Long-awaited planning approval may finally ease chronic housing shortage.

Light falls through the gaps in the spaced stone and concrete-framed facade of the home of leading Palestinian architect Senan Abdelqader.

Inside, floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors frame long, white work tables where Abdelqader sits surrounded by detailed plans for a rare housing project that would provide hundreds of homes for Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.

After years of objection from right-wing Israeli groups, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee last month approved initial plans for 2500 houses on 150ha of land in the Kidron Valley in Al Sawahra.

The decision was a rare glimmer of hope for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem, where Arab neighbourhoods have suffered from decades of neglect, a lack of basic services, and a chronic shortage of housing.

Advertisement

For Abdelqader, the plans on his desk are the first example of Palestinian participatory planning - whereby hundreds of landowners submitted joint plans to the Jerusalem municipality. With Palestinians rarely being granted permission to build homes, the "en masse" approach may have finally paid off.

"When we are acting under the conditions of occupation we have to find different tools to succeed," says Abdelqader as he pored over maps and drawings of the valley in his self-designed home and office in Tantur in southeast Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem municipality is not giving people the right to plan, not on the collective level and not even privately.

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

"If there's goodwill, construction could begin in the next two to three years, but again it could be another very long and winding road if the municipality will put up more barriers and obstacles."

Plans to develop the Kidron Valley have been around for 17 years. The valley sits beneath the slopes of the Jabal Mukaber neighbourhood and snakes between the basin of Silwan on one side and Israel's separation wall on the other.

The wall cut off the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem from the West Bank and sliced through Palestinian communities when construction started 14 years ago.

Abdelqader was brought on board six years ago to develop a basic model for the valley to present a collective idea on behalf of the landowners to the municipality.

But the plans to construct in the area stalled for more than four years due to infighting within the planning and building committee. Right-wing members, who see Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, opposed any development for Palestinian residents.

Last year, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat publicly backed the development. Around the same time, frustrated residents took the matter to the district court which ruled that the municipality needed to make a decision either way but could not continue to stall.

For those living in East Jerusalem, home to more than 300,000 Palestinians - 75 per cent of whom are living below the poverty line, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) - the project cannot come soon enough.

East Jerusalem suffers from a shortage of 25,000 homes, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a human rights organisation. Other groups place the shortage at about 40,000.

Just 14 per cent of East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian residential construction. ACRI said this forced many residents to build illegally and run the risk of demolition orders. Only 13 per cent of applications for building permits are granted to Palestinians in East Jerusalem each year.

The streets of Jabal Mukaber, which overlooks the planned development site, are littered with rubbish. The sewerage systems are failing, the schools do not have enough classrooms and there are few parks for children.

Naim Aweisat, 44, one of the landowners who was involved in the planning application, says he is wealthier than many in his neighbourhood, but still 16 families live in 10 houses on his property.

"Most of the buildings here have no permits, we pay fines on top of our municipal taxes - so that's about 50,000 to 60,000 shekels ($17,080 to $20,500) every two years," says the businessman.

The concern now for residents involved in the project is that the next stage of the planning process will lead to further delays.

Landowners now need to submit detailed plans, a process which some fear could be used by opponents to create years of delays.

Hassan Abu Asleh, a consultant on Jerusalem municipal planning processes, worked for the Jerusalem municipality for 35 years, and spent much of his time working to resolve requests for building permits and planning permission for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Planning processes consultant Hassan Abu Asleh. Photo / Kate Shuttleworth
Planning processes consultant Hassan Abu Asleh. Photo / Kate Shuttleworth

"I was almost a one-man-band - I was considered to be the municipality for the Arabs," Abu Asleh, 79, says.

Despite his success in helping fellow Palestinians, he said he was not confident construction would start anytime soon.

He now refers to it as that "dreaded site" and is reluctant to drive down to the area.

David Koren, the mayor's adviser on East Jerusalem, is more optimistic.

"The residents have already waited a long time and, at the end of the day, a flourishing neighbourhood with all the amenities is what would happen - we will do the best we can," Koren said.

Back at the top of Jabal Mukaber another resident, 48-year-old Aymad Bashir, sees permits as the main issue for residents in the area - he estimates that 30 per cent of the houses there do not have them.

He says eight families are squeezed into the eight homes on his land.

"Two of them are without permits and are facing a demolition order," he said.

He is sceptical that the approved construction will alleviate the housing crunch in the area.

"If it's implemented according to the plans it would solve a bit of the problem but it won't solve the entire problem. How can we believe them when they can't even decently pave the road I live on?"