Finally facing the problems of East Jerusalem

A panoramic view of East Jerusalem. (Wikimedia Commons)
A panoramic view of East Jerusalem. (Wikimedia Commons)

Annexed by Israel in ’67, our government turned a blind eye to East Jerusalem over 56 years. And as East Jerusalem’s residents do not vote in municipal elections, they hadn’t any representatives on the City Council to forward their interests.

This past August, just weeks ago, the Israeli government approved for the first time the significant sum of 3.2 billion shekels for an all-inclusive East Jerusalem 5 year development plan (2024-2028) comprising infrastructure, housing, healthcare, education, public transportation, statutory plans, welfare, cultural programming and much else, to be administered by the Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs and Tradition headed by Meir Porush. The plan’s two main goals: reinforcing Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem and reducing social and economic gaps.

But how do you address a problem that has been ignored over such an extended period of time for a very large and complex area (70 sq. km) with hundreds of thousands of residents – 61% Arab, 39% Jewish, 580,000 in all, its situation severe? To say the least, an extremely difficult undertaking.

Important to understand of course is the Arab culture, their history, social and economic characteristics and way of life. Families live together in large households, much of their population quite young. The high rate of poverty is attributed to low participation in the labor force, the Hebrew language a barrier for many. Unskilled employment, needless to say, offers low salaries. Most of the wealthy reside in neighborhoods north of the Old City.

Given the long-standing discriminatory policies of Jerusalem’s planning authorities, some 20,000 illegal buildings were built, many by contractors sans architects or self-built. Some apartments built without permit were demolished from time to time. Until now severe limits were placed on allowable densities and building heights, few over 4 stories. Proof of ownership was another significant block to development. Few statutory plans, their approval a prerequisite for the issuance of building permits, were prepared.

Initially proposed here is the establishment of separate planning teams made up of top-flight professionals for several areas – the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and the areas to its north, east and south. Researchers and programmers, benefitting from existing studies, would be supported by sociologists and economists.

As for physical planning: planning teams for each of the four areas would be made up of Israeli and Arab architects, landscape architects, urban planners, public transportation planners, roads, mechanical, electrical and communication engineers. A Chief Architect, heading bi-weekly meetings would insure the project’s unity, coordinating the work between the various government ministries, project managers.

Arab professionals familiar with the various areas might help determine priorities such as pointing out areas where existing housing might be expanded. Detailed documentation of the situation on the ground would be followed by its careful analysis and the preparation of alternative development proposals.

Concessions for thousands of illegal buildings must be part of these plans. Urgent matters would be dealt with alongside comprehensive three dimensional and long-range planning, later to be broken down into stages, for example new roads providing access to new housing. A statutory master plan enabling the issuance of building permits would be prepared in the final stages.

In order to cut red tape a special bureaucracy needs to be set up. Hopefully, the enormous budget approved for this long-awaited venture will be properly administered by our government.

Late is better than never.

Gerard Heumann – Architect and Town Planner, Jerusalem

About the Author
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.
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