Mufti OKs Move to Jewish Jerusalem [Archives:2008/1214/Reportage]

December 8 2008

Abd Al-Karim Shweiki
The Media Line news agency

Until recently only a handful of Arabs lived in western Jerusalem – an area dominated by Jews. But The Media Line has learned that the move of Arabs into western Jerusalem has not only speeded up, it has also been sanctioned by the top Palestinian Muslim authority.

More and more Palestinian Jerusalemites, fearing the loss of their Jerusalem IDs or their social security benefits, and running away from the very high prices in eastern Jerusalem, are moving to neighboring Neve Yaakov, Pisgat Zeev and French Hill where the vast majority of the residents are Jews.

There is no clear estimate of how many Palestinians are already living there, but Palestinian officials in the city estimate that hundreds of Palestinian Jerusalemites have already moved to these Jewish neighborhoods.

A senior Palestinian official told The Media Line that Palestinian negotiators had already accepted that Neveh Yaakov, Pisgat Zeev and French Hill would be part of Israel in a final agreement over the issue of the status of Jerusalem.

Husam, who has lived in Pisgat Zeev for five years, says, “It's very expensive to live in east Jerusalem and therefore I moved to Pisgat Zeev where houses are less expensive and services are more accessible.

“I know many friends and others who did the same and I think that it will not be too long before Pisgat Zeev and Neve Yaakov will be mixed Arab-Jewish communities,” he adds.

Husam does not give his last name fearing reactions from both Jews and Arabs, even though he says that so far he hasn't faced any problems living in Pisgat Zeev.

Indeed, more Palestinians are connected to Pisgat Zeev than ever before: the mall in Pisgat Zeev is full of Arabs, with women wearing headscarves, while Palestinians in the neighboring Shu'afat and Beit Hanina have been instructed to go to Israel Police headquarters in Neve Yaakov when they face problems in their neighborhoods.

While Husam rents in Pisgat Zeev, there are others who have bought houses there, as well as in Neve Yaakov, while wealthier Palestinians have bought homes in French Hill.

Rami, who has lived in French Hill for six years, describes his life as fantastic.

“I pay the equivalent of $500 a month in rent; unlike Arabs, people there don't interfere in the lives of others. I don't even know my neighbor's name,” he says.

'I don't spend a lot of time searching for parking, I go up to my apartment with the elevator, close my door and that's it,” he adds, when asked if he faces problems with his Jewish neighbors.

Palestinians consider Pisgat Zeev, Neveh Yaakov and French Hill as “settlements” built on Palestinian land, while Jews consider them “neighborhoods” in Jerusalem.

Until recently Palestinian leaders protested to the Americans and the Europeans regarding Israeli plans to build new houses in Pisgat Zeev and Neveh Yaakov.

When asked in a small gathering in Jerusalem the Muslim opinion regarding buying or renting houses in these neighborhoods, the grand mufti of the Palestinian Authority, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, answered, “There is no problem, you can go ahead.”

Hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians have returned to Jerusalem from outlying areas – that are across the Green Line and not considered part of the city – in recent months after hearing plans that the Israeli census for the year 2008 will include eastern Jerusalem.

Rumors have spread that those who are not included in the census will have to give back their Israeli IDs.

Trying to calm down the “panic” in the city, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics summoned the Palestinian media, explaining that there was nothing to worry about and that the census would include all of Israel, including east Jerusalem.

It is almost impossible to find an empty apartment for rent in the east of the city for months to come, while owners of rental properties have raised rents to a minimum of 800 dollars a month and some predict they could reach $2,500 a month.

It is estimated that 90,000 Arab Jerusalemites live in suburbs such as A-Ram, Dahiet, Al-Barid, Abu Dis, Al-'Eizariyya, Al-Zaiem, as well as Ramallah and Bethlehem, where many own homes.

This is not the first time that Arab Jerusalemites have decided to return to western Jerusalem; it happened in the late 1990s when the Israeli Interior Ministry began confiscating IDs from Palestinians living outside the borders of the city, and again in 2001 after building the security barrier.

In their study, “A Fence Around Jerusalem,” published by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Kobi Michael and Amnon Ramon wrote: “Already now, the closures and checkpoints that impede the entry of residents of the territories to Jerusalem, combined with the fence, have brought about increased migration by Palestinians holding Israeli ID cards into the city, driving up rental costs. If the regime at the crossing points to the city were relatively convenient, West Bank Palestinians can be expected to move into the homes being vacated around Jerusalem by those who have taken up residence inside the city.

“The building of the fence along the planned route will affect the size of the Palestinian population in the city.

Holders of Israeli ID cards currently living outside the city may want to return to the “Israeli side” of the fence – especially those who are living in rented lodgings (as distinct from home owners who invested in purchasing or building). A large-scale re-entry of Palestinians into the city could change the demographic balance to the “disadvantage” of the Jewish population, contrary to the declared policy of every Israeli government since 1967,” the study added.

The study noted that, “restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities, have greatly limited Arab residential construction within Jerusalem. As a result, many Arab residents of the city who hold Israeli ID cards chose to establish their homes on the other side of the municipal boundary, where the Israeli Civil Administration is more accommodating in terms of granting construction permits and sometimes even looks the other way at extensive Palestinian construction.”

Indeed, it is very easy to find an apartment for $60,000 in Ramallah and even to pay it with a loan from any of the banks working in the West Bank. The minimum cost of an apartment in east Jerusalem, however, can reach $180,000, with no Palestinian bank ready to give loans in east Jerusalem where the authority is the Israeli Police, with which Palestinian banks prefer not to deal in order to get their money back if clients decide not to pay.

While buying houses in Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaakov or French Hill can easily be supported by a loan from an Israeli bank, Palestinians living there say that apartment rents are also less than in eastern Jerusalem.

The Civic Coalition for Defending the Palestinians' Rights in Jerusalem estimates that 20,000 apartments were built without permits from the Jerusalem municipality in eastern Jerusalem in addition to 28,000 homeowners fined by the municipality for not adhering to the law.

The coalition estimates that eastern Jerusalem needs more than 20,000 new apartments to solve the housing crisis there.

It is almost impossible to explain why Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem gave the green light for Palestinians to live in Pisgat Zeev, Neveh Yaakov and French Hill, when they don't support the idea of living in Maaleh Adumim, Gilo or Har Homa, despite the fact that Palestinians consider them all settlements.