Media Mangles Land Issues

Television footage, photo images and news reports in recent years have relentlessly embellished a simple–and false–message: Israel ruthlessly demolishes the dwellings of Arabs, denying them needed housing, while vast, concrete Jewish apartment developments rise on every hillside. News stories trumpet so-called “land grabs,” “confiscations,” “thefts,” and “expropriations” of Arab territory by Israel in Jerusalem. Allegedly ruthless “seizures” are said to advance Jewish dominance and to prevent Arab communal growth in the city and its environs. Arab reverence for the land is contrasted to the alleged Jewish rush to defile it with urban apartment towers.

Few subjects have been as sloppily researched and irresponsibly reported by the media as the myriad renditions of land and construction issues in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Reporting follows a predictable pattern: Repeat at length the allegations of critics of Israeli policy, whether Arab or Jewish, with special attention to anecdotal human interest complaints; include only brief, vaguely-stated and seemingly evasive governmental rebuttal; and, above all, avoid investigating independently and thoroughly the issues at hand. Do not phone experts in the Jerusalem Municipality or the Civil Administration who know the subject intimately, do not read the relevant law, do not examine the relevant documents, and, finally, do not heed the evidence of your own eyes that contradicts the absurd claim that Arabs have not engaged in extensive and frequently lavish housing construction.

Representative of the coverage are articles from The Washington Post (Caryl Murphy, December 1994) and The Wall Street Journal (Amy Dockser Marcus, May 1995). Both Murphy and Marcus’s reports rest on the bogus theme of rapacious, illegitimate Israeli development of Jerusalem preventing Arab population growth and housing construction. Murphy writes of Israel “expanding Jewish neighborhoods and blocking Arab construction,” and Marcus charges that “the Israelis employ land seizures as a way to ensure demographic dominance over Jerusalem, where Arabs now comprise 28% of the population of 570,000.” What Marcus fails to say is that the Arab sector of Jerusalem’s population has grown at a faster rate than the Jewish one, rising from 25% of the population in 1967. The demographic change under Israeli sovereignty has been in the Arabs’ favor!

Murphy’s assertion that Israel has blocked Arab construction is equally erroneous. The surge in the Arab population has been accompanied by extensive Arab building in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Contrary to widespread misinformation on the topic, for example, figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveal a striking development in Jerusalem–despite significant increase in the Arab population during the past twenty-eight years, the number of rooms per person in the Arab housing sector increased. That is, such was the pace of Arab building, crowding actually decreased.

Yes, Jews have built new neighborhoods and their numbers have grown, but the aggressive Arab campaign to create facts on the ground via building is a major story that has been ignored by the American media. Two important reports recently in The Jerusalem Post (March 3, 1995 and March 10, 1995) give an indication of the dimensions of the campaign and the Israeli response. According to reporter Bill Hutman, Jerusalem municipal officials describe vast building in the Arab sector, much of it occurring without legal permits. Laws requiring building permits, though strict on paper, are all but ignored by building inspectors who lack sufficient manpower and resources, including armed security protection, to enforce them. In response to the widespread violations inspectors have largely turned a blind eye to construction on empty lots, focusing their efforts at preventing Arab seizure of land in “green areas” around towns and villages. Despite repeated calls by Israeli officials over several decades to curb the extensive illegal building, no serious move has ever been made to halt it.

One official cited by the Post called the situation “anarchy,” so unchecked is illegal building in the Arab sector. Even a critic of Israeli policy, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, writes of “unprecedented building activity” by the Arabs in their drive to lay claim to the land. Thus, occasional demolishing of non-permit structures is, contrary to media photographs and hyperbole, a relative rarity, and has not deterred the striking advance of Arab building.

Israel Kimhi, Jerusalem City Planner from 1965 until 1989, observes that Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem such as Shuafat, A-Tur, Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, and Sur Bahur have grown dramatically since 1967, in some instances by more than 100%. Villages north of Jerusalem, including Bir Nabala, El Jib, Kalandia and Kafr Akab, have been transformed into large towns. Development along the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah has been so heavy that virtually no open spaces remain.

Moreover, the Arab drive to build in and around Jerusalem has not been a random development, but one aspect of a campaign funded in part by Arab states. Kimhi points out that numerous buildings stand empty and unused because they were built not for immediate use but for the political purpose of staking claim to the land. As far back as the 1978 Baghdad Summit, convened by Arab nations opposed to the Camp David Accords, Arab states have contributed to financing land acquisition and building in Jerusalem.

