Land and Housing Rights in al-Issawiya, Israeli Occupied East Jerusalem

Sunday 2 November 2008, by Amanda Schweitzer and Marjie Sackett

The Jerusalem Municipality and Israeli government have recently stepped up efforts to further illegally evict Palestinians in Jerusalem from their land and homes and terminate their already severely limited social benefits. The recent spate of home demolitions, increase in demolition orders issued to Palestinian residents of the city, statements by Israeli political leaders of the need to punish Palestinian residents of Jerusalem for alleged attacks, and threats by Israel to cut Palestinian villages off from the city and put them on the other side of the Segregation Wall, has increased the sense of urgency in the fight for the rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem.

The Alternative Information Center (AIC) is working to place the issue of the rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem, along with awareness of Jerusalem as a capital of the Arab world on local and international agendas. As part of this effort, the AIC has begun advocating to protect the national, political, social, economic and cultural rights of the people of the Palestinian village of Issawiya.

This report starts with a summary of the situation and rights pertaining to residency, housing and land rights in East Jerusalem, including Issawiya. This is followed by a discussion of Issawiya’s history and current situation.

Residency Status and Rights

Since the 1967 illegal annexation, the Palestinian people living in East Jerusalem have been considered permanent residents of the city, subject to Israeli governance, law and jurisdiction.

As permanent residents, not citizens, East Jerusalemites have the following rights as determined by the Israeli government:

1. The right to live and work in Israel without the need for special permits.
2. The right to vote in Jerusalem municipality elections, but not in the national elections.

Under Israeli Law, East Jerusalem permanent residents are entitled to the same social rights according to the National Insurance Law; they are also entitled to health insurance.

However, East Jerusalem’s permanent residents do not have the same rights as citizens, as summarized below:

1. Permanent residency status, unlike citizenship, is passed on to the children of residents only under certain conditions; i.e. a permanent resident who marries someone who is neither a permanent resident nor a citizen of Israel must apply for family unification on behalf of his or her spouse.
2. Permanent residents are considered to be foreigners by Israel and their status can be revoked as a matter of course. Once one’s permanent resident status is revoked, they cannot work or live in Israel and they and their families lose their social benefits.
3. Permanent residency status is sometimes revoked arbitrarily, with no opportunity for appeal, and with no notification to the resident, who learns of the action only when applying for social services.

Land and Housing in East Jerusalem

With a population of 732,100 (2007) Jerusalem is the largest city in Israel, approximately 10% of the country’s population. Prior to the June 1967 war, the western part of the city (inside Israel) was 38,000 dunam (1 dunam equals 1,000 sq. meters). Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem’s 70,500 dunam nearly tripled the size of the city under Israeli control. The illegal annexation also gave the Jerusalem Municipality control over approximately 66,000 Palestinian Arabs residents, then 24% of the total city’s population.

Although East Jerusalem initially had almost twice the land area of west Jerusalem, the Municipality has followed Israel’s ongoing practice of illegally expropriating more land from the Palestinians. Since 1967, over a third of Arab-owned land in East Jerusalem, a total of 24,500 dunam, has been stolen by Israel and is now available only for Israeli Jews. Of the remaining 46,000 dunam, only 9,000 are planned for construction.

Municipal Services in East Jerusalem

The approximately 256,820 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem (34% of the total city population) do not receive the same benefits from either the city or Israeli government as citizens do. The Israeli government has never budgeted sufficient resources to meet basic infrastructure, education, or social service needs of the Palestinian permanent residents. Some of the discrepancies between people living in Jerusalem who are Jewish Israeli and those who are Palestinian are illustrated below.

Families under poverty line: 67% of Palestinian families; 21% of Jewish families.

Children under poverty line: 77% of Palestinian children 39% of Jewish children.

Housing units built: As of the end of 2007 no housing units for Palestinians; 50,197 housing units for Jewish population.

Sewage: 70 km of main sewage lines are needed to provide adequate service to East Jerusalem

Water Connections: Approximately 160,000 Palestinian residents have no connection to the water network.

School Classrooms: Shortage of 1,500 classrooms (number expected to reach 1,900 by 2010).

School Dropout Rate: 50% of Palestinian children; 7.4% among Jewish students.

Avg. Social Work Caseload: 190 households per social worker; 111 households per social worker for Jewish families in West Jerusalem.

** Source: Association for Civil Rights in Israel**

Sidewalks in East Jerusalem are often broken or non-existent. Road are riddled with potholes. The postal service barely functions in East Jerusalem. There are just two post offices and five postal agencies for East Jerusalem’s 250,000 Palestinian residents, while more than 50 postal facilities serve the 500,000 residents of West Jerusalem.


