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In Jerusalem, Municipal Issues Have Political Overtones


In Jerusalem, municipal issues have political overtones. What Israeli officials say are just zoning laws, Palestinians say are aimed at weakening their presence and their chances of having part of the city for their capital. Some Palestinians end up with their homes being torn down. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

UNIDENTIIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: This is just a jumble of wires sticking out in the air, cement, coffee cups, electricity wires.

This is what's left of the house on 61 Al Aqaba Street in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians in the city live.

LINDA RAJABI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: "We demolished our own home," Linda Rajabi says - cheaper than the fees if Israeli authorities did it.

The Rajabi family built their home 15 years ago without a building permit, so Israeli authorities ordered it demolished. But she thinks the real reason for the demolition order is something bigger.

RAJABI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: "This is Israel's policy - to take our lands, build settlements for Jewish settlers and throw us in the streets," she says.

The liberal Israeli watchdog group Ir Amim says demolitions of Palestinian homes and buildings in Jerusalem tripled last year and continue at that pace this year. The municipality says it doesn't count all the demolitions that take place because some are ordered by a national agency. But spokeswoman Rachel Greenspan says demolitions are necessary.

RACHEL GREENSPAN: The mayor of New York wouldn't allow for someone to build illegally in Central Park. And it's the same in Jerusalem.

ESTRIN: Meaning people shouldn't build on land not zoned for building.

But in Jerusalem, a lot of neighborhoods where Palestinians live aren't zoned for building. They're zoned as green space. Palestinian urban planner Nasser Abu Leil opens up a map.

NASSER ABU LEIL: You can see it here. Here, all of this area is a green area.

ESTRIN: He says it leaves Palestinians little space to build homes as their families grow. The Ir Amim group says Israelis get a larger number of building permits compared to Palestinians, though the municipality says it grants building permits to the Arab minority in the city in proportion to its size. Ir Amim also says, since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office eight years ago, there has been a sharp increase in Israelis moving into Palestinian neighborhoods. Israeli officials say people can live wherever they want in the city. But city council member Arieh King acknowledges there is a demographic battle in the city that both sides claim for their capital. He runs a group that settles Jews in Palestinian neighborhoods to make it difficult to cede those areas to the Palestinians in the future.

ARIEH KING: We want to change the reality. We want to send the message to politicians - you will never be able to divide the city because there's so many Jews living there. And we are doing that by buying complexes or areas where we can build tens, hundreds of apartments.

ESTRIN: And some Israeli politicians have proposed redrawing the city limits to increase its Jewish majority. Betty Herschman of Ir Amim, which briefs U.S. diplomats on political issues in Jerusalem, says there is a big change in how the U.S. is responding to these developments since President Obama was replaced by President Trump.

BETTY HERSCHMAN: There was vocal criticism. And now we're hearing virtually nothing. And I'm not sure, on top of that, if there's a real understanding within the administration of what some of these trends mean.

ESTRIN: She worries they can endanger the two-state solution, a new Palestinian state sharing Jerusalem with Israel. It was long-standing U.S. policy. But the Trump administration has said it will consider other options, too. But Palestinians see their homes demolished and see Israelis moving into their neighborhoods, and they worry their options in the city are running out.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.