For the past few weeks, Yehudit Oppenheimer has been a busy woman. Very busy, in fact. The executive director of Ir Amim, an NGO passionately committed to the goals of stability, equality and a future for Jerusalem that is mutually acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians, spent Dec. 11 racing among various committees in that city in an effort to thwart what she and her group perceive to be unilateral steps that will disrupt the very fabric of life in the city and impede any chance for a brighter future. She and her team could barely catch their breath after fighting plans approved by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee on Sunday, Dec. 16, to build 1,500 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of north Jerusalem. But yesterday [Dec. 19] they found themselves confronting yet another similar plan, this one involving the construction of hundreds of new units in Givat Hamatos, in the eastern part of the city.
Since Israel announced a massive building campaign in the E1 zone extending from Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim, the members of this NGO have been hard at work writing memoranda and reports, arranging tours for journalists and citizens so that they can articulate the negative impact construction here will have on future generations and submitting their objections to the new plans to the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee. We waited several hours before Oppenheimer could finally meet with us for a special interview, but she eventually found the time. As it happened, her efforts had just resulted in something of a success. It was the end of the day, and the committee had just overturned plans to build on Givat Hamatos. Nevertheless, Ir Amim recognizes that this was just one victory in a long, drawn-out campaign.
"We haven’t seen such an expedited building process in Jerusalem, intended to sabotage any chance to reach a political agreement, since the days of Ehud Olmert," she told us.
Her comment was surprising. Just weeks earlier, during an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, the former prime minister attacked Benjamin Netanyahu and his government for its decision to build in the area known as E1, in response to the United Nations vote to elevate Palestine to observer-nation status.
"The way in which Netanyahu has isolated the state of Israel from the whole rest of the world is unprecedented,” said Olmert, “and we will pay a very steep price for it in every regard.” According to Oppenheimer's data, however, it is quite clear that Olmert himself was responsible for building the most housing units in East Jerusalem, at least until 2012 — more precisely, until Abu Mazen submitted his petition to the United Nations.
Oppenheimer explains: "When Ehud Olmert returned from the Annapolis Conference [in November 2007], he began to expedite building tenders in the city. Immediately afterward, in 2008, 1,931 housing units were built. In contrast, tenders were issued for only 630 units in 2006, and in 2007 [prior to Annapolis], the number of tenders totaled just 46."
The first tenders expedited in the immediate aftermath of the Annapolis Conference were in the Har Homah neighborhood. Oppenheimer explains that Olmert defended this construction in East Jerusalem by claiming that it was on lands that were most likely to remain in Israeli hands as part of any future settlement with the Palestinians. Since that time, however, the number of construction tenders in Jerusalem declined considerably, at least until very recently. "They have advanced plans throughout this time,” Oppenheimer says, “moving them along from the local committee to the objection stage. Yet,” she adds, “This happened slowly. It was a kind of contingency plan that was launched during Olmert’s days, but it proceeded slowly and there were hardly any tenders. Once the plans are completed, however, along with any discussions and motions of opposition, the next stage is the release of tenders, and by then, we have already reached the point of no return.
"We track everything that happens in Jerusalem — everything with ramifications on the relationship between the two peoples and any chances for future agreements. Even if there seems to be little chance that such an agreement can be reached in the near future, we make every effort to ensure that Jerusalem is a city where both peoples can live as equals.”
When I look at the maps showing construction in Jerusalem, I see that it doesn’t matter what the district building committees decide now or even in the future. The facts have already been established on the ground. Another thousand housing units, or even 2,000, will make no substantial change to the current situation.
“The situation is certainly complex, but what it all boils down to is the willingness — or lack of political willingness — to reach an agreement. Building permits issued over the last few weeks are intended to create a contiguous Israeli territory at the expense of Palestinian contiguity. What we must remember is that according to the Clinton Parameters (for a Permanent Status Agreement), the town of Ma'ale Adumim will not be evacuated. It will remain an Israeli enclave within the West Bank. Connecting it to Jerusalem through the E1 program significantly reduces any chances we have to see the Clinton Parameters realized.”
Similarly, Ir Amim’s most recent battle was against the construction of hundreds of housing units in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood, which were intended to prevent territorial integrity between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem to the south.
According to Oppenheimer, “It is no coincidence that they are expediting these plans now and pushing them toward completion. We have really reached the point of no return.” During our discussion, Oppenheimer returned repeatedly to the idea of “a point of no return.” She feels that every housing unit built in contested territories in East Jerusalem establishes a fact on the ground, and that this will be impossible to reverse in the future. It is this feeling that instills her work with particular urgency. So, for example, she describes Givat Hamatos as, “a complex place consisting of a combination of private lands belonging to both Israelis and Palestinians, with low rates of construction. Opposition to construction was first submitted four years ago, but it got stuck because of the area’s particular complexity. Now, suddenly, we’ve reached a point where the processes are expedited and compressed. There can be no doubt that this is the result of instructions from above.”
So how did you succeed in fighting it?
“The motion of opposition that we submitted to the District Building Committee was political in nature. We argued that the territory was in East Jerusalem and that its development options would impinge on the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa. In effect, the building permits and tenders sabotage any political agreement. As an action, it can best be described as “anti-political-resolution.” In addition to the motion of opposition submitted by Ir Amim, the residents of Beit Safafa submitted a motion of their own, claiming that they acquired the land from the Jordanian Government in the 1960s, but that they never finished registering it in their name because of the Six Day War. Their request that the Israeli Land Administration conduct an investigation, which they claim would prove their ownership of the land, has so far been ignored.
Last night, however, the members of Ir Amim could at least feel some sense of accomplishment. After hours of discussions, the final committee accepted the opposition motions presented to it and overturned the plans for new construction.
But Oppenheimer is only mildly pleased with the results. It seems as if she wants to maintain a necessary level of discontent in order to sustain her in her future struggles. “First of all, it wasn’t necessarily overturned because of the motion of opposition that we submitted, citing a future political agreement,” she says rather diffidently. Then, in a tone that bears her considerable experience she adds, “Secondly, it doesn’t mean that they won’t approve the plans sometime in the future, once they are fixed.
“By the way, yesterday that same District Building Committee approved a plan to construct hundreds of housing units for Arab residents in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa.”
So, does that mean there is no discrimination?
Oppenheimer laughs. “Look,” she answers. “The state of Israel has confiscated over two-thirds of East Jerusalem’s lands since 1967. Some of these were privately owned, while the remainder were state-owned lands. Homes for some 200,000 Israelis have since been built in the city, but not a single new neighborhood has been built for the Palestinians.
“And if that is not enough, restrictions that the state imposes on new construction or expansion in existing neighborhoods are so stringent that the situation is absurd. Palestinians who want to build — who want to add a room or even close in a balcony — must still undergo a veritable ‘Via Dolorosa,’ and even that doesn’t help.”
“There are no shortcuts here. There is no policy to expedite things,” she says with an exhausted smile.