A Palestinian family reacts after Israeli bulldozers demolished their home in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, Feb. 5, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset member Yair Lapid (l), leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to Naftali Bennett, head of the hard-line national religious party the Jewish Home, during a Feb. 5 reception in Jerusalem marking the opening of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/GETTY IMAGES)
Richard Curtiss at work in his Washington Report office. (STAFF PHOTO D. HANLEY)
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney (l) and Likud chairman Benyamin Netanyahu, out of office at the time and serving as the official Israeli opposition leader, at a March 23, 2008 breakfast meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III (r) shares candies with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim during a Feb. 11 visit to the rebels’ stronghold in Sultan Kudarat on the island of Mindanao. (KARLOS MANLUPIG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Emad Burnat views his five broken cameras in his documentary of the same name. (PHOTO COURTESY KINO LORBER)
April/May 1993, Page 36
The Palestinian Housing Shortage In the Midst of Israel's Housing Glut
By Frank Collins
The U.S. guarantees for Israel, originally requested to finance housing for Russian Jewish immigrants, are no longer needed for that purpose because of the precipitous drop in immigration to Israel. As a result, last year's frenzied building under Ariel Sharon has led to a surplus of housing far beyond the capacity of Israelis and newly arrived immigrants to buy. Amidst this glut of segregated housing for Jews only, built under U.S. Loan guarantees, Palestinians are suffering from a severe and growing housing shortage, both in the occupied territories and in Israel itself.
"At present a housing crisis of considerable magnitude exists in the West Bank and Gaza," reports Simchal Bahiri, in a 1990 study entitled Construction and Housing in the West Bank and Gaza, prepared for Meron Benvenisti's West Bank Data Project. "It does not appear likely that the family units now [under construction], nor in the foreseeable future, [are capable] of solving the [Palestinian] housing problem.
"Even if there is a separate entity with its own administration, the problem will remain, as there will be a large number of returnees requiring housing," Bahiri reports. "To provide housing, not only for those who now require it, [but] to eliminate refugee camps, to cater for increase in population (natural or through immigration), to replace the increased number of housing units that will deteriorate, to raise the standard of housing and to reduce overcrowding would require not only a massive building effort over the period of a decade, but probably a much longer period."
The Bahiri book was prepared shortly after the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in December 1987. It notes that at that time 35 percent of Palestinian housing in the occupied territories was classified as "overcrowded,'' meaning it had an occupancy of more than three persons per room, compared with only four percent of "overcrowding" in Israeli housing.
Since the book was written, the housing situation in the occupied territories has dramatically worsened. The rate of building in Palestinian towns, suburbs and villages in the occupied territories has catastrophically declined, while the population has burgeoned by some 150,000 persons through natural increase. In addition, 30,000 to 40,000 Palestinian refugees from Kuwait and other Gulf states, evicted because of the Gulf war and in possession of Israeli identification cards, have returned to the occupied territories. The increase of the Palestinian population since 1988 is several times larger than the number of new Jewish settlers who have moved into the occupied territories during this period.
It is true that there are few Palestinians visibly homeless and sleeping in the streets, as some unfortunates are doing in the United States. However, the Palestinian housing shortage is not publicly visible because of the closeness of family relationships in Palestinian society. Palestinians respond to the housing shortage by doubling up related families in housing that in many cases would be overcrowded if occupied by only a single family.
The housing situation is even worse in the congested refugee camps, where large families occupy only two or three small rooms. In view of the turmoil and the harshness of most aspects of everyday life for the Palestinian people under occupation, the housing crisis receives little notice in the Palestinian press and almost none in the American and other Western media.
An Inadequate Infrastructure
Not only is much of Palestinian housing overcrowded, but the service infrastructure is completely inadequate. Many village homes are connected to neither running water nor sewage lines. In some villages electricity is provided only during evening hours by a local generating facility. Throughout the occupied territories, telephone service for Palestinians is woefully deficient. Most villages have only a few telephones, if any.
All of this is in vivid contrast to the Jewish settlements where every home has running water, a connection to the Israel Electric Company and a telephone.
An American entering the home of a poor Palestinian family is immediately struck by the almost total lack of personal and family possessions. Couches typically face each other in the common room for guests, and mattresses take up the remaining space at night. The prized family possession is a TV set which opens up the world to the room, even if not the room to the world. The austerity of the scene is softened only by the typical Palestinian warmth and hospitality to strangers and the close and friendly ties within the family.
The housing shortage affects young Palestinian families most of all. According to custom, when a young man marries, he normally starts building an addition to his parents' house, or a new house nearby, to accommodate a family of his own.
