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When a Family is Forced to Demolish their own Home…

July 5, 2010

Imagine building a home for your family with your own hands…putting your life savings into this house and planning a future in it for your children. Then one day, the authorities come and say that you have built your house illegally. Because of this, you must now pay a fine of thousands of dollars, and if you don’t want to pay thousands more, you must demolish your own house—leaving your family homeless.

This is the life of a Palestinian Jerusalemite.

Background on House Demolitions in Jerusalem

In 1999, the Israeli Ministry of Interior said that more than 20,000 homes in East Jerusalem (the mainly Palestinian area of Jerusalem) had been built illegally. Following this, the Municipality of Jerusalem issued 141 demolition orders that year.

Almost one hundred homes have been demolished since the Oslo Agreement was signed—causing hundreds of people to be displaced in Jerusalem.

Judaization of Palestinian Neighborhoods in East Jerusalem

The Israeli government is very clear that they want Jerusalem as the “eternal, undivided capital” of their Jewish state. This poses a major problem for the Christian and Muslim Palestinian residents who have been living for generations in homes now considered illegal.

“It was reported that at a meeting of the Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert has said that the most important task in the coming years was to increase the numbers of the Jewish inhabitants within the city limits. He had also said it was important to include ‘Green areas’ in the plan. He had made little mention of any particular vision to develop the eastern part of the city.” (Jerusalem Post, 21 October 1999)

Between 1967 and 1997, only 12% of all new buildings were in Palestinian neighborhoods while at least 40,000 housing units were constructed in the Israeli public sector for Israeli Jews living on expropriated land.

The Blue Line and Green Areas

Jerusalem Now

24.5 square kilometers (35% of the total annexed area of East Jerusalem—70 sq km) is expropriated land by Israel. In theory, this leaves 45.5 sq km for Palestinian use. However, the Israeli authorities get past this using several different techniques.

Only land within the “blue line” can be built on, however, most of the land within the blue line has already been built on. The “green area” is land set aside for environmental or recreational reasons.

In reality, this is a zoning tactic used by Israel to remove the land from Palestinian use and reