House demolitions on the rise in East Jerusalem
LONDON - In July, Israeli police evicted a Palestinian family from their home in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan. The area was cordoned off as a right-wing settler association removed the Siyam family’s belongings.
The case gained prominence after it reached the Israeli High Court, which ruled in favour of the Elad Association, determining that it owned most of the building.
It is an example of a campaign of evictions and house demolitions affecting Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and its immediate surroundings.
One day after the Silwan eviction, Israeli security forces fired tear gas to break up a protest over the planned demolition of homes in Sur Baher neighbourhood. Most of Sur Baher lies within the East Jerusalem municipal area but the neighbourhood also stretches into the West Bank.
The High Court dismissed a petition by residents, who demanded a military order prohibiting construction be cancelled. On June 18, residents were given “intent to demolish” with a 30-day notice.
An Israeli military order in 2011 designated a buffer zone of 100-300 metres on each side of the separation barrier in Sur Baher, citing security concerns. Construction is not allowed in the zone even if permits have been issued by the Palestinian Authority. However, there are estimates that around 200 buildings are in the buffer zone, half of which were built after the 2011 order.
The UN humanitarian affairs agency said Israeli authorities have demolished or “forced owners to demolish” 69 structures in Sur Baher since 2009.
Observers say the Sur Baher case would mark the first time home demolitions would be carried out based on the 2011 military order on security grounds. UN officials called on Israel to halt the demolition plans.
“Recent months saw an increase in the number of home demolitions in the city,” said Amit Gilutz, spokesman for the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem.
Israeli journalist Peggy Cidor said the first half of 2019 saw more house demolitions in East Jerusalem than all of 2018, during which 113 structures were demolished.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem have long maintained they are practically forced to build illegally because it is impossible to obtain Israeli permits. “There are no lands left in Jerusalem for us to build or live on,” Palestinian Mohammed Abu Teir told the United Nations.
Estimates are that about one-third of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem do not have an Israeli-issued building permit, putting more than 100,000 people at risk of displacement, the United Nations said.
Silwan was the site of more demolitions recently, when four Palestinian shops were reportedly demolished on July 17.
At the end of June, another event in Silwan, which borders Jerusalem’s Old City, caused an uproar. In the presence of US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and US President Donald Trump’s Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt, authorities opened an excavated road that Israeli archaeologists identified as a pilgrims’ road to Jerusalem.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat sharply criticised the event, calling Friedman an “extremist Israeli settler.”
Observers say Palestinians in Jerusalem are having a difficult time.
“Jerusalem Palestinians face a massive Israeli campaign to limit their presence in the city and force them to leave it,” said Menachem Klein, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Cidor said the government’s attitude towards East Jerusalem has changed in the last two years. “For 50 years, no one paid attention,” she said.
In May 2018, the Israeli cabinet unveiled a $560 million development plan for East Jerusalem, a significant increase in funding. The plan allocates funds for transport, health and education among other things, but has been read by some observers as a way of expanding Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem. Part of the education funding is earmarked for switching to the Israeli bagrut curriculum.
Along with more funding, Cidor said, came an intensified crackdown on illegal construction. Right-wing associations such as Elad stepped up efforts to buy properties in East Jerusalem, using middlemen and, if necessary, the courts to purchase Palestinian properties.
A significant part of the battle over space in East Jerusalem is about demography. Gilutz said there “are continued efforts on the part of Israel to engineer a Jewish majority in Jerusalem by driving Palestinian East Jerusalemites out of the city while disregarding their rights and needs.”
The campaign against Palestinians in the eastern part of the city, Klein said, is based on the acknowledgment “that Israel fails to turn East Jerusalem Jewish despite the heavy Israeli investments in the project.”
To win the demographic battle, Klein said, right-wing governments were considering redrawing the municipal boundaries to exclude Palestinian areas and include Jewish settler areas in the West Bank.
The threat of further demolitions persists. The neighbourhood of Wadi Yasul in Silwan “is now under threat of being demolished, which, if carried out, will leave its 500 residents homeless,” Gilutz said.
Efforts by residents to give the area, zoned as a “green area,” a residential status have failed for 15 years.
“We are going to see more properties in East Jerusalem being bought” by right-wing associations, Cidor predicted.