Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert last week staunchly rejected Palestinian vows to make east Jerusalem their capital while declaring his commitment to equal rights for Palestinian city residents under Israel’s exclusive rule.
In his Dec. 8 address here to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the recently re-elected mayor emphasized repeatedly that Israel would not bend in coming final status talks with the Palestinians, where Jerusalem’s own final status is to be negotiated. The Palestinians have vowed to win a shared arrangement under which the city’s mainly Arab eastern section would serve as capital of the Palestinian state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Any government of Israel will not compromise on the fundamental status of Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel—and only Israel,” Olmert vowed. Within that understanding, though, Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents “are part of the city and must share in it on the basis or equal rights,” he said.
On that count, he averred, “We have done more to increase the quality of life of Arabs in Jerusalem in the last five years than my predecessor [former Mayor Teddy Kollek] did in the last 28 years.”
Olmert said that since his November, 1993 election, demolition of illegally built Arab homes, long one of the government’s most controversial actions, had decreased to half the number demolished during the last five years of Kollek’s tenure.
The mayor also disparaged Arab claims that they were often forced to build illegally because the government set before them unsurpassable hurdles to obtain building permits for their growing numbers while smoothing permits for Jewish Jerusalemites.
In fact, said Olmert, when housing growth to accommodate each sector is measured proportionally against each sector’s share in the city population and their respective growth in numbers since 1967, “The number of buildings built in east Jerusalem [for Arabs] relative to the number of people living there is greater than the number built for Jews.”
Arabs were only 24 percent of the city’s population when Israel won control of the city’s Arab eastern sector in the 1967 Six-Day War, he said. So in absolute numbers, “Of course there were more housing units built for Jews,” Olmert said.
“I ask reporters, do you ever check when you report that Arabs’ homes are being demolished? Do you know the people living there don’t even own those homes? Or that we’re going to build a school there for Arab children?”
But Olmert’s remarks provoked sharp rebuttals from critics who cited official data assembled by Olmert’s own municipality that appeared to contradict some of the mayor’s claims.
Daniel Seidemann, director of Ir Shalem [Completed City], a Jerusalem advocacy group for equal rights, said that the reference to building schools for Arab children appeared to concern a special budget allocation made during the government of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to build 180 classrooms in Jerusalem’s Arab sector.
“Less than half have been built,” he said. “And Olmert is specifically responsible for scuttling plans to build at least two Arab schools due to settler pressure, at Beit Orot and Maamunia.”
Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now, rebutted Olmert’s claims on proportional housing growth, citing data published by the Jerusalem municipality and the Jerusalem Institute in the institute’s 1997 statistical abstract.
According to these data, Jerusalem’s Arab population grew 154 percent from 1967 to 1996. But the number of housing units for Arabs grew by only 83 percent. Meanwhile, the city’s Jewish population grew by 107 percent. But the growth in housing units rose by 123 percent, substantially exceeding Jewish population growth. More than 27 percent of the city’s Arab population is living with three or more people to a room, versus only 2.4 percent of the Jewish population, Rosenblum said.
Rosenblum also pointed to government data showing that some 40,000 of the units for Jews were built as government funded public housing on land expropriated in east Jerusalem. No housing units have been built with public money for Arabs on this land. Fewer than 600 units have been constructed for the Palestinian population on nonexpropriated land with any kind of government assistance, said Rosenblum.
“It’s like listening to someone from the Flat Earth Society,” he said after listening to Olmert’s speech.
Currently, said Rosenblum, under Olmert’s tenure, some 8,000 government sponsored units are either under construction or planned for Jerusalem’s Jewish population. Approximately 400 such units are planned for the Palestinians, he said.
Seidemann, the Ir Shalem director, said that Arab house demolitions, in fact, decreased sharply after Olmert opened a controversial tunnel running near the Temple Mount in 1996, setting off angry Arab riots in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. But according to reports in the Israeli press, this curtailment was instituted in response to warnings from Israel’s security services that continued demolitions could spark further violence.
Citing government data, Seidemann challenged Olmert’s commitment to ensuring Arab residents of Jerusalem get their fair share of the city’s resources. Currently, only 7 percent of the Jerusalem budget goes to the 30 percent of the population that is Arab, said Seidemann, who charged: “These are no small fibs. Only a mayor who fails to treat 30 percent of the residents of his city as constituents in any sense of the word could so misrepresent their living conditions.”