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Jerusalem’s mayor defends demolition of houses in Arab area

Rory McCarthy | The Guardian

23 April 2009

Israel’s mayor of Jerusalem defended the demolition of houses in the Arab east of the city today and insisted Jerusalem could not be a future capital of a Palestinian state.

Nir Barkat, a secular businessman elected as mayor five months ago, rejected international criticism of demolitions and planning policy in east Jerusalem as “misinformation” and “Palestinian spin”.

There is growing international concern about Israeli house demolitions and settlement growth in East Jerusalem, an area captured by Israel in 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognised by most of the international community. Critics of Israeli policy point out that planning permits are rarely given to Palestinians in East Jerusalem and that space allowed in the east for building is heavily restricted.

Last month the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, described demolitions as “unhelpful” and an internal EU diplomatic report, obtained last month by the Guardian, described them as “illegal under international law” and said they “fuel bitterness and extremism”.

But Barkat told reporters: “There is no politics. It’s just maintaining law and order in the city.” Since January, he said, there had been 35 demolitions, of which 20 were in the east. Asked about the international concern, he said: “The world is basing their evidence on the wrong facts … The world has to learn and I am sure people will change their minds.”

But others on the council disagree. Meir Margalit, an elected councillor from the leftwing Meretz party, said while the demolitions in the east were of Palestinian apartments and houses, in the west of the city they were nearly all small structures added on to buildings, including shopfronts.

Margalit said fewer than 7% of planning applications submitted by Palestinians in East Jerusalem had been successful so far this year, against 14% from the west, while 41% of Palestinian East Jerusalem planning applications had been rejected, against 20% from the west. He said this followed a pattern established over many years, before Barkat’s election.

“The discrimination here is more than ideological,” Margalit said. “It is part of a cultural structure that is the norm in the municipality.” He also produced research showing the municipality spent less than 12% of its budget in the east, where roads are often potholed and services are poor.

Barkat said he wanted to improve the life of all the city’s residents, Jewish and Arab, but that he was committed to maintaining a Jewish majority. Jews make up around two-thirds of the city’s population.

He said he could not accept East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state. “Jerusalem, both ideologically and practically, has to be managed as a united city, as the Israeli capital, and must not be divided,” he said.

Barkat said he wanted the Israeli government to build a Jewish settlement in an area of the occupied West Bank east of Jerusalem known as E1, a project the US has opposed. He said E1 was part of the “holy land of Israel” and could serve to allow the city’s Jewish population to expand outwards. “I see no reason in the world why the Israelis must freeze expansion and the Palestinians can build illegally,” he said. Under the US “road map”, which remains the basis of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel is committed to freezing all settlement building. Settlements in occupied land are widely regarded as illegal under international law.