Al-Issawiya is a divided Palestinian village, part of which is in East Jerusalem, located three kilometers northeast of Jerusalem’s center. The village’s dominant harmulas (clans)—Darwish, Abu Hummous, and Aliyyan—can trace their village history back to the 16th century. Prior to 1948, the village was spread over 10,000 dunam, from modern-day Hadassah Hospital down to the Red Khan on the Jericho Road. Today, Issawiya straddles the Jerusalem border, sitting between Mt. Scopus, French Hill, numerous Jewish settlements, the Ring Road and two Israeli military outposts. It is a graphic example of Israel’s discriminatory land policies towards Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Immediately after the 1967 war, Israel divided the village by illegally annexing 3,000 dunam to the Municipality of Jerusalem while designating the other 7,000 dunam as outside of the city, including it as part of the occupied West Bank.

In 1968, the Israeli government confiscated four hundred of the 3,000 East Jerusalem dunam of Issawiya to build the settlement known as Givat Shapira (French Hill). This settlement connected Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital, located on Mt. Scopus, with the rest of West Jerusalem. Additionally, the government recently designated 2,000 of the remaining dunam as “green areas” which are not zoned for legal building. The reality today is such that the 12,500 Palestinians who live in Issawiya, can legally only inhabit 600 dunam of their land.

The 7,000 dunam fared no better. Today, this land has been designated by the Israeli government as Area C, which means it is under complete control of the Israeli military. Its residents have been physically separated from Issawiya’s remaining 3,000 dunam by the Ring Road, which was built to link Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem to each other and to West Jerusalem. Recently, a portion of the 7,000 dunam was illegally slated by the Municipality to be used for construction of the E1 settlement bloc. The development of this illegal settlement has been placed on hold due to international pressure.

East Jerusalem Urban Planning

Due to the continuing uncertainty of the future of East Jerusalem as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, municipal planning has been limited and restrictive growth limits have been imposed.

City planning in Jerusalem has very little in common with normal urban planning considerations; it is much more political. The Israeli government considers all undeveloped Palestinian land as ripe for Jewish expansion. The policy consists of (a) making it almost impossible to build new housing units outside existing Palestinian neighborhoods; and (b) restricting building for Palestinians, even within Palestinian areas.

Israeli planning is guided by one main objective: maintaining a Jewish majority in the city. The Israeli government uses four planning policies to implement its goal:

* Announcing non-built Palestinian land as “green area”—to be preserved as an open space—where construction is forbidden.

* Limiting Palestinian building opportunities, such as reducing the permitted housing density and systematically demolishing unlicensed homes.

* Expropriating Palestinian lands for the sake of ‘public interest’: Palestinian property is taken as a green area in order to build Jewish settlements; while Palestinian neighborhoods suffer from a severe lack of public space to build any public institutions.
* Excluding Palestinians from the process of municipal planning.

Prior to 1977 there was no master plan in East Jerusalem, meaning that there was almost no legal possibility for any Palestinian to receive a building permit there. Even with an approved master plan in place, which many villages are still in the process of obtaining while others have not even started the procedure, building possibilities for the Palestinian community is even more restricted. Almost all the lands outside the built-up areas are pronounced as green areas where building is forbidden.

Contrary to the known purpose of green areas that are parcels kept for public open spaces, these areas are “only green for the Palestinian population,” as Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem is quoted as having said. As long as the municipality does not decide to use the land in order to build new settlements or to expand the existing ones, these lands are maintained as green areas, forbidding Palestinians from expanding out side the built-up areas. Almost 35% of the land in the Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem is declared green areas (in Issawiya 80% of the village’s remaining 3,000 dunam of land, land which remained inside the Jerusalem Municipality borders, is considered as such). For example, the settlements of Neve Ya’acov, Pisgat Ze’ev, Ma’ale Adumim, Gilo, French Hill, and Har Homa were built on areas that were expropriated after having been declared green areas.

This policy has led to terrible overcrowding in the Palestinian neighborhoods where more than 30 percent of families in East Jerusalem live with more than three people per room. In Issawiya the average number of people per housing unit is 6.8, compared to only 3.3 persons per unit in Israeli settlements.

The process of obtaining a building or renovation permit is extremely difficult, long and complicated under normal circumstances. For East Jerusalem residents, the legal and administrative process makes it almost impossible for Palestinians to get a permit. In fact less than 5% of East Jerusalem building permits are even processed. Additionally, permits incur very high fees, making it even more improbable that Palestinians can obtain one, as they are a part of the lower socio-economical strata in Jerusalem. Even when Palestinians in Jerusalem are given permits to build, there are restrictions on their building rights according to the allowed building percentage.

