By ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: May 1, 2009 New York Times
JERUSALEM — The United Nations is calling on Israel to freeze all pending demolition orders against Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem in a new report that reflects growing international concern over developments in the contested city. The report also urges Israel to provide solutions to the housing crisis there.
Scores of Palestinian-owned structures are demolished every year by the Israeli authorities on the grounds that they were built without the required permits. But many Palestinians say Israel limits construction to push them out of East Jerusalem, which they claim as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
The report states that only 13 percent of East Jerusalem land is currently zoned by the Israeli authorities for Palestinian construction, and much of that is already built up, severely restricting the possibility of obtaining a permit. More than a third of East Jerusalem, meanwhile, has been expropriated for Israeli construction since 1967, according to the report, while 22 percent is zoned for green areas and public infrastructure and 30 percent remains “unplanned.”
Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war and then annexed it, after expanding the boundaries of the city into the West Bank. Israel claims sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, but the annexation has never been recognized by the United Nations or its member states.
The report, by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories, was to be published Friday. An advance copy was made available to The New York Times.
Although the report was critical of Israeli policies, its tone was explanatory and it avoided defining political motivations on either side.
During a recent tour of East Jerusalem, Robert H. Serry, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, called for an immediate end to the demolitions, which he described as “not helpful,” fueling tensions at a time when “the international community is trying to relaunch a results-oriented peace process.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also spoke out against threatened demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem during her visit to the region in March. Such activities, she said, are “not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the ‘road map,’” the United States-backed peace plan of 2003.
A spokesman for Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, said Thursday that City Hall could not comment on the United Nations report without seeing it, but that Mr. Barkat was “committed to addressing the issue of affordable housing throughout the entirety of Jerusalem.” In the coming weeks, the spokesman, Stephan Miller, said, Mr. Barkat will present his master plan for the city of Jerusalem “which will, of course, include plans to provide more affordable housing in eastern Jerusalem.” Mr. Miller added that the mayor “will continue to uphold the rule of law and, as such, there will continue to be building demolitions if there is illegal construction.”
The United Nations report, in exploring the reasons for the demolitions, noted that the process of applying for a building permit in East Jerusalem was lengthy and costly and that there was no guarantee that one would be issued in the end. Even for building on land zoned for Palestinian construction, applicants must submit a detailed area plan.
Coming up with a detailed area plan — including allocating land for public use, like roads — is particularly difficult because of the unresolved land ownership disputes among Palestinian neighbors.
The Palestinian population of East Jerusalem, which stood at about 66,000 in 1967, is now about 250,000. In addition, more than 195,000 Israelis live in Jewish developments — referred to as “neighborhoods” by the Israelis and as “settlements” by the United Nations — in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian population growth, coupled with the difficulty in obtaining building permits, has led to a situation in which at least 28 percent of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem have been built in violation of Israeli zoning requirements, according to the United Nations report. At least 60,000 Palestinians are at risk of having their homes demolished as a result.
One case highlighted in the report was that of Mahmoud Alayyan and his family, who live between the Palestinian neighborhood of Sur Baher and the Israeli development of East Talpiot. The house was built in 1963. An extension was added, without a permit, in 1999. Mr. Alayyan said he was told by the Israeli municipal authorities in 2000 that he could not get retroactive approval for the extension because his home was in a designated green area.
This year, he was told that the entire house was slated for demolition to make way for the expansion of East Talpiot. His case is pending in court.
Another case that received attention during Mr. Serry’s tour of East Jerusalem on April 22 was that of the Hdaidun family, whose home was demolished that day. By the United Nations’ count, it was the 19th such demolition this year. (In 2008 there were some 93; demolitions reached an annual peak of 133 in 2004.)
When Mr. Serry’s party arrived at the site, Amar Salameh al-Hdaidun, 39; his wife, Samia; and their five young children, some in school uniforms, were gathered by the heap of rubble that was their home.
Mr. Hdaidun said he and several neighbors had been going through a planning process for five years to try to change the zoning of their land from a designated green area to a residential area. He said they had spent some $45,000 on the plans, which were to be submitted by this July. A court order postponing demolition of the house expired in January, however, and Mr. Hdaidun did not apply for an extension.
Mr. Serry, a Dutch diplomat, was visibly moved and expressed his sympathy to the family, whose furniture and other belongings were piled up nearby.
“I know how much Jerusalem is dear to many Israelis,” Mr. Serry said. “But it is also dear to Palestinians.”