As the international community continues to slam Israel for construction in Jewish settlement communities, Palestinians are quietly engaging in massive construction of entire neighborhoods in many parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem. In addition to overlooking the Palestinian building project, the West has clearly been neglecting a crucial difference between the two efforts: while the construction in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank and neighborhoods of Jerusalem has long been carried out within the frame of the law and in accordance with proper licenses issued by the relevant authorities, the Palestinian construction is illegal in every respect.
In this behind-the-scenes endeavor, which does not meet even the most minimum standards required by engineers, architects and housing planners, the Palestinian goal is to create irreversible facts on the ground.
A quick tour of the areas surrounding Jerusalem from the north, east and south easily exposes the colossal construction that is taking place there. In most cases, these high-rise buildings are slapped together without licenses or any adequate planning or safety concerns.
An example of massive illegal Palestinian construction near Shufat and Anata, on the northeastern outskirts of Jerusalem.
The Jewish outpost of Amona in the central West Bank, home to 42 families, is currently the subject of fiery controversy both in Israel and in the international arena. In 2006, the High Court of Israel ruled that the outpost is illegal under Israeli law because it lies on private Palestinian land. In 2014, the High Court ordered the government to evacuate and demolish the entire outpost within two years.
In Israel, as Amona demonstrates, no one is above the law. Israel boasts an independent judiciary system that is second to none.
Yet as the debate in Israel intensifies over the fate of Amona, the Palestinians are making a mockery of laws and building regulations by embarking on massive construction of illegal neighborhoods and buildings. Apparently, settlements are only a “major obstacle to peace” when they are constructed by Jews.
In recent years and continuing to the present, the Palestinians, with the aid of Western donors for whom only Jewish construction is anathema, are working night and day to create irreversible facts in the form of not just single-family houses, but masses of giant high-rise buildings. The sheer enormity of the project raises the question: Who has been funding these massive cities-within-cities? And why? There is good reason to believe that the PLO and some Arabs and Muslims, and especially the European Union are behind the Palestinian initiative.
Ironically, this has been taking place even when it means that the Palestinians have been stealing land from our own people.
The Palestinian building is taking place mostly in what is called Area C of the West Bank, which, under the terms of the Oslo Accords, is supposed to be under exclusive Israeli control. The building has also been mushrooming in many neighborhoods — even in entire villages — surrounding Jerusalem from the north, east and south, leaving the city with only one option: to expand towards the west, thereby building a giant collar of cement effectively to surround and choke off Jerusalem from the Jews.
Recently, entire Arab neighborhoods with crowded high-rises have shot up around Jerusalem. Only a handful of steps separate some of the buildings, and most lack proper sewage systems. Apartment prices range from $25,000 to $50,000 USD. These are ridiculous prices compared with the real costs of apartments in both Arab and Jewish (legal) neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Today, it is almost impossible to purchase a three-room apartment in the city for less than $250,000 USD.
The new neighborhoods are located in Kufr Akab, Samiramis, Kalandya, Beit Hanina, Shufat, Ras Khamis and Anata in the north of Jerusalem.
In the southern and eastern parts of the city, new neighborhoods have emerged with noticeable suddenness in Ras Al-Amoud, A-Tur, Al-Zaim, Jabal Mukaber, Um Tuba and Jabal Mukaber. These areas fall within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. However, failing to halt the illegal construction and leaving the city besieged from north, east and south, Jerusalem Municipality officials admit that Israel will have lost the war against illegal Palestinian construction unless immediate action is taken.
Alarmed by the ongoing illegal construction, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat recently took the unprecedented measure of petitioning the High Court to allow the city to demolish 14 illegally built structures in east Jerusalem.
Most importantly, there is no housing crisis for the Arab population; it is not an Arab housing crisis that is prompting this spree of illegal Palestinian construction. Rather, the goal is political: to show the world that Jerusalem is an Arab, and not a Jewish, city. By and large, the apartments remain empty: there is simply no real demand.
Who is behind the unprecedented wave of illegal construction? According to Arab residents of Jerusalem, many of the “contractors” are actually land-thieves and thugs who lay their hands on private Palestinian-owned land or on lands whose owners are living abroad. But they also point out that the EU, the PLO and some Arab and Islamic governments are funding the project.
“They spot an empty plot of land and quickly move in to seize control over it,” said a resident whose land was “confiscated” by the illegal contractors.
“They tell you if you don’t like it, go to court, knowing that by the time the legal procedures are over they would have succeeded in building another tall building and even selling some of the apartments.
“Many Arab land owners feel helpless. They tell us that it is their national duty to build as much as they can on any empty land, otherwise the Jews would be building there.”
Palestinians estimate that in the past few years they have managed to build more than 15,000 illegal housing units in areas surrounding Jerusalem as part of a plan to encircle the city. The construction continues to this moment, unabated. Partial funding comes from the Palestinian Authority (PA) and some Arab and Islamic countries These countries include Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and other oil-rich countries in the Gulf. However, the Palestinians continue to complain that the Arab and Islamic funding is below expectations.
In Area C, a stretch of land accounting for 60% of the West Bank, the European Union, which bitterly condemns construction in Jewish settlements as illegal, openly funds illegal construction carried out by Palestinians. The EU argues that its support for Palestinian construction falls under the category of “humanitarian relief” and is permissible under international law.
The EU’s real goal is to help the Palestinians create these irreversible facts on the ground ahead of any possible future peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel. It is aimed at facilitating the mission of the Palestinians to seize as much land as possible, even if that means funding illegal construction or providing mobile homes to Palestinian communities in this area.
In short, it is the EU and some Arabs and Muslims who are paying for the construction of illegal Palestinian settlements, while demanding that Israel halt building new homes for Jewish families in Jerusalem neighborhoods or existing settlements in the West Bank.
The hypocrisy and raw malice of the EU and the rest of the international community toward the issue of Israeli settlements is blindingly transparent. Yet we are also witnessing the hypocrisy of many in the Western mainstream media — those dozens of correspondents who see with their own eyes the Palestinian settlements rising on every side of Jerusalem, but choose to report only about Jewish building.
Forty-two Jewish families in Amona have the world riveted, but what does the world think about the Palestinian land-grab? It is time to call out this treachery, this illegality and this double-standard, and demand that the Palestinians also cease the construction of illegal settlements, which are designed with one aim in mind: to pre-determine the outcome of any future peace deal.
Bassam Tawil is based in the Middle East.