JERUSALEM (AP) – A U.N. agency urged Israel on Friday to freeze demolitions of Arab homes in east Jerusalem, citing a growing housing crisis in the part of the city the Palestinians claim as their future capital.
Some 1,500 demolition orders are currently pending and thousands more homes are at risk, according to a report by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The report is the latest sign of growing international concern about Israel’s housing policies in east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Jerusalem house demolitions as “unhelpful” during a visit in March. Last week, the U.N.’s top envoy, Robert Serry, toured Arab homes and neighborhoods threatened with demolition and said Israel should suspend the practice.
Israeli officials said Friday that building codes are enforced in an evenhanded manner in Arab and Jewish areas of the city.
The office of Mayor Nir Barkat disputed the figures given in the U.N. report, but did not elaborate.
Barkat believes there is a planning crisis in all of Jerusalem “that affects Jews, Christians and Muslims alike,” and plans to present a master plan for the city in coming weeks, said spokesman Stephan Miller. The mayor plans to provide for more housing in east Jerusalem, the spokesman said.
The OCHA report said Israeli zoning restrictions make it difficult for Palestinians to build legally. After annexing east Jerusalem in 1967, Israel expropriated more than one-third of that land and built homes for 195,000 Jews there, the report said.
But only 13 percent of east Jerusalem has been zoned for Palestinian construction, OCHA said. With most of that area already built up and the housing shortage getting worse, Palestinians have been building without permits, the report said.
Some 28 percent of Palestinian homes were built in violation of zoning laws, meaning 60,000 people, or one-fourth the Arab population of Jerusalem, are potentially at risk of losing their homes, OCHA said. Since 1967, Israel has demolished about 2,000 Palestinian-owned structures in Jerusalem, including 670 since 2000, OCHA said. Of particular concern are possible demolitions of entire areas, such as the Bustan neighborhood outside the Old City where Israel plans to expand an archaeological park, the agency said.
“Recent events indicate that the Jerusalem municipality will maintain, and possibly accelerate, its policy on house demolitions in East Jerusalem,” the report said. The agency noted that Israel is responsible for the welfare of Palestinians living under its rule. Palestinians make up about one-third of Jerusalem’s population of more than 750,000.
“As a positive first step, the Israeli authorities should freeze pending demolition orders,” OCHA said. A division of Jerusalem will be a key issue if Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resume.
President Barack Obama will meet separately with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders at the White House this month, as he steps up involvement in the conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes a division of the city, saying all of Jerusalem must remain Israel’s capital.