Recently, reports have begun to surface in the Israeli press (June 18, 1995, Ha’aretz, Yediot Ahranot, Jerusalem Post) and in A.M. Rosenthal’s New York Times column (June 30, 1995) of a secret agency under the Palestinian Authority whose purpose it is to purchase land in eastern Jerusalem and the Old City. The agency is said to have received an initial $15 million and, according to the press accounts, Saudi Arabia has transferred millions of dollars to the Palestinian Authority for the purpose of building Arab housing in eastern Jerusalem. If these reports are true–Palestinian officials deny them–they would simply continue a decades-long effort by Arab states to enlarge the Arab presence in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, experts like Kimhi are rarely consulted, while Arab spokesmen such as Khalil Tufakji, head of the maps department of the Arab Studies Society, are extensively cited. Among the maps produced by Tufakji’s Society is the one that recently caused a storm of controversy in Israel. The detailed map of Israel identifies Tel Aviv and other Israeli towns and cities as “settlements,” and omits all Jewish Holy sites. Nevertheless, Tufakji’s assertions are quoted frequently by reputable American journalists, including Amy Dockser Marcus.

Marcus’s Wall Street Journal article, which, like Murphy’s, is written almost entirely from the perspective of the Palestinian Arabs, contains additional commonplace errors and distortions regarding land in the West Bank. Citing the allegations of the Palestinian Land and Water Establishment, Marcus offers no counterpoint to their claims that Israel has confiscated massive tracts of land that belonged to the Palestinians. Nowhere does she provide Isr
ael’s position–that all but a small percentage of land on which Jewish communities have been built was state land as defined by the precedent of Ottoman, British and Jordanian law. This land was unused, unoccupied and not privately owned.

Nor does Marcus accurately report the complexities of land law, choosing simply to repeat without verification the claims of the Palestinian Land and Water Establishment. For instance, in describing alleged victimization of Palestinian Arabs she says “Often they had no deeds proving ownership; many had relied on an old Ottoman and Jordanian law that grants ownership to anyone who has used the land for more than 10 years.” But this account, suggesting Israel callously exploits the hereditary folkways of the Arabs, misstates the law and the facts.

The specific category of land to which Marcus appears to refer in this instance, a classification inherited from the Ottomans, is “miri” land, or “land belonging to the Emir.” Historically, individuals have acquired certain rights to miri land by doing two things: Cultivating the land continuously for ten years and then on that basis registering it with the land registry. Anyone satisfying these prescribed conditions was then provided documents certifying certain limited legal rights to the land. Similarly, individuals can lose those rights by ceasing cultivation for three years. (This is not land ownership as Americans understand it, since, for example, the rights in question may be passed on to familial heirs, but may not be bequeathed to non-relatives.)

In accordance with the requirements of international law, Israel has adhered to this inherited system, though in many ways pursuing lenient interpretations. For example, officials have not followed strictly the requirement of ten years of cultivation, permitting entitlements on the basis of shorter periods of cultivation, nor have they revoked entitlements after three years of non-cultivation. On the other hand, like any governing authority anywhere, Israel has not simply awarded land to squatters or claimants who have no means of substantiating their rights.

Beyond the skewed cast of characters cited in reports on land issues and the blatant indifference to serious analysis of the facts, the coverage invariably lacks a word of historical context to provide understanding of the Jewish effort to build a viable capital. No mention is made of the legitimacy of Jewish claims, nor of the long eras of persecution Jews suffered in Jerusalem under successive foreign rule, including Muslim rule, nor of, most recently, the devastation of the ancient Jewish Quarter by the Jordanians and expulsion of the entire Jewish population from the parts of the city under Jordanian control, nor of the renaissance of the modern city under Israeli sovereignty, nor of the religious and political freedoms now provided Arab and Jew alike under Israeli rule.

Ironically, massive press coverage of land and construction issues in Jerusalem and the West Bank has, rather than illuminating the complexities of the topic, exacerbated public ignorance. Wedded to notions of Arab victimization and comfortable with rote repetition of the allegations of partisan sources, reporters have abetted the assault on Israel’s legitimate presence in Jerusalem.

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