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Feature Story

Palestinian Jerusalemites Organized for 15 Years to Build a New Neighborhood on Their Own Land—Israeli Authorities Refused


In late March 2023, Israeli Jerusalem officials shelved a plan—developed over 15 years by the landowners—to build the first Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem since 1967. The open area was one of the few locations available to ease a dire Palestinian housing crisis in the city.

Over the last three decades, supported by international organizations and civil society, Palestinian Jerusalemites have worked to develop planning schemes for neighborhoods in the city of Jerusalem, submitting them to Israeli authorities in the hopes of breaking through the effective embargo on Palestinian development. There has not been a single new neighborhood approved for the city’s Palestinians since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, even though they make up an estimated 40 percent of the population.1

In late March 2023, the city slammed the door on the last of those efforts, rescinding its previous support for the al-Addasseh (also known as Tel Addasseh) neighborhood, which would have built thousands of homes in Palestinian-owned open areas of Beit Hanina.

“The refusal to approve the Tel Addasseh plan after so many years is a big disappointment,” says Israeli architect Sari Kronich, who works with Bimkom, Planners for Planning Rights, an Israeli organization formed by a group of professional planners and architects.2

“The refusal to approve the Tel Addaseh plan after so many years is a big disappointment.”

Sari Kronich, Israeli architect

Palestinian plans to develop al-Addasseh began in 1998, financially supported by the international community.3 The owners of the land wanted to protect this open area from Israeli settlement development and contribute to reducing the dire Palestinian housing crisis in the city. Two planning maps were developed, the second one (Plan 185306) funded by the landowners between 2008 and 2013. It comprises 2,500 housing units, with the remaining 55 percent of the land allocated for public services, parks, and playgrounds.4

Like the rest of Palestinian East Jerusalem, al-Addasseh is limited by encroaching Israeli development, with the Separation Wall to its west and the Atarot industrial settlement to the north. Additionally, the land is the site of purported archaeological sites, complicating its development, because Israel often uses antiquities to bolster its settlement claims.5 But the landowners had reason to believe that this area might be allotted for a new Palestinian neighborhood—it was already designated for development in Jerusalem’s master plans and there were no direct settler challenges to the property (see Land Settlement and Registration in East Jerusalem).

The planning map for Beit Hanina’s al-Addasseh neighborhood, as presented in a booklet by UN Habitat in 2015

The planning map for Beit Hanina’s al-Addasseh neighborhood, as presented in a booklet by UN-Habitat in 2015


From UN-Habitat, Right to Develop: Planning Palestinian Communities in East Jerusalem (Jerusalem: UN-Habitat, 2015)

For years, the Israeli municipality appeared to be giving a yellow light to the community planning initiative. Palestinians even bought into the neighborhood, hopeful that they would be able to cash in on their investment once the neighborhood plan was approved. The Israeli Jerusalem municipality’s engineer between 2007 and 2012 gave the community the impression that he would endorse al-Addasseh, and fight for its establishment in the same way he did the expanded (Jewish) Arnona neighborhood in West Jerusalem. (Arnona, a pre-1948 Zionist area characterized by older, smaller structures, is one of the battlegrounds where Israeli planners have been pushing for more high-density housing, albeit for Jews.) Similarly, a 30-story high-rise is being built in Talpiyot, which was the Palestinian neighborhood of Talbiyya before Palestinians were forced out of West Jerusalem in 1948 (see The West Side Story). Ultra-orthodox Jewish communities are resisting these efforts, because they do not serve their large, low-income families.6

After 15 years of consideration, including redrafts and adjustments to consider city officials’ concerns, Jerusalem’s Israeli mayor Moshe Lion decided to shelve the al-Addassah neighborhood plan in March 2023. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, construction in the neighborhood was blocked for political reasons. Reporter Nir Hasson said that Lion “fears that its advancement would harm him ahead of the municipal election this fall.”7

The city released a statement claiming that the plan was shelved because the mayor’s office prefers to maintain open areas in the city, favoring greater housing density in developed areas.8 While construction in many East Jerusalem neighborhoods had been limited in height, settlements in French Hill, for example, are now allowed to build up to 32 floors. Similar high-rise apartments are now being permitted in the Gilo settlement built on lands belonging to Palestinians from Bethlehem, and the permitted height of structures has also been raised in Beit Hanina and Shu‘fat.9

Laura Wharton, a Jerusalem city council member from the left-wing Meretz party, is confident that the Beit Hanina neighborhood plan will be approved within a year. “Jerusalemites from Beit Hanina have a right to be outraged, but the city engineer Yoel Evon assured me that the municipality didn’t mean it to be understood as a total rejection; they want to be sure that there is more green area, which is sadly lacking in East Jerusalem and that the plan includes enough public building, which is also lacking in East Jerusalem.”

Wharton says that the city wants up to 60 percent open space but in return, they are willing to increase the building percentage to 160. “I absolutely agree that it is awful and unaccepted that people can go for 55 years without a single neighborhood approved,” says Wharton. “This is a humanitarian issue regardless of whether you go by Israeli law or international law.”10

For years, the Israeli municipality appeared to be giving a yellow light to the community planning initiative.

“I absolutely agree that it is awful and unaccepted that people can go for 55 years without a single neighborhood approved.”

Laura Wharton, Jerusalem city council member, Meretz party

“The planning authorities always encourage Palestinians to plan in big groups, and here you have a plan for 100 percent privately owned land that is so professionally prepared.” Wharton continues, “They [the city officials] wanted more improvements and are willing to pay for the improvements themselves, because they realize that the residents are paying for everything while other neighborhoods are paid for by the city.”11

The city engineer has agreed to meet with the concerned parties, especially those on the city’s payroll from the Beit Hanina community center.

Palestinians say that this is a bait and switch, with Israeli officials changing their requirements to delay and prevent Palestinian housing construction on any meaningful scale. A huge Israeli settlement just north of al-Addasseh in the open area of Atarot airport near Ramallah continues apace, and there are reports that Israeli municipal officials are pushing plans to build thousands of units for Jewish settlers in Ras al-Amud, Abu Dis, and Umm Tuba.12 It is impossible, Palestinians say, to separate this decision from Israel’s target of maintaining a Jewish majority in the city (see Precarious, Not Permanent: The Status Held by Palestinian Jerusalemites (Pt. 2)).

A Planning Dead End

According to Rami Nasrallah, a Palestinian urban planner from Jerusalem and associate professor at University College London, any zoning plan that includes more than 12 housing units in East Jerusalem automatically triggers a review by Israel’s Ministry of Interior.13

International law forbids an occupying power from making changes on the ground in occupied territories. But Israel pursues a fundamentally unequal development policy in the city of Jerusalem, building settlements to supercharge Jewish population numbers in East Jerusalem while making it extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain building permits (see The History of Israeli Settlement Expansion in and around East Jerusalem from 1967 to 1993).

Nasrallah explains that none of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods have a detailed development plan that would guarantee building rights and create a framework for obtaining building permits. General master plans exist, but in order to obtain a building permit, Israeli authorities require more specific outline and detailed plans.

Efforts by Palestinians to create their own detailed planning maps and submit them to Israeli authorities produced a number of plans, including in Silwan, Beit Hanina, al-‘Isawiyya, and al-Tur. To be approved, these are submitted first to a Local Committee, and then to a District Committee, a District Appeal Committee, and then finally a State Planning and Building Committee, with periods of public comment and the possibility of appeal at each stage.14 A number of detailed plans in Jabal Mukabbir, Sawahreh, and al-‘Isawiyya were recommended for approval by the Local Committee over 10 years ago but not even scheduled for discussion by the District Committee.15

Getting to a Plan

Architect and town planner Simon Kouba admits that “for some reason, projects have been halted.” He believes that, while there are many obstacles to obtaining Israeli approval of a detail plan, with funding and “guts” these problems can be overcome.16

“Yes, there are severe problems, but we are used to them, and we can solve a large portion of them,” Kouba asserts. He says that Palestinians often have trouble proving that they own the land that they want to develop, as the land system that existed under the Ottoman Empire recognized shared ownership or masha’a (see The Complex and Unresolved Status of Land in East Jerusalem). In other cases, the Palestinian owners have been made absentees by the laws that Israel enacted after the 1948 and 1967 wars, stripping Palestinians who had fled or were not counted in the Israeli censuses of their residency rights (see How Israel Applies the Absentees’ Property Law to Confiscate Palestinian Property in Jerusalem). “These are serious problems that can be solved in different ways,” Kouba said.17

In cases where the land has no deed—the vast majority of cases—banks are unwilling to finance housing projects. “Our only solution is [to resort to] the Arab banks, but their conditions are very hard to meet for good reasons, and the bar is high,” he says. This means that there are only a small number of developers in the market, operating without government subsidies, because Israel does not support them and the Palestinian Authority is not allowed to operate in Jerusalem under Israeli law. This results in high prices for buyers.

Housing developed by and for communities are another solution, and Kouba says that this approach has been more successful, although the actual numbers have barely made a dent in the Jerusalem housing crisis. He lists a few recent modest successes, many of them on church lands where ownership is clear and there is some political clout to help projects move forward.

These include approval for 84 housing units in the Ras al-Amud area granted to the Latin Patriarchate. Separately, the Arab Orthodox Club in Jerusalem was given the green light to build 34 apartments on land owned by the Orthodox community in Jerusalem, and businessman Ibrahim Joulani was able to build more than 200 units in the Sheikh Jarrah area by obtaining the land and funding the process. In another private initiative, 55 units are being developed in the Beit Hanina Hills project, and businessman Bashar al-Masri (developer of Rawabi, the first Palestinian-planned city in the West Bank) has orchestrated Lana Neighborhood, a modern mixed-use 400-unit community planned to serve Palestinians. Some 100 units are under construction on land owned by the Greek Orthodox church on Nablus Road in Sheikh Jarrah.18

“All we need is will, funding, and the right professionals,” Kouba argues. “It is difficult, but there are solutions—we need funding and guts.”19

“All we need is will, funding, and the right professionals. It is difficult, but there are solutions—we need funding and guts.”

Simon Kouba, architect and town planner

The Absence of Official Palestinian Support

When Palestinians and Israelis signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, Palestinians in Jerusalem were represented by a semiofficial hub at the Orient House run by Faisal Husseini. The Orient House housed the Arab Studies Center, a think tank that included mapping and housing departments.

This representation was dealt a one-two punch with the unexpected death of Husseini in May 2001 followed, three months later, by Israel’s closure of the Arab Studies Center and Orient House. The military order based on the still active 1945 British Emergency Laws closing the think tank and the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce for six months has been renewed repeatedly ever since, creating a vacuum of Palestinian leadership in the city. Israeli authorities have increasingly cracked down on events that bring together Palestinians in the city, even barring cultural and sports events on the pretext that there is Palestinian Authority involvement (see, for example, Ben-Gvir Orders a Palestinian Media Office in Beit Hanina to Close).

Orient House

An organization that aimed to serve and protect the interests and rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem until Israel closed it in 2001

The Arab Studies Center map department headed by Khalil Tufakji has been moved to an office outside the Jerusalem city limits, while Dr. Nasrallah, with the support of former Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat and Fatah central committee member Hani al-Hassan, established the International Peace and Cooperation Center (IPCC) in 1999. The IPCC has tried its best to stay out of the political limelight, focusing instead on helping Palestinians in Jerusalem and surrounding areas under Israeli control find solutions to their housing and other needs. This involved supporting the development of detailed plans, including the al-Addasseh plan, which covered 750 dunums of privately owned land. Even Israelis that Nasrallah worked with believed that this plan might be approved. “The Israelis have kept their record clean,” laments Nasrallah. “Still, not a single zoning plan for a new Palestinian neighborhood has been approved since 1967.”

The Maps and Survey Department — Orient House

A department of the Orient House that assesses and identifies geographic developments in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem

“Not a single zoning plan for a new Palestinian neighborhood has been approved since 1967.”

Rami Nasrallah, Palestinian urban planner from Jerusalem and associate professor at University College London

Possibility of Appeal

Nasrallah concedes that it might be possible to fight the decision in the Israeli courts. But that requires much planning and legal work. “At one time we had 35 architects and planners working with us,” he recalls of the IPCC. “That allowed us to submit various detailed master plans and to advocate for issues related to the urban rights of Jerusalem’s residents and empowering their right to the city.”20

The European Union, UK, and other countries provided funding to the IPCC, but recently such funding has dried up as more right-wing Israeli governments have been unwilling to tolerate even nonpolitical development work, Nasrallah says. Donors are more risk-averse and unwilling to fund planning schemes in Jerusalem, while funds from Arab states do not typically go to Jerusalem, because Arab countries prefer not to engage in work that requires interaction with Israel.21

Palestinians are further hindered in engaging Israeli planning officials because they are not represented in city government. Most Palestinians continue to boycott participation in government offices and municipal elections.

Recently, Palestinian citizen of Israel Waleed Abu Tayeh cited the absurd housing situation in Jerusalem in a letter asking Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for his blessing to run in the October 2023 Jerusalem city elections.22 He referred to the fact that, of the 70.5 square kilometers that make up East Jerusalem, the Palestinian population—nearly 400,000 people23—is squeezed into a fraction of this space—fewer than 10 square kilometers are zoned for their residential use—while Israeli settlements continue to expand and grow.24

Abu Tayeh did not mention the fact that only approximately 60,000 housing units for Palestinians are on the Jerusalem side of the Separation Wall, while an estimated 70,000 units have sprung up on the other side of the wall (but still within the Israeli municipal boundaries) in neighborhoods like Kufr ‘Aqab.25 Here, Palestinians are able to build without Israeli zoning interference—but also without regulation.



Omer Yaniv, Netta Haddad, and Yair Assaf-Shapira, Jerusalem Facts and Trends 2022 (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, 2022), 18. Israeli official estimates are based on 2008 census data and do not include Palestinians living in the city without official status; therefore, they are likely underestimates.


All interviews for this article, including this one with Sari Kronich, were conducted by Daoud Kuttab for Jerusalem Story in April 2023.


UN-Habitat, Right to Develop: Planning Palestinian Communities in East Jerusalem (Jerusalem: UN-Habitat, 2015), 36.


UN-Habitat, Right to Develop, 37.


See, for example, “The Rights of Residents Living in Antiquities Sites,” Emek Shaveh, July 3, 2018, which details how Israel uses antiquities to confiscate land. Palestine Remembered indicates that Khirbat al-Addasseh “overlooks the old village of Beit Hanina to the south. There are still rocky graves and water canals cut in stones joining several wells in the area. There are also foundations of a number of what had once been important buildings.” See Ramzi Soliman, “Beit Hanina: An Introduction,” Palestine Remembered, March 25, 2007.


Hasson, “After 15 Years.”


Hasson, “After 15 Years.”


Wharton interview.


Wharton interview.


Wharton interview.


Shalom Yerushalmi, “Jerusalem Pushing Plans for New Jewish Enclaves Inside Palestinian Neighborhoods,” Times of Israel, March 28, 2023.


Nasrallah interview.


UN-Habitat, Right to Develop, 69.


Nasrallah interview.


Kouba interview.


Kouba interview.


List provided by Kouba in interview. See also Tazpit News Agency, “City of Jerusalem Approves Master Plan for Renewal of Arab Neighborhoods Beit Hanina and Shuafat,” Jewish Press, December 26, 2021.


Kouba interview.


Nasrallah interview.


Nasrallah interview.


Yaniv et al., Jerusalem Facts and Trends 2022, 18 (data for the year 2020).


Nasrallah interview.


“Special Focus: The Planning Crisis in East Jerusalem,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, April 2009, 8.


Nasrallah interview.

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