Surviving Jerusalem: Fifty years of Neglect & Daily Suffering Just to Remain


No one can imagine when first looking at Jerusalem, with the light rail, the clean paved roads, the old and new buildings, that just a few blocks away from the European-like main streets, there are Palestinian neighborhoods that look like slums, and not because the buildings are poorly constructed, on the contrary. More than 37% of Jerusalem’s population are Palestinian residents who are living in East Jerusalem neighborhoods that lack basic services, adequate roads and safe sidewalks — when and if they exist.

East Jerusalem, which is 70 square kilometers, compromises 56% of all Jerusalem, including the Old City. Palestinian Jerusalemites, or “Arabs,” according to the 2106 Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research statistical yearbook, make up 37.2% of Jerusalem residents. They live on just 13% of the land that was annexed in 1967. One-third of the annexed land, or about 34% of it, has been turned into Israeli settlements, while the rest is land Palestinian East Jerusalemites cannot develop because it is designated as an open space or a green area.

The Wall: Isolation and Restriction of Movement

From a Palestinian point of view, the wall surrounding Jerusalem isolates East Jerusalem from its hinterland, from the rest of the Palestinians in the West Bank. This has caused East Jerusalem to lose its centrality to Ramallah. At the same time, the Separation Wall connects and converges the Israeli settlements surrounding East Jerusalem with Jerusalem and emphasizes the city’s centrality to the Israelis. The wall in the Jerusalem area measures approximately 142 km, with only four kilometers of its completed length running along the internationally accepted 1967 Green Line. The wall encircles Jerusalem and the ring of settler colonies around it, deepens Jerusalem’s isolation from the West Bank.1

As a result of the construction of the wall, many Palestinian Jerusalemites were left on the other side, separated from Jerusalem and their families, schools and work. Some moved to live inside the wall, but many could not afford to do so. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 90,0002 Palestinian Jerusalemites are living within the municipal boundary on the other side of the Separation Wall. They have to go through checkpoints — one of the 12 along the wall — to enter Jerusalem every day. The wall was designed to keep Palestinian-dense neighborhoods on a small portion of land, such as the Shuafat refugee camp and Kufur Aqab, and at the same time, to exclude vacant land even if it is not within the municipal boundary.

Some Palestinian Jerusalemites chose to live in the areas outside the wall simply because it was the only home they knew, or because it solved a problem for them. For example, an East Jerusalemite married to a Palestinian from the West Bank and going through the reunification process might choose to live in the West Bank, as living there guarantees residency rights for the Jerusalemite partner. It also keeps the family together, since it might be hard for the “West Bank” partner to get a permit to live inside Jerusalem. Also, there are those who found better work opportunities in the West Bank, or who can only afford to live in the West Bank because it is much cheaper to rent or buy a house there compared to the areas inside the wall.

Planning Limits Development

Planning is the municipality’s responsibility. Planning is supposed to organize residents’ lives and protect their futures. To the contrary, planning in East Jerusalem is the tool Israel uses against Palestinians to restrict their development and to make their lives in Jerusalem so hard that they opt to leave. This is done through various methods, including the complicated and long process of obtaining building permits and the low building rights allowed in Palestinian neighborhoods. The Floor Area Ratio (FAR) — the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the land upon which it is built — is generally 25 to 70% in Palestinian neighborhoods, compared with 120% in Israeli neighborhoods. This means that on one dunum (1,000 square meters) of land, a Palestinian can build, on average, 250 to 700 square meters in gross floor area (between two and six apartments), while an Israeli can build, on average, 1,200 square meters (between 10 and 12 apartments). Other elements of discrimination against Palestinian neighborhoods include the lack of areas open for development, the lack of basic services, and the lack of recreational areas and parks. In addition, many neighborhoods do not have the outline plan necessary to change land use zoning to residential, which means that individuals cannot get a building permit for their own property. The “open green spaces” and national parks on over 30% of East Jerusalem’s land, which mostly surrounds the Palestinian neighborhoods, restrict their future natural expansion and development.

Municipality, Services and Infrastructure

Palestinians pay their taxes regularly. Paying taxes is one of the ways to prove that one is living in Jerusalem, which is something Palestinians have been requested to do continuously since December 1995, when Israel enforced on Palestinian residents the “Center of Life” policy to “prove” that they live in the city. Palestinians pay their taxes, but they do not receive services in return. Palestinians in East Jerusalem comprise 37% of the population of Jerusalem, but they receive 12% of its budget. This is reflected in the shortage of services in the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

A simple comparison between East and West would show that there is a shortage of 41 municipal kindergartens in East Jerusalem; there are 10 existing facilities in East Jerusalem, compared with 77 in West Jerusalem. Currently there are 25 mother-and-baby centers in West Jerusalem, and only four in East Jerusalem, where there is a shortage of 13 centers. For every 8,800 Palestinians, there is one park, while there is one for every 512 Israeli in West Jerusalem, which creates a shortage of 750 parks in East Jerusalem. There is one kilometer of paved road per 710 persons in West Jerusalem, compared to one kilometer per 2,448 persons in East Jerusalem, and there is a similar ratio for the sewerage system (1:743 to 1:2,809). The list of such disparities and discriminations continues in all sorts of areas between East and West Jerusalem.