The Case of Issawiya

In Issawiya, restrictive building permits have led to a reality where residents are forced to conduct 90% of new building without permission from Israeli authorities. Also, the loss of land and building space for the community has led to massive overcrowding and worsening housing conditions. Today, Issawiya is characterized by narrow dilapidated roads, an absence of adequate parking, and insufficient housing for the ever growing population.

While there are many causes for overcrowding in Issawiya, two main causes are solely related to land and housing issues:

1. Difficulty of obtaining permits to build “legally”

· Permits are extremely expensive, requiring a lengthy and complicated application process.

· Even if one has the 65,000 NIS to 80,000 NIS (in addition to the taxes and other additional fees which adds up to an extra 1,000 NIS) to purchase a building permit, this does not guarantee access to a permit.

· Like in Issawiya, most East Jerusalemites are day workers and cannot afford to pay both for a building permit and for the cost of building a home.

2. Availability of building permits

· The Jerusalem Municipality has not given permits for new buildings in Issawiya for years.

· The Municipality has refused to allow “Palestinian” municipal institutions to be erected in Issawiya upon the eight plots of village land zoned for public purposes (the infamous green areas)

Growth in Issawiya has been “legally” stunted by the Municipality, but naturally the population continues to grow. While the current population of Issawiya sits at 12,000, it is increasing at a rate of 3.5% each year placing the expected population in the year 2020 at 20,800 residents. The current conditions have created a situation where “illegal” growth is necessary for Issawiya’s survival.

According to a local human rights group, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (LAWE), major problems regarding urban planning for Issawiya are as follows:

1. Disregard for Palestinian ownership of private lands.

2. Lack of an official body to solve housing problems.

3. Lack of real estate or other companies who would take the initiative to build homes to rent in the village.

4. Issue of the division and sale of land. Although land might be available, Palestinian families traditionally keep lands within the family.

5. Plans don’t take into consideration the realities of village roads and local agreements.

6. Failure to acknowledge the vast differences in life-style and land use in Palestinian villages and Israeli neighborhoods and settlements.

Issawiya’s Master Plan

Initial designs for a master plan in Issawiya were drawn up in the early 1980s. Based on 666 dunam of land, this plan was never finalized, making any new construction or renovation rather precarious. Nearly 30 years later, Issawiya, like many other East Jerusalem villages, still lacks a coherent master plan.

In 1991, the Jerusalem Municipality approved an outline for Issawiya, but did not allow for sufficient growth, particularly for necessary community buildings and commercial areas. The 1991 plan also excluded some land and designated other areas as open space, thereby making numerous pre-existing structures illegal and in danger of condemnation.

Several years ago, efforts were undertaken to increase the size of the master plan, this time to 2,400 dunam. However, the Municipality cited a lack of funds in its refusal to allow the expansion. Ever determined, the village secured outside financial backing and succeeded in increasing the master plan to 1,500 dunums. Revealing perhaps the real reason for their refusal, the Municipality then began to appropriate sections of land for various purposes, eventually decreasing the size to 900 dunam. This essentially brought the plan back to where it began, with the few areas zoned for “legal” building too small to support the existing population.

In 2004, BIMKOM, an Israeli organization focusing on planning rights, was brought in at the request of the community. BIMKOM planners began working with Issawiya residents, first meeting with local business leaders to get a sense of the issues, needs, and views of the village.

Planners then conducted a community-wide seminar to discern what aspects of the neighborhood residents wanted to retain, as well as creating a general framework for the new plan. To foster a better understanding of the master plan and the bureaucratic planning process in Israel, BIMKOM held planning workshops, and individual and group meetings. Seeking to gain input and facilitate participation from all members of the community, planners met with groups of local women, a segment of the population too often left out of such discussions.

Finally, after three years of work BIMKOM brought the plan, called the Kaminker Project, to the local planning committee. Submission to the local committee, comprised of city council members and thus a very political body, is the first step in the approval process. The local committee then either approves the plan or proposes recommendations before sending the plan on to the regional committee. In this case, the local committee asked for several changes, citing three major issues.

Firstly, residents of the adjacent settlement community of French Hill raised objections to the plan. Community members didn’t want Issawiya buildings built too close to their land, so they opposed the plan. The municipality, supporting the wishes of French Hill, instructed BIMKOM to adjust the plan to leave more “green space” between the two villages.

Israeli military officials raised similar arguments relating to their outpost on Mt. Scopus. The army declared that nothing could be built within 100 meters of the fence surrounding the military base. Once again, BIMKOM made the necessary changes, reducing the overall size of the master plan.

Finally, the most difficult impediment came from the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INPA). The INPA had designs for a large park between Issawiya and At-Tur, a neighboring Palestinian village, which overlapped with areas zoned for homes and other buildings on Issawiya’s master plan. BIMKOM originally negotiated an agreement with the head of the INPA, but municipality politics undermined the arrangement. As a result, BIMKOM has had to limit the zoning of these areas for any building for the present time.

