The number of housing units in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is expected to reach a total of 884,385 in 2011, an increase of about 26 percent compared with 2007, according to projections by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), which released the statistics to mark Arab Housing Day, which the League of Arab States marks on the first Monday of every October.
In the past year alone, the Palestinians completed 33,822 dwelling units, according to the PCBS. By comparison, Israel completed 33,128 units in 2010, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics.
"There is a huge need for construction since there is a deficit of more than 70,000 housing units," Mohammad Shtayyeh, a former Palestinian minister of public works and housing, told The Media Line.
While Israeli building in the West Bank has received the world's attention, much more residential construction is being done by Palestinians, as foreign assistance creates jobs and put money into people's pockets. The economy of the West Bank grew 8 percent in 2010, although the pace of growth slowed in the first half of this year as foreign aid dried up - a development that could slow new construction as well.
In the meantime however, so much building is going one that Palestinians are forsaking private homes for apartment life. For the first time, more Palestinians live in apartments (50 percent) than in a house (48 percent), mainly due to a shortage of land but also due to their growing urbanization, particularly in the cities of Ramallah and Nablus.
Much of the construction is taking place in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority and the business center of the West Bank. Scores of cranes pepper the skyline as testament to the building boom. Demand is so high that apartments in Ramallah can fetch the same price as in swank Tel Aviv, said Shtayyeh.
"Ramallah is different, because of the government and ministries and private sector and the NGOs [non-government organizations], so it has to have public buildings and office buildings. There are some 25,000 people commuting to jobs in Ramallah every day," said Shtayyeh, who served as minister from 2004 until 2006 and again in 2009 and 2010.
The Palestinians are also currently constructing an $800 million planned city called Rawabi, north of Ramallah, which is projected to house 40,000 people in affordable apartments. But in outlying cities such as Hebron and Jenin, construction is more sporadic and of poorer quality.
The bulk of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank (according to U.S. Central Intelligence Agency figures) reside in the PA, which controls some 38 percent of the territories. With a 4 percent population growth, there is enormous pressure for new housing. The PCBS estimates that 72 percent of households will be in need for new housing units to be built in the next decade.
Palestinians face numerous obstacles in building homes. Besides a shortage of land, they also have an underdeveloped mortgage market. Many borrow from their families to build, which one reason why 84 percent of units are owned. The average monthly rent for the remainder is about 150 Jordanian dinars, about $210.
"We like the English saying that a man's home is his castle. But there is a serious problem with the quality of the houses being built in most of the villages. They are densely populated and in the refugee camps it is even worse," he said.
Housing density averages some 1.6 persons per room. But in the Gaza Strip 12 percent live with more than three per room and even in the West Bank it is 8 percent. The average unit size in the Palestinian territories in 2010 is 3.6, with an average of 15 percent living in units with 1-2 rooms.
"The biggest problem is land because of restricted development," Shtayyeh said.
In the Gaza Strip, Shtayyeh noted that there were still 6,000 to 7,000 housing units that had been destroyed during Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip in 2009 that have not yet been rebuilt.
One Israeli civil administration official who monitors Palestinian building on Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank, equated the building boom in areas no longer under their control with a burst dam. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, accused the Palestinians of wonton disregard for planning.
But the Palestinians claim that it was the Israeli military rule, under the auspices of the Civil Administration, which deliberately restricted the Palestinians from building in order to keep the empty land for Jewish settlers.
Still one in four houses in the Palestinian areas has been built since 2007. Yet the deficit in housing is considered accumulative.
"Whatever you build, there is a high demand. Before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority all the housing was restricted by the Israeli military government. Since the PA was set up you only need a permit from the mayor but the problem is that it was limited to the municipal boundaries and these haven't been extended because of the Jewish settlements," he said.
"Palestinian development capabilities are limited. The PA is like a sponge full of water. It cannot take another drop," he said.
By ARIEH O'SULLIVAN