Building “Illegally” Is a Survival Technique

One-third of the houses in East Jerusalem are under demolition threat by the Israeli authorities, as these houses are built without permits. However, getting a building permit in East Jerusalem is almost impossible. On average, the Jerusalem municipality issues 100 building permits (about 400 housing units) each year, when there is a need for about 1,500 new housing units every year in East Jerusalem. About 1,600 houses have been demolished in East Jerusalem since 19923, affecting the lives of at least 8,480 people.

It is only logical that East Jerusalemites would build without a permit, since living in Jerusalem, even in an unlicensed house, is a way to maintain the residency status of its inhabitants in Jerusalem. In addition, getting such a permit takes years and years and requires a lot of money to hire engineers and lawyers, without any guarantee of success. Many Jerusalemites conclude that it is better to pay the fines to the Israeli authorities and live in a home they built near their families and communities than to go and rent a house which is very expensive and far away from their relatives.

A simple calculation of the building rights allowed for Palestinians in East Jerusalem will lead to the same conclusion, which is that the only logical solution Palestinians have is to build without a permit. According to research by BIMKOM4, which studied the authorized plans in East Jerusalem — the plans which control, organize and legalize the building in East Jerusalem — illegal building is also the basis for getting a building permit. The study shows that only 9,844 dunums of land are currently allowed for residential use for Palestinians in East Jerusalem — a mere 13.8% of East Jerusalem land annexed in 1967.

This means that since there are 58,880 Palestinian families in Jerusalem, who live on just this amount of land, Palestinians will need to build six apartments in each and every dunum of land available, no matter who owns that land, just to accommodate the existing families. But what is allowed for Palestinians by these plans is an average of four apartments per dunum. What exists is an average of nine apartments per dunum, due to the lack of additional land for construction. It is estimated that by the year 2030, there will a need for another 50,000 housing units in East Jerusalem to accommodate the natural growth of the city, not to mention the existing houses which will need renovations. How many “illegal” houses would that require? The near future will be the witness of that.


East Jerusalemites see that Israeli settlements are built on their lands. The settlers receive better services and infrastructure by far, while it takes the Palestinians ages to get a permit to build one house to live in with their family or for their married children on land they own. And many times they try to get a permit and do not succeed. At the same time, huge settlements are built quickly. Infrastructure, roads and other services are provided — with long-time residents’ tax money — quickly and smoothly for settlers who just immigrated from outside.

There are three types of Israeli settlements inside and around East Jerusalem: settlements built on East Jerusalem land annexed in 1967, settlement blocks around Jerusalem, and the “Inner Settlements,” meaning individual houses within Palestinian residential areas and neighborhoods, in houses which have been bought or taken over by various means.

Statistics as of the end of 2012 show that 196,8905 Israeli settlers live in settlements built on post-1967 East Jerusalem land, which is 38% of the entire Israeli population of Jerusalem, including the population of the redeveloped Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Israeli settlers live in 11 settlements throughout East Jerusalem, which are built on 34% of the land annexed in 1967. This is 2.5 times the space allowed for Palestinians, who are almost double the size of population.

About 140,000 settlers are living in three settlement blocs around East Jerusalem, within the wall that keeps them inside Jerusalem. Then there is the vacant land in between the settlements and the wall — the E1 area. This land is the remaining connection between Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the area that also connects or separates — if confiscated and walled — the north and south of the West Bank. Another almost 2,000 settlers live in the inner settlements, inside Palestinian neighborhoods, especially the ones surrounding the Old City.


Fifty years of neglect and no-planning has turned our Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem into places we do not approve of, but it has also turned us into people who are so worried about our survival and well-being that we no longer work together. We complain to one another about the situation, and we demand services and better conditions, but not in the right places nor in the right ways for our demands to be heard. We wait for the Jerusalem Municipality to solve our problems, knowing that it will not do anything unless it is forced to.

There are two paths Palestinians in East Jerusalem can take to continue to survive: doing what is necessary to remain in Jerusalem, to maintain their residency, to continue to build as they need to with or without a permit, to pay fines, to postpone the demolition of their homes until there is no other alternative but to demolish and rebuild and go through the continuous cycle one more time; or they can stand up for their rights, start demanding their rights as tax-paying residents, organize themselves and work collectively — not individually — to make their neighborhoods the places they want them to be, for themselves and for their children and the future generations.

For 50 years now, Palestinians in East Jerusalem have been doing all they can do to survive, but mostly they have been doing that individually. Recently, with the support of Palestinian and international organizations, some neighborhoods have started working collectively to prepare plans which will eventually legalize their homes. But more importantly, they are beginning to understand that through pursuing the collective interest, individual interests are achieved as well and the impact will be stronger.

1The Wall: Fragmenting the Palestinian Fabric in Jerusalem, 2007.
2This number differs from one source to the other, according to JIIS it is 46,920.
3DEMOLISHING PEACE; House Demolitions in East Jerusalem 2000 – 2010. Meir Margalit. IPCC Jerusalem, 2014.
4 Jerusalem.pdf.

The Wall: Fragmenting the Palestinian Fabric in Jerusalem. International Peace and Cooperation Center (IPCC) 2007.
DEMOLISHING PEACE; House Demolitions in East Jerusalem 2000 – 2010. Meir Margalit. IPCC Jerusalem, 2014.
Survey of the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, planning problems and opportunities. BIMKOM, Jerusalem 2013. uploads/survey-of-the-Palestinian-neighborhoods-of-East-Jerusalem.pdf.
Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies, statistical yearbook, 2016 edition.