Karen Laub | Associated Press
21 May 2009
The Israeli official put in charge of Jerusalem’s Arabs said he believes treating them more fairly will strengthen Israeli claims to all the disputed city, and says he’s seeking ways to legalize thousands of unlicensed Arab homes vulnerable to demolition.
With Israeli control comes responsibility for all Jerusalem residents, including a quarter million Palestinians who suffered decades of neglect, said the official, 32-year-old Yakir Segev, in an interview this week.
The former army commando was appointed six months ago by Mayor Nir Barkat to oversee east Jerusalem, the area captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by Palestinians as a future capital. The anniversary of the capture is marked Thursday, according to the Hebrew calendar, with parades and speeches.
The mayor’s critics say they’re getting empty promises. Demolitions of Arab homes have picked up under Barkat, with more than 1,000 orders issued this year, they note, while city funds are still mostly spent in Jewish areas.
Both Segev and his boss staunchly oppose a future partition of the city, seen as key to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal promoted by President Barack Obama. But Segev says he does want to narrow the gap between well-developed Jewish areas and Arab neighborhoods marked by an acute housing shortage, crowded schools and potholed streets.
“There are lots of obligations,” he said in his office near the walled Old City, site of major shrines sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. “You cannot take shortcuts.”
Human rights groups insist they’ve seen no change and dismiss Barkat’s promise to allow construction of 13,500 homes for Arabs over the next two decades as insufficient.
“All the policies we are facing … show that they want to limit the number of Palestinians,” said Ahmed Rweidi, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel has systematically tightened its hold on east Jerusalem since capturing it June 7, 1967. Immediately after the war, Israel drew new Jerusalem boundaries that reached deep into the West Bank, then annexed the enlarged area to its capital — a step never recognized internationally.
Today, some 180,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods built in east Jerusalem. Jewish settlement groups, often backed by the government, have established bridge heads deep inside Arab areas, particularly in and near the Old City.
Arabs have little say in city politics because they largely boycott municipal elections, fearing votes could be interpreted as acceptance of Israeli rule.
Israel’s previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said he was ready to give up most Arab neighborhoods, though not the Old City and its environs. But his successor, hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu, refuses to consider concessions.
Barkat ran a law-and-order campaign, including a pledge to end rampant unlicensed construction of nearly 20,000 homes in what he called the “Wild East.”
Palestinians argue the unlicensed construction is necessary because Israel uses restrictions on building permits to limit Arab growth and bolster a Jewish majority, which has fallen nonetheless to 66 percent.
But Barkat dismissed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as ill-informed after she called demolitions of Arab homes “unhelpful” to peace efforts. Since he took office, there’s also been uproar over plans to expand an archaeological park near the Old City, which would evict hundreds of Palestinians from unlicensed homes in the Silwan neighborhood.
Segev said a Jewish majority is important for Israel’s claims to the city, but should be achieved by attracting more Jews not limiting Palestinians. And the housing crisis in east Jerusalem has become untenable, he said. In reviewing licensing practices, “our goal is that the majority of the residents will receive a solution,” he said.
Unlicensed homes in residential areas would likely win retroactive approval, while those built on public land or areas earmarked for roads and schools would be demolished, he said. Demolitions will continue despite a call by the U.N.’s top Mideast envoy to suspend them, he said.
Danny Seidemann, who heads Ir Amim, a group that advocates a fair solution for Jerusalem, said he would applaud a policy change, but noted Barkat’s administration has so far rejected proposals, on a smaller scale, to legalize homes en masse.
Segev had never visited Arab areas of the city until Barkat appointed him, he said. Many Israelis are fearful to make the trip, belying Israel’s claims the city is united. But in the past six months, he’s often jogged in Silwan, where nearly 100 homes face demolition.
Segev, who lost his left arm in a childhood accident and overcame huge odds to get into the Egoz commando unit, displays the same can-do attitude now.
“I don’t think Silwan will be Rehavia,” he said, referring to a Jewish upscale neighborhood. “But I think the differences could be a lot less pronounced, and I would like to see to it that the (Arab) population feels that we are serious.”
Associated Press writer Joseph Marks contributed to this report.