This possibility now is severely limited by the Israeli authorities. More than half of all construction applications submitted by Palestinians are refused by the civil administration.
Reasons for refusals are seldom disclosed to the applicant. Building permits are not granted to inhabitants of villages or towns that do not have an Israeli-designed village or town plan.
Since early 1992, the Israelis have belatedly begun issuing community plans that they designed in the early 1980s. In many such cases, the newly published land base assigned to the village is smaller than the area that the village already occupies. Houses outside the assigned land base, licensed or unlicensed, are subject to demolition.
The villagers have 60 days to object, but the objections must be filed with the same authorities who published the plans in the first place. In the crowded refugee camps, little vacant space is left for additional building of any kind, even assuming that building funds were available.
Sky-rocketing Housing Costs
The market response to the shortage of Palestinian housing has been skyrocketing housing prices and rents. Housing purchase prices have gone up several hundred percent in some areas, and rents have more than doubled during the same period in which Jewish housing has been overbuilt. Surplus of Jewish housing is not available to Palestinians because of rigid Israeli government-enforced segregation.
During the period when few community plans were published and housing permits were unobtainable, thousands of houses were built illegally. Now hundreds of these illegally built houses have been bulldozed: at least 1,363 since the beginning of the intifada in December 1987. In addition, 887 houses have been razed or sealed as collective punishment for security or political offenses.
The well-founded expectation that an application for a building permit will not be granted places a damper on applications, especially when an application may lead to the opening of a security investigation of the applicant. There is no reliable information concerning how many Palestinian homes have failed to be built because of rejections by the occupation authorities, and fears of even filing applications.
House-building is slowed not only by the reluctance of the occupation authorities to grant permits, but also by the unavailability of funds for mortgages. Prior to 1988, the Jordanian-Palestinian Joint Committee for Housing lent money to those with satisfactory credit standing. This was halted when Jordan renounced its interest in the West Bank in mid-1988. The newly licensed Bank of Cairo and Amman now operating in the occupied territories does not lend money for housing.
Due to the great reduction in the number of Palestinian workers permitted to go to jobs in Israel since the beginning of the intifada, and the frequent curfews and strikes, the Palestinian gross national income has been much reduced and family savings have almost vanished. Thus, in spite of the Arab propensity to invest savings in building and home improvements, expansion of housing has been minimal during the past several years.
A Stark Contrast
In stark contrast is the quantity and quality of housing in the Jewish settlements. Former Minister of Housing Ariel Sharon's extravaganza of settlement building was notorious. He emphasized building in the occupied territories but also overbuilt in the Upper Galilee and the Negev desert areas of Israel, where few Israelis want to live. In addition, because of widespread poverty in Israel, many Jews have been unable to buy homes of any kind anywhere and they continue to exist in run-down slum housing.
To encourage reluctant private builders to participate, government guarantees were offered to buy back unsold housing units. The Jerusalem Post reported on July 21, 1992 that the Israeli government will have spent $2.45 billion on these buy-back purchases by the end of 1993. In a more recent speech, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin placed the cost as high as $3.3 billion. Unless the U.S. government changes its policy of giving the Israelis a free hand in the spending of the funds raised under the $10 billion in loan guarantees, it is safe to assume that these huge and scandalous losses will be paid off with U.S.-guaranteed money, increasing the probability of Israeli default on the loans at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.
Despite these heavy losses, Prime Minister Rabin under settler pressure intends to complete 11,000 additional housing units in the occupied territories. The bought-back units will remain vacant rather than being rented, because abundant and cheap rentals would adversely affect the sales of the units now under construction, according to Israeli government economists.
In 1990, the U.S. administration released $400 million in loan guarantees to Israel for housing construction, specifying that no money raised under the guarantees was to be expended in the occupied territories. It is impossible, however, to determine the source of monies commingled in the Israeli budget, so the Israelis could disregard the U.S. restriction and use the money to intensify their building splurge in the occupied territories. The delayed additional $10 billion in loan guarantees for housing and other purposes was passed by Congress this past September under terms that could permit the Israelis similarly to evade the restrictions in the use of the funds that the U.S. sought to impose.
The combined total of grants, military transfers and the first installment of the $10 billion in loan guarantees that Israel will receive in the 1993 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 1992, will amount to $6.5 billion, $1,300 for every man, woman and child in Israel. U.S. aid to Palestinians in the occupied territories administered by American non-governmental agencies is $25 million which amounts to just $14 per Palestinian. Under such circumstances, the United States can hardly portray itself as even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the face of our being a direct party to blatant Israeli discrimination on ethnic and religious grounds against the people under its rule.
Frank Collins is a free-lance journalist specializing in the Middle East.