USA Today Errs on Jerusalem Home Demolitions

USA Today presents a misleading, one-sided picture of home demolitions in Israel’s capital in “Jerusalem’s future banging on residents’ doors; Several dozen Palestinian homes slated for demolition,” June 21.

Special correspondent Matthew Gutman reports on “about 1,000 Palestinians who will lose their homes if the city demolishes 88 structures that were built without permits in the neighborhood Jews call Silvan and the estimated 40,000 Palestinian resident refer to as Bustan.”

Errors, half-truths, and omissions

1) Guttman acknowledges that the houses in question “were built without permits” and quotes the owner of a home slated for demoliltion who admits his dwelling is illegal: “I could not afford anywhere else. And now I have nowhere else to go.”

Arab construction in Jerusalem, legal and illegal, has proceeded much more rapidly than Jewish building. According to Israel Kimhi, author of “Arab Building in Jerusalem: 1967 – 1997,” and a former Jerusalem city planner now at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, “Arab housing construction in Jerusalem grew at a rate of 122 percent, compared to 113.5 percent for Jewish construction.” Much of the Arab construction was promoted by the Palestinian Authority, some of it on land purchased with money from Saudi and other Arab backers. Though Guttman cites the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies’ figure for the municipality’s total Arab population (about one-third), his article does not mention Kimhi’s research on Arab building.

2) The USA Today article says that “less than 10 percent” of Jerusalem’s total area is zoned for housing in Arab neighborhoods. Yet another authority on construction in the capital states there is sufficient land available. According to Justus Reid Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (author of “Illegal Construction in Jerusalem; A Variation on an Alarming Phenomenon”), Israeli authorities have issued housing permits – more than 36,000 – to more than meet Arab needs through legal construction for the next 15 years. (Weiner’s book can be found at

3) USA Today quotes another Arab source as saying city officials have denied building permits to most residents in the Silwan area “because some of them want to push us from the city.” Not only have sufficient legal permits been made available, as noted above, but the real story, Weiner says, is that “illegal [Arab] construction has reached epidemic proportions. A senior Palestinian official boasted that they have built 6,000 homes without permits during the last 4 years, of which less than 200 were demolished by the city.”

4) Guttman writes that “with so little available space, Bustan [Silwan] has become one of the most crowded neighborhoods in Jerusalem …. Most of the neighborhood’s alleyways, where backed-up sewage gurgles to the surface, are barely wider than a man’s shoulders.” Perhaps the overcrowded conditions USA Today describes result from excessive, often illegal construction that confiscates road beds, property intended for schools, clinics, and park space; makes proper services, including sewage, difficult if not impossible to maintain; and indicates insufficient enforcement, including demolition.

5) By focusing on 88 homes in one Arab neighborhood, USA Today avoids the fact that the same procedures apply to demolition of illegal Jewish structures and that in recent years the vast majority of demolitions in Jerusalem have been of Jewish buildings. The paper also fails to note that Arabs who want to build legally can consult city plans, in Arabic, with the assistance of Arabic-speaking employees; that Jews and Arabs wait the same amount of time (several weeks) for permit application processing; and that members of both groups pay the same utility connection fees per square footage.

6) If your neighbor built a home for his relatives in front of or behind his house, on public land (not land that even belonged to him), where perhaps a road was due to be widened, or where sewage and utility lines were supposed to be laid, or where maybe a park was scheduled to be built, how would you feel? How would your city government react? What if other neighbors followed his illegal example, sometimes even building their illegal homes over the edge of the road itself, making your neighborhood even more crowded and cramped, making it impossible to widen the road or to get improved sewer service..? Wouldn’t you expect your government to take action against these illegally built homes?

Not just housing errors

The article includes non-housing related errors of commission and omission as well:

* It wrongly refers to “Palestinian land” rather than disputed land. The legal status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, from which territory may be included in a future Palestinian Arab state, is disputed. Rather than “Palestinian land” it is the last, unallocated portion of British Mandatory Palestine and subject to negotiations.

* It states that “Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the Middle East war of 1967” but fails to note that Jordan had occupied eastern Jerusalem illegally, the result of its aggression in 1948.

* It refers to “predominantly Arab East Jerusalem”, but actually there are approximately the same number of Jews and Arabs in eastern Jerusalem. While today there is parity population-wise between Jews and Arabs, this area has a long tradition of Jewish plurality. According to Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, “In the second half of the nineteenth century and at the end of that century, Jews comprised the majority of the population of the Old City …” (Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century). Martin Gilbert states that in 1838 there were 6,000 Jews in Jerusalem, compared to 5,000 Muslims and 3,000 Christians (Jerusalem: Rebirth of a City). Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1853 “assessed the Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1844 at 7,120, making them the biggest single religious group in the city.” (Terence Prittie, Whose Jerusalem?).

Until about 1860, Jerusalem residents lived almost exclusively within the walls of the Old City, in eastern Jerusalem. There has been a Jewish presence in eastern Jerusalem for thousands of years: the City of David, the ancient Jewish Quarter, the 2000 year old Jewish cemetery on the Mt. of Olives. The Temple Mount and Western Wall, Judaism’s most sacred religious sites, are located in eastern Jerusalem. And more recently, in the early 1900’s, institutions such as Hadassah Hospital (Mt. Scopus)and Hebrew University were built in eastern Jerusalem.

So how did it happen that when Israel liberated eastern Jerusalem in the 6 day War in 1967, that eastern Jerusalem didn’t have any Jews living there? During the 1948 war, the Jordanians killed or expelled all the Jews who had been living in eastern Jerusalem. For 19 years, until the city was reunited after the 1967 Six Day War, there were no Jews in eastern Jerusalem. This lack of Jews was an exception and certainly not a long historical tradition.

* It refers to Silwan, “David’s City,” as “the legendary birthplace of the first Jewish state … where the Bible says King David decided to build the capital of his kingdom…” The Bible notes that Saul preceded David as king; “the first Jewish state” already was in existence when David relocated his capital from Hebron to the existing, previously Jebusite town known as Jerusalem, on Mount Zion.

The critical errors of omission regarding Arab and Jewish construction – legal and illegal – in Jerusalem make the story misleadingly one-sided by falsely presenting the Arabs as aggrieved and Israeli actions as harsh. In fact, large-scale Arab construction – much of it illegal – has resulted in deleterious conditions in many of the city’s Arab neighborhoods. It is noteworthy that illegal construction by Jews is treated similarly to illegal construction by Arabs — except that illegal Jewish construction is more likely to be demolished.

USA Today readers deserve more thorough, balanced coverage

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