As of August 2008, Issawiya’s master plan stands at some 1,300-1,500 dunam. BIMKOM has a meeting with the regional planning office in late September 2008, where more changes could be recommended. In addition, the consent of the Issawiya community is still needed for changes made in INPA area, which will be difficult. Those closest to the project estimate that it will likely take another two years before final government approval of the Kaminker Project is granted.

“The Issawiya planning problem is an East Jerusalem problem. The Israeli government wishes to push out most, if not all of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and into the West Bank. They want to keep a Jewish majority in Jerusalem to remain in control of the city. In the past the ratio was 70:30, Israelis to Palestinians, but more recently the ratio has changed to 60:40. The Israeli’s are nervous about this shift and looking to do something about it. By confiscating land in East Jerusalem, making it expensive and difficult to expand villages, and demolishing houses, the government hopes to make life uncomfortable enough for the East Jerusalem Palestinians so that they will up and move the area.”

Home Demolitions

“The demolition of a home is carried out generally according to the Planning and Construction Law (1965). According to this law, all construction, including the expansion of a home, requires a permit. Building without a permit constitutes a criminal offense, and a structure so erected is designated for demolition. In order to get a construction permit, however, the land must appear in an approved city plan. City plans define the use to be made of the land, and there are national, district, and local plans. To obtain a construction permit, a detailed local city plan must exist” (ACRI – Real Estate or Rights, July 2008, Pg. 19).

Due to the price of the building permits as well as the difficult process of obtaining renovation or building permission from the Israeli authorities, 90% of the homes in Issawiya are built “illegally” without a proper permit. The Jerusalem municipality and the Ministry of Interior can decide to demolish these homes at any moment. In Issawiya, house demolition has been a foremost problem for the community. This year alone, four homes have been demolished and 45 additional properties have received demolition orders.

One such Issawiya family, who recently received a demolition order, is that of Fathi Khader Abu Humus. Prior to building, Fathi Khader applied to the Jerusalem Municipality for a legal building permit. While the Municipality initially told him that he could build on the land, when he arrived at the office to purchase a permit they would not sell it to him. Three separate times, the Municipality told him to make changes to his building plans, which he did, and yet they still would not grant him legal permission to build on his own land. Frustrated, and in dire need of a new home for his ever growing family, Fathi made the difficult decision to build without a permit.

His building, which was constructed in 2002, consists of three apartments on the upper lever, his grocery store and the town’s only bakery on the main floor. Since the construction of the building, he has been paying monthly fines of 800 NIS to the Municipality because of the building’s “illegal” status. He will continue to pay these monthly fines until the year 2013, whether or not his home demolished. In addition, if his home is demolished he will be required to pay for the demolition on top of his monthly fines.

“The Municipality claimed that they did not enough in their budget to allow for more than 666 dunams of expansion in the master plan for Issawiya, and yet they seem have plenty in their budget to continue to demolish houses.”

In East Jerusalem, Fathi Khader’s story is not an uncommon one. While it is impossible to cite an accurate figure regarding the number of demolitions that have taken place in East Jerusalem, the human rights organization, B’Tselem, has placed the number of demolitions since 2004 at 344, which has left approximately 1,135 Palestinians homeless.

Despite the fact that house demolitions are a devastatingly costly blow to Palestinian residents, many have no choice but to rebuild again and hope for the best. Some residents in Issawiya have rebuilt their homes four or five times, and maintain that they will continue to do so as long as it is necessary. As Hani Isawi, head of the Issawiya Land Defense Committee explains it:

“If the Municipality does not allow us to construct a master development plan, the construction of illegal housing in Issawiya will only increase. No matter what the Municipality tries to do they cannot stop the inevitable expansion of the Issawiya community. Palestinians are staying in their villages and refuse to move or be pushed out. They will fight for their land and continue to fight for their homes despite what the Israeli government will do.”

List of Sources

The Alternative Information Center (AIC), “Cleansing and Apartheid in Jerusalem” 2004

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), “East Jerusalem – Facts and Figures” June 2008,

— -, “Real Estate or Rights: Housing Rights and Government Policy in Israel” July 2008,

BIMKOM – Planners for Planning Rights, “The Kaminker Project in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya. Report of the First Two Years of Activity” April 2006,

B’tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

Ir Amin, “Winning the Battle, Losing the War: 40 Years of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem” November 2007, Written by Daniela Yanai & Edited by Hagai El-Ad,
Jerusalem Center for Economic and Social Rights,

Alternative Information Center (AIC)

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