NYT Blunders on Jerusalem Building

On the eve of the 40th year since Jerusalem’s reunification, the New York Times‘ Greg Myre correctly reports on the growing Arab population in Israel’s capital, a phenomenon which has frequently been ignored or misreported over the years (“Israeli Riddle: Love Jerusalem, Hate Living There,” May 13, 2007):

In a 1967 census taken shortly after the war, the population of Jerusalem was 74 percent Jewish and 26 percent Arab. Today, the city is 66 percent Jewish and 34 percent Arab, with the gap narrowing by about 1 percentage point a year, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Unfortunately, though, Myre misrepresents the massive Arab building—illegal and legal—in the city, a building boom which goes hand-in-hand with a fast growing population. Relying on Rami Nasrallah, identified as “an Arab resident who advised the previous Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, on Jerusalem affairs,” Myre writes:

While it is virtually impossible for Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza to move to Jerusalem if they were not born there, natural population growth and restrictions on building in Arab parts of the city mean large families often share very small apartments.

An estimated 18,000 apartments and homes, or a third of all the Arab residences in East Jerusalem, were built illegally because permits are so hard to obtain, Mr Nasrallah said, adding that Israel has not approved the development of a new Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem since 1967.

Building Permits and Construction

In actuality, from 1974 to 1995, “Jerusalem’s Arab community received building permits for more square meters of residential construction than did the demographically similar [in terms of population and family size] Jewish ultra-Orthodox community,” Israel Kimhi points out in Arab Building in Jerusalem 1967- 1997, a monograph published by CAMERA. (The Jerusalem municipal planner from 1963 to 1986, Kimhi also heads Jerusalem research at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the institute cited by Myre.) Specifically, the Arab sector was granted permits for 1.1 million square meters of residential construction, while the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population received 954,000 square meters.

In addition, in his book Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon, Justus Reid Weiner reports that in the mid-1990s, Faisal Husseini, the late Palestinian official most associated with Jerusalem, published a 23-page booklet in which he predicted that by 2010, the Arab population would require 26,200 new housing units. The Jerusalem municipality has more than met that perceived need, by granting permits for 33,000 housing units.

Indeed, Arab building has boomed in eastern Jerusalem; professional analysis of aerial photographs reveals that from 1968 to 1995, the number of Arab houses in eastern Jerusalem doubled. In addition, the number of households in the Arab sector increased by 146 percent during this period, from 12,588 in 1967 to 31,000 in 1995.

Talk About Crowded

Regarding crowded conditions in Arab neighborhoods, Myre misses an important point staring him in the face: If you have a lot of children, like both the Arab and the ultra-Orthodox populations do, you are going to live in crowded quarters. Thus, the city’s ultra-Orthodox population, which as he points out has “an extraordinarily high birth rate . . . on average, each of these woman has more than seven children,” lives in some of the most crowded neighborhoods. The average housing density among Jerusalem’s Arabs is 1.8 persons per room; among Orthodox Jews it is 1.6, and in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramot Polin the figure is 1.9 persons per room.

Contradicting the claim of overcrowding for Arabs in Jerusalem, large, upscale apartments sit uninhabited in northern Arab neighborhoods such as Beit Hanina, Shuafat, and Issawiya.

No New Arab Neighborhoods

Regarding the fact that no new Arab neighborhoods within Jerusalem have been built since 1967, Kimhi explains in his monograph:

The explanation for this is simply not a political one, as it is usually portrayed. It is also directly related to differing preferences and attributes of the Arab and Jewish communities. In the Jewish sector, large construction companies, a centralized land authority, and the fact that development companies owned large parcels of land have made is possible to build complete residential neighborhoods.

No such factors are to be found in the Arab sector of East Jerusalem. First, the Arabs are not interested in Israeli government construction, since purchasing homes directly from government firms would, in a sense, be seen as collaboration. Indeed, there had been no government construction under Jordanian rule either, and none, of course, under the British. Each individual looked out for himself, as had been customary in this sector for decades.

In addition, not only is land in the Arab sector for the most part unregistered, but many properties are divided among several heirs, and large tracts are under the common ownership (mush’ah) of dozens of people, some of whom live abroad. All of this has hindered planning and development. In other cases, land belongs to a small number of families who have not been willing to market or develop the land for other Arab residents.

Sharp Reactions to Redivision

Referring to a January 2001 “plan to make Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods part of Israel, and the city’s Arab neighborhoods part of a future Palestinians state,” Myre notes that it “provokes a strong reaction among some Jews, who recall when Jordan held East Jerusalem and the Old City, from 1948 to 1967, and Jews were not allowed to pray at the Western Wall.” But it’s not only the Jews who reacted strongly against division of the city. For instance, as the plan was being discussed, Zohair Hamdan of Sur Bahir, a peace activist and critic of the Palestinian Authority, collected 10,000 signatures from fellow east Jerusalem Arabs for a petition in favor of remaining under Israeli sovereignty. For that, he was shot by Fatah gunmen (Jerusalem Post, Nov. 23, 2001).

Camp David discussions of redividing the city led to an increase in the number of east Jerusalem Arabs applying for Israeli citizenship, the AP reported. (See also “Some Arabs Prefer an Israeli-Run Jerusalem,” Washington Post, July 25, 2000). In his article, Myre fails to make clear that Israeli citizenship is available for those east Jerusalem Arabs who apply. Instead, he leaves open the erroneous idea that Israel withholds citizenship against the Arabs’ will: “Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, but only a tiny minority of the Arabs who live there are citizens of Israel. The vast majority have legal residency, a status similar to that of green-card holders in the United States.”

A History of Misrepresentation

Every 10-year anniversary of the June 1967 reunification of Jerusalem, the mainstream media focuses on the city’s demographics, often getting the facts wrong. Thus, a decade ago, CNN’s Walter Rodgers incorrectly reported on the city’s supposedly “dwindling Arab population.” As CAMERA pointed out at the time:

The Arab population is burgeoning, outpacing Jewish growth in the city. While Jews remain a significant majority of the population, as they have been for more than a hundred years, their numbers have grown just 114% in the thirty years since the city’s unification. The Arab population, in contrast, has expanded by 163%. At 30% of the total, Jerusalem is now more Arab than it was in 1967.

As with demographic increase so in construction the Arab sector has outpaced the Jewish sector. Impressive single and multi-family structures have sprung up in Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Issawiya, A-Tur, Silwan, Ras al-Amud, Beit Hanina, Shuafat, Dafr Aqab, Arab A-Shahra, Sur Baher and Um Tuba.

(CNN belatedly corrected its error more than a year later, on Sept. 19, 1998, with a report on the growing Arab population and its building boom, including a statement by a Palestinian official who admitted: “We can build inside Jerusalem, legal, illegal, rebuild a house. Whatever. We can do. Maybe we lose 10 houses [to demolitions], but in the end we build 40 more houses in East Jerusalem.”)

In conclusion, it took much of the media 40 years to correctly report that Jerusalem’s Arab population is growing, not shrinking. Let’s hope that by 2017, after half a century of Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, the media will also report accurately on Arab building.

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