Illegal Arab building denounced as threat to control over Jerusalem

JERUSALEM, June 2 (JTA) — Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert this week described a wave of illegal building by Arabs in eastern Jerusalem as a “cancer” threatening Israeli sovereignty over the city. Olmert said the phenomenon was no longer marginal, and that he intended to respond with massive and strict enforcement of demolition orders. The mayor’s remarks came against the backdrop of reports that more than 1,000 new buildings or additions to existing ones had been illegally constructed by Arab residents in the eastern half of the capital during the past six months. The conflict over building in Jerusalem is just the latest controversy in what has become a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Palestinians broke off negotiations with the Netanyahu government in mid-March after Israel began construction of a new Jewish neighborhood on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem. The Palestinians want the eastern half of the city as the capital of an independent state, and view the new construction as altering the status quo before final settlement negotiations take place on the future of the city. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that the Palestinian Authority had instructed Arab residents not to request building permits from the Jerusalem municipality and had also provided subsidized loans to finance the construction. The paper said hundreds of the illegally built houses have not been rented and are standing empty. Others have been rented out to Palestinians who live outside Jerusalem, but want to maintain resident status, which requires an address in the city. Jerusalem planning officials were quoted as expressing concern that the illegal building boom by Arabs in eastern Jerusalem would cut off outlying Jewish neighborhoods and settlements from the center of the city. Planning officials pointed to such cases in north Jerusalem, where extensive illegal construction by Arabs separated the Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Ya’acov neighborhoods from the city center. Municipal officials apparently are having difficulty dealing with the illegal construction because of insufficient personnel. Only one quarter of the registered infractions are being processed. Of those, even fewer cases in which demolition orders are issued are being carried out. Only six demolitions were issued this year, and only one of these was carried out. From 1993 to 1995, 43 out of 134 demolition orders were implemented. Officials said that in some cases, demolition orders were not implemented because of legal or political constraints. Palestinian housing officials, meanwhile, rejected the claims that their building has political goals. They said it occurred only because of a housing shortage and discrimination regarding the approval of new projects. Palestinian housing officials said that, if anything, Arab residents had stopped seeking building permits because they assumed they would be turned down. In a bid to restore the confidence of the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to support building for Arabs in eastern Jerusalem.

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