<style>.post-37419 .entry-title{color: }</style>311
<style>.post-37419 .entry-title{color: }</style>311
<style>.post-37419 .entry-title{color: }</style>311

The Kingdom of God

By Simon Kouba

Yes, it is indeed the Kingdom of God, where all three monotheistic religions have been struggling to rule Jerusalem for thousands of years. The center of the world in several ways, this place has never been a strategic attraction. Neither a financial center nor rich in terms of agriculture or industry, it has always been a spiritual home.The various peoples that have ruled Jerusalem over the centuries were interested in exerting their influence because Jerusalem holds religious importance. Streams of blood flowed as the city was conquered and changed hands many times throughout its history. Since the early twentieth century, four powers have ruled: the Ottomans, British, Jordanians, and Israelis. The Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, which continues today, was implemented in two phases: western Jerusalem was taken in 1948 and East Jerusalem in 1967. When the entire city fell into the hands of the Israeli army, Palestinians had been inhabiting the city since the time of the Canaanites, their ancestors, who called it Yabous. Ever since, Palestinians have always been present and have repeatedly fought and struggled to defend their home. Most recently, since 1967, they have been forced to resist the Israeli government’s attempts to change Jerusalem’s demography. The occupying forces are making great efforts to create a Jewish majority in occupied East Jerusalem that was once inhabited by a vast Palestinian majority. They employ many methods to make this happen, most importantly by implementing policies and measures that affect housing.Housing means residence, and residence means REMAIN.Once Israel took over power in the city, a new zoning plan was imposed on its residents to limit the growth of the city’s population and reduce the land it inhabits. Vast areas have been confiscated in various neighborhoods and Israeli settlements built on these lands, limiting the natural growth of the existing Palestinian neighborhoods. During the 1980s, huge numbers of Jerusalemites had to move to nearby cities, specifically Ramallah and Bethlehem, because the laws in force at the time severely limited the ability of Palestinian Jerusalemites to build houses or to expand the homes they own. In the late 1990s, a new law was imposed upon Jerusalemites who lived outside the city’s municipal boundaries. It prohibits Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from living outside the city borders, in which case they lose their right of residency and their Jerusalem identity card.This law led to a massive return to the city, causing another socioeconomic issue of concern. Because the city was not ready to receive such large numbers of residents, people began to live in tiny houses or shared and split their homes, even time-sharing bedrooms. They underwent this agony to keep their right of residency and the privilege of living in the city of their ancestors. Simultaneously, a wave of “illegal” building took place in the city. While this wave enabled the accommodation of many of the returnees, it came with a high price: the anguish of the threat of demolition because these buildings are considered illegal according to the law that specifically targets Palestinians – while Jewish Israelis are free and even encouraged to build new housing and expand their homes.Tens of buildings have been demolished, leaving their inhabitants without shelter and adding to the severe financial burden of those who built without a permit and thus had to pay hundreds of thousands of shekels in fines.

Architects and lawyers have taken on a role in solving part of this problem. Because land in Jerusalem is limited – surrounded by settlements or green zones – one solution was to obtain the right for Palestinians to raise the height of buildings in the same way as it is done all over the city and in the region. The planning bylaws that apply to Palestinians allow for buildings with two stories; in limited cases, three or four. The task now is to secure the right to build six stories and more. Thus, a major struggle has taken place in the offices of the municipality’s building committee and the Ministry of Interior. When skilled architects and lawyers made significant advances in getting more building rights, however, Israel, unpleased, started to revive other laws to put a stop to this. Among the complications that Palestinians face in this city is the Absentee Property Law. In a few words, this law prohibits landowners who were not physically present in Jerusalem on the day it was occupied from exerting their right of ownership. This right went automatically to the occupying power. People who lived elsewhere on that gloomy day or who had fled during the war lost their property rights. A neighborhood such as Beit Hanina was split into two sections: one within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and the other in the West Bank. Beit Hanina had the biggest setback due to this law because most Beit Haninians lived in the part of the village that was now situated in the West Bank. Consequently, they were considered present absentees, and their land in Jerusalem was classified as present absentee property. This is not to mention the property rights of the thousands of people who fled during the wars of 1948 and 1967 and have become refugees, many of whom now live in Jordan.

The Capital of Resurrection Sports Center.

These restrictions, set by the ruling power, have made construction in the city very difficult. With the high demand and the limited ability to build, the value of apartments has spiked in the city, with the value of an equally sized apartment reaching prices more than four times higher than those in nearby cities such as Ramallah and Bethlehem.

Building permit fees are astronomical in the Holy City. In the West Bank, an application for the right to build a 120-square-meter apartment generally costs less than US$3,000. In Jordan the cost is similar; in other countries in the region, it is even less. In Jerusalem, the permit to build an apartment of 120 square meters would cost over US$80,000. To obtain a license, you have to pay for the construction of the already existing road adjacent to the land, a tax that amounts roughly US$15,000 per apartment. A so-called betterment tax is imposed as well because by Israel’s definition the value of real estate is upgraded when a structure is added. This added value is considered an income, and you have to pay a yearly tax that may exceed US$40,000. In addition, water and sewage costs are again way too high.

I once said, “Jerusalem deserves to be highly valued,” and I still believe this. The honor and privilege of living in the Kingdom of God has a very high price. But, should this apply to me, an authentic Jerusalemite? One might decide to stay, no matter what, and with this simple logic try to get a loan. But oops, no! There are no loans given that would allow one to build in this part of the world. It happens that all the regulations prevent this community from moving forward.

Land laws in Israel make it impossible for banks to give a loan for the purpose of building in East Jerusalem. The reason is simple: the ownership, or if you like the “deeds,” are not considered good enough due to the unfinished processes of registration. As it is, 97 percent of the lands are unregistered because the process of land registration was halted when the city was occupied. In business language, the weakness of the available deeds makes it impossible for a bank to give a loan. When we found financial refuge with the banks that operate in the West Bank, another problem arose. These banks, as per Israeli law, cannot take hold of real estate in Jerusalem, which poses a financial danger in case borrowers cannot pay back their loans – in the end the bank is a business institution. As a result, very few loan applications have been approved by banks in the West Bank. So we have the absentees law, unfavorable zoning, the high cost of land, impossible fees, and troubles in financing the process. Yet against all these odds, we are here. How is that possible?

Business companies have taken the initiative to do the job instead of the missing “housing ministry.” They are looking for opportunities and locations where they can set up a housing project, finance it, and sell it to the community through a five- to ten-year payment plan. Such processes have proven successful. Jerusalem’s churches took upon themselves part of this task and over the last two decades have been able to construct more than 200 units, almost all of them for their Christian communities. There was a successful trend in the 1990s and 2000s, as groups of young couples joined hands to buy and build their homes. Unfortunately, this trend did not happen on a large scale because it is difficult to find groups of families who share a similar vision for community living.

Thus, in the 1990s the Palestine Housing Council was formed with the aim of enabling middle-class families to own a home. Of course, such a project needs a huge amount of funds. Although the council was giving out loans, the associated conditions made the process very difficult for applicants. The regulations limited this privilege to those who could prove their ability to pay back the loan by producing viable guarantees, in addition to the two required guarantors.

Construction of the sports center annexed to Terra Santa School in the Old City.

During the last ten years, the council has been able to purchase land and build over 150 units for middle-class families. We should not forget the Massar company’s “Lana” project on church-owned land that is under construction today. This project is the largest ever built in the city and will total around 400 units. However, despite such projects, the gap between the need for housing and its availability remains enormous. Solving this dilemma requires a gigantic grant from a rich government. Money that comes from countries that are friendly to Palestine, especially the Arab Gulf countries and, on a smaller scale, the European Union, addresses merely the tip of the iceberg – but is much appreciated nevertheless!

A city under occupation, with very limited resources and rules that force its inhabitants to fight against all odds, will definitely find it difficult to house its inhabitants. But it is not impossible. On the other hand, in order to keep the housing stack leveled, we have to give special care to the existing structures, especially in the Old City.

Through renovations that are taking place in the Old City, we keep the existing houses viable and in some cases render them more useful. This action is very important for our resilience in the heart of the Kingdom, the most threatened area of all. Fortunately, we have several organizations that care about and work hard on this issue, with, I would say, an important degree of success. Here again, problems arise, as the archaeology department, the police, and the municipality are keeping a close eye on these works. Luckily, we have had great success as we have learned how to avoid and overcome such threats for the time being.  

  • Simon Kouba is an architect and town planner and the manager of Simon Kouba Consultants. Serving as a board member of several organizations – including the JR Mott Foundation in Geneva that promotes a just, equitable, and sustainable society – and as the president of the East Jerusalem YMCA, he is a strong supporter of youth and a believer in their ability to co-lead. Born in Jerusalem, Simon graduated from Jerusalem’s Frères School and Metsovion Polytechnic University of Greece. He is the father of four and married to Marlene Harb.

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