Israeli authorities presented Ayman Naim Kawasbeh of Jerusalem with a terrible choice in October 2018: demolish your own home or pay 40,000 shekels (10,000 dollars) for Israeli forces to destroy it. After demolishing his own home, Kawasbeh lamented, “We live a real-life tragedy. Winter is around the corner and we have no home, no shelter. I don’t know what I will do in the coming days.” Eight people, including five children, lived in his home in Jerusalem.
Israeli forces unexpectedly arrived at Hanadi Abu Rammouz’s door and abruptly demolished her apartment in Jerusalem in February 2017. She described the conduct of the Israeli soldiers: “Immediately after storming into our house, they evacuated us by force and prevented us from taking out personal items. They did not even allow us to drink water. The soldiers threatened my husband with their weapons and pointed them at his stomach.” This demolition displaced seven people, including five children.
Said al-Abbasi explained the financial cost of house demolition after losing his home in Jerusalem in December 2016: “I have lost over 500,000 shekels [$130,000]… on construction, fines, lawyers and architect fees.” “Despite this loss,” Abbasi concluded, “I will never leave my hometown.”
These are just some of the voices of Palestinians whose homes in Jerusalem were demolished by Israeli authorities. The amount of people who are subjected to such tragedy continues to grow: Israel demolished 20 percent more Palestinian-owned homes in Jerusalem in 2018 compared to 2017.
The status of Jerusalem
The United Nations (UN) 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine declared Jerusalem a “corpus separatum,” meaning as an international city that would be administered by the UN. However, in 1948, Zionist paramilitaries and Israeli forces captured West Jerusalem and 40 nearby Palestinian villages, along with 78 percent of Historic Palestine. Palestinians call this event the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe.” During the Nakba between 750,000 and one million Palestinians were expelled from their homes, including between 64,000 and 80,000 in the Jerusalem area.
After the 1948 war, Jerusalem was divided into east and west. The Israeli army controlled 85 percent of the city in the west; the Jordanian army controlled eleven percent of the city in the east; the remaining four percent was designated as “no man’s land.” Two years later, in 1950, Israel passed the Absentee Property Law, which defined the property of Palestinians had who fled during the Nakba as “abandoned” and therefore under the ownership of the new Jewish state.
In 1967, Israel captured the remaining 15 percent of Jerusalem and expelled another 26,000 Palestinians from the city. Israeli authorities quickly implemented policies to institutionalize the military occupation and establish a Jewish majority in Jerusalem.
Israel formalized its 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 when it passed Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel. In December 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump also legitimized the annexation when he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The international community affirms Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents as protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The UN Security Council maintains that all legislative measures and actions taken by Israel to alter the character and status of Jerusalem are null and void under UN resolutions 242, 267, 471, 476, 478.
The Moroccan Quarter: Israel’s inaugural demolition
Shortly after capturing East Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli forces demolished the Moroccan Quarter (Harat al-Maghariba) in the Old City, a roughly 10,000 square-meter neighborhood that was home to 650 people and two mosques. Many of the residents who were forced to flee the neighborhood ended up in Shuafat Refugee Camp, north of Jerusalem.
The residents who lost their homes were issued eviction and expropriation orders only months after demolitions took place. In place of the Moroccan Quarter, Israel built what is known today as the Western Wall Plaza.
Since 1967, Israeli officials have continued the practice of demolishing Palestinian properties in Jerusalem. However, Israel has developed a legal system to act as a fig leaf for the destruction of Palestinian-owned homes.
Israel demolishes most Palestinian-owned property in Jerusalem under the pretext that the structures were built illegally, meaning without Israeli-issued construction permits. However, Israeli authorities almost exclusively issue construction permits to Israeli Jewish neighborhoods and settlements. This is because the city has not approved an urban plan for East Jerusalem and zones only 8 to 13 percent of the area as for Palestinian residential construction.
In recent years, only eight percent of all building permits in the city were issued to Palestinian neighborhoods, according to the Israeli human rights group Ir Amim. As a result, Palestinians build without permits to avoid overcrowding. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel found that 20,000 homes in East Jerusalem – or 39 percent of all homes in East Jerusalem – lack Israeli construction permits and therefore live in perpetual threat of abrupt homelessness.
The demolition of Ashraf Fawaqa’s home in Sur Bahr in May 2017 exemplifies the personal and financial hardship faced by Palestinians living under Israel’s discriminatory permit system. Fawaqa explained to the AIC:
In 2011, I applied to get a permit to build a home for four family members. I submitted all the necessary documents and the municipality rejected my request. Because of the urgent need shelter my family, I built the home. I paid 60,000 NIS in fees for doing so. Then in the beginning of 2017 Israeli authorities took me to court and issued a demolition order for the house. I paid another 25,000 NIS to the municipality to postpone the demolition. But, on April 4, 2017, the court ruled in favor of demolishing my house and Israeli forces carried out the process.
Meanwhile, Israeli construction permits find themselves easily in the hands of Israeli-Jewish settlers, developers and municipal authorities. Each year, the Israeli government issues hundreds – and occasionally thousands – of tenders for settlement homes in East Jerusalem. Overall, since 1967, Israeli authorities have confiscated 38 percent of East Jerusalem to build Jewish-only settlements, according to Israeli human rights group Ir Amim.
Israel demolished approximately 20 percent more Palestinian homes in 2018 compared to 2017, according to data published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the occupied Palestinian Territories. This latest increase is in line with an emerging trend: Israel progressively demolishes more Palestinian-owned homes in the holy city.
In five years, Israel has demolished 785 Palestinian-owned structures in Jerusalem. In 2018, Israel demolished 177 Palestinian-owned structures in Jerusalem. The number of demolitions for previous years are as follows: 142 in 2017; 190 in 2016; 79 in 2015; 99 in 2014; and 98 in 2013.
If Palestinian families do not demolish their homes themselves after receiving a demolition order, the Israeli municipality informs them that they nevertheless have to evacuate the house and pay 40,000 for Israeli forces to carry out the demolition.
“It is so difficult and sad for me to demolish the house that I built and paid for,” said Faisal Mohammad Jom’a when he demolished his home in Jabal al-Mukkaber in March 2018. “But when the occupation’s court decided to demolish it under the pretext of lacking permits and said that the cost of the demolition would be around 20,000 dollars, I could not pay. So, I did the demolition myself.”
A political problem
Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem are the target of Israeli settlement plans, which aim to link four concentric circles of settlements, starting with the Old City, followed by the “Holy Basin” (Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, a-Tur, Mount Zion, and the Kidron Valley), Jerusalem’s annexation border, and finally the West Bank.
The realization of these settlement plans would sever the northern West Bank from the southern West Bank with a contiguous block of settlements stretching across its center. Dividing Palestinian cities, towns and villages into restricted enclaves flanked by settlements on all sides is key to maintaining what Israeli authorities euphemistically call a “demographic balance” in Jerusalem – that is, restricting the Palestinian population to 30 percent of the city’s total population.
Increasing rates of demolitions in Jerusalem suggest that US President Donald Trump’s decision to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has emboldened Israeli authorities to realize their settlement plans in defiance of Palestinian life.