friends with his maid’s family in the village, and as a former teacher visited the local Arab school. “My children have not quite adjusted, and they don’t have Arab friends,” Lederman said; clearly enjoying the surroundings so different from Denver. “But that will come too.”

Others in Talpiot-East are not so enthusiastic about the proximity of their Arab neighbors, but most Jews slowly find out what Lederman learned fast–that healthy relationships can exist between the two peoples. Fewer realize that such relations must exist, because the expansion of Arab suburbs of Jerusalem is something Israel will have to learn to live with–unless it wants to administratively limit this population and act counter to the repeated Israeli argument that Arabs and Jews can live in harmony in Jerusalem.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund