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January 27, 2003

In Case You Missed It...Important New Book On Jerusalem From the JCPA

Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon (172 pp. including a fold-out map, charts, tables, documents, and aerial photographs) is available from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 02-561-9281, for $50 + postage ($10 airmail to North America; $6 airmail to Europe; $2 surface mail in Israel).

When approaching the vastly complex Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the effects that long-term political positions have on the daily lives of the people actually living in the region are often underestimated or brushed aside.

The consequences of such positions are most intensely felt by the hundreds of thousands of Jewish, Arab and international residents who call Jerusalem home - a city that despite near-constant conflict for over sixty years, is nonetheless one of the most varied, interesting, and multicultural cities to be found anywhere on Earth.

As is often the case in the Middle East, things are not always what they seem. While we are confronted nightly with images of violence from the Holy Land, the root causes and their effects are sometimes difficult to ascertain. In Jerusalem, one such manifestation is the international outcry over the administrative demolition of illegally built structures.

Justus Reid Weiner, scholar-in-residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (www.jcpa.org), an independent think-tank, has undertaken the first comprehensive study of illegal construction in Jerusalem - a phenomenon that has reached epidemic proportions.

A long-time Jerusalemite, Weiner brings first-person perspective to the damaging consequences that the politicization of Jerusalem's municipal affairs has wrought on the ancient city's residents of all backgrounds.

If someone decided to build a three-story home in the middle of Central Park or the Champs Elysee without permission, would the tax-paying citizens of New York City or Paris not expect the municipality to swiftly and effectively remove this impediment to their city's standard of living? Why is Jerusalem any different?

Despite having authorized the issuance of 36,000 permits for new housing units in the Arab sector - more than enough to meet the needs of Arab residents through legal construction until 2020 -6,000 homes without permits were built during the last 4 years, of which less than 200 were demolished by the city.

Weiner insightfully illustrates how the Jerusalem Municipality has buckled under the international spotlight and politically-motivated NGO pressure, thereby doing a disservice to the quality of life in this very special city. Appeasement through the selective enforcement of planning policy has further left the Municipality open to criticism when it does, out of necessity, move against illegal structures.

Interestingly, the frequency of administrative demolitions is equal amongst Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods. However, the majority of illegal construction is undertaken by Arab Jerusalemites, often built with the financial assistance of the Palestinian Authority on land that is not owned by the builder.

More than any single factor, Weiner identifies the 35-year-long boycott of municipal politics by the Palestinian leadership as the cause of the continued imbalance in municipal services in Arab neighborhoods vis-a-vis Jewish neighborhoods.

By taking the reader step-by-step through the building permit application process, Weiner illustrates the great lengths to which the Jerusalem Municipality has gone to make their services accessible to its Arab constituency, authoritatively discrediting NGO accusations that Arab Jerusalemites have no choice but to build their homes illegally since the municipality systematically rejects their applications for building permits.

Containing a wealth of fascinating background materials, charts and photographs, meticulously researched and exhaustively footnoted, Weiner's surprisingly accessible work illustrates how the common legal mechanisms and urban planning solutions undertaken by Municipalities the world over - notably the demolition of unapproved structures - has taken on political significance as a result of the "demographic war" against Israel. This successful politicization has hindered the Jerusalem Municipality from effectively and inclusively administering, improving and caring for the quality of life of all its residents. At the end of the study we are left with one very difficult question: Who will ultimately bear the burden of chaotic development and an eroded quality of life in the Arab neighborhoods?

Equally valuable to professional planners, Mid-East experts, and non- academics, Illegal Construction is an important contribution and insight in to one of the most important, but least understood facets of the Peace Process - the fate of Jerusalem.