Jerusalem home buyers find leftist ideals cost a bedroom or two

Homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, built on land captured in the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, are far less expensive than in the western half of the city, drawing many buyers. But not all.

Ammar Awad/Reuters/File
A woman pushes a pram as she walks in the neighborhood of Har Homa on the outskirts of Jerusalem, October 27, 2014.

As the Sabbath winds down in the neighborhood of Har Homa, the playgrounds buzz with the shrieks and laughter of children. Gripping onto their tyke bikes, they rumble down the concentric circles of perfectly paved roads with brightly painted curbs and beautiful gardens.

Jackie Bitensky, an Israeli realtor and one of the community’s first residents, was drawn here as a young mother with two children and a third on the way. She owns a spacious apartment with two large balconies, gorgeous view, elevator, and indoor parking – which today she estimates would cost about 30 percent less than a comparable home in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, less than a mile away.

Though Har Homa lies on the outskirts of Jerusalem, it’s only a 15-minute drive to the heart of the city without traffic.

“It’s like Manhattan and suburbs – people live in New Jersey because they can’t afford Manhattan,” says Ms. Bitensky, originally from Philadelphia. “So this is like the closest thing you can get to living in town.”

Except here, around a city that two nations claim as their capital, there’s a political dimension to suburbia.

As Israeli housing costs have skyrocketed in the past decade, prospective home buyers in Jerusalem – particularly young couples – have increasingly been priced out of the neighborhoods in the western half of the city. For many, the only affordable options lie in territory Israel conquered in the 1967 war and later annexed – though the United Nations, US, and many other countries do not recognize its sovereignty there.

The economic pull to buy over the Green Line, as the pre-1967 border is known, has significant ramifications for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. The Israeli policy of constructing and populating new neighborhoods has been criticized as “creating facts on the ground” that make any future sharing of the city increasingly difficult.

Principles come at a cost

In the mid-1990s, when the Oslo peace accords outlined a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem, Har Homa was a forested hilltop on the border of Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Today about 25,000 Israelis call this community home. A number of other Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line have 10,000 to 40,000 or more residents today – widely seen as too big to dismantle or evacuate.

For the leftist minority of Israelis who don’t want to prejudice any future peace deal, their principles have a cost. They are faced with sacrificing a bedroom or two, resigning themselves to renting for the indefinite future, or fleeing Jerusalem altogether.

“I think the idea of buying land – land that does not belong to me, that I feel that the state has stolen from another population, is not mine to buy, is not mine to own,” says Talya Ezrahi, a native Jerusalemite who lives in a rented 600-square-foot apartment with her husband and two children. “And I’ll only be happy to buy a house on that land once the permanent lines have been drawn and agreed upon by both sides…. It doesn’t feel moral to claim the land, to own it, before both sides have agreed on final political boundaries.”

When the UN proposed partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas in 1947, Jerusalem was designated as an internationally administered city. War between the nascent Israeli state and its Arab neighbors erased that outline though; the 1949 armistice line, drawn with green ink, allocated the western half of the city to Israel while it assigned the walled Old City and a small ring of Palestinian neighborhoods to Jordanian control.

Following the 1967 war, in which Israel captured the rest of Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel dramatically expanded the city’s borders. In the years that followed, the government formally annexed East Jerusalem and facilitated massive building projects there. The Jewish population in the eastern sector grew from fewer than 9,000 in 1972 to more than 200,000 today.

West Jerusalem out of reach

And it’s still growing, in part because housing in the new neighborhoods is much less expensive. In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Armon HaNetsiv, a three-bedroom apartment runs from about 1 to 1.6 million shekels ($253,000 to $380,000), while a few streets over in Arnona, within the Green Line, the range is 2 to 2.5 million shekels ($500,000 to $633,000). Central neighborhoods are even pricier.

Though interest rates in Israel are low, banks generally require a 25 to 30 percent down payment to secure a mortgage – substantially more than the US range of 5 to 20 percent, putting West Jerusalem homes out of reach even for upper-middle-class couples.

“We were absolutely shocked at the prices here,” says Jennifer, an American academic who says she and her husband’s salaries put them in the 90th percentile of wage earners in Israel. “It wasn’t even a consideration for us to move across the Green Line.”

Jerusalem native Ben Lev Kadesh says almost all his childhood friends from Jerusalem have moved to Tel Aviv or elsewhere. The only way he was able to stay was by moving to Armon HaNetsiv, though that went against his leftist politics. “If you try to see the world as more complicated than just black and white, I can feel OK – not proud, but OK” about living there.

‘We have to learn to live together’

Why is the price difference so great?

“There’s only one reason: We are very close to the Arabs,” says Horacio Kurland, a longtime resident. Last week, on Memorial Day, when Israel commemorated those who have fallen defending the state, Mr. Kurland says his wife saw a car full of Palestinians drive by shortly after the commemorative siren was sounded. The Palestinians yelled “Jews die!” and pelted the bus station with stones, he says. “From here to [their] neighborhood is a distance of less than one kilometer (0.6 miles) but the gap between us is enormous.”

While Kurland has taken Arabic classes and made an effort to connect with his Palestinian neighbors, he’s had enough of the tension and is moving to northern Israel after 30 years in Jerusalem.

But many are moving in. Ms. Bitensky, the realtor, says she has been encouraging people to buy in Armon HaNetsiv as the last affordable neighborhood within walking distance of central Jerusalem.

That – along with the community’s big trees and feeling of openness – is what drew Risa Tzohar, who just signed on a house in the neighborhood. For her, the Green Line is not the real issue, nor is she daunted by the prospect of living on the seam with a Palestinian neighborhood.

“I believe that we have to learn to live together in this city,” she says. “And as long as these lines are a problem, then this city is going to be problematic, no matter where we draw the line. This city has to be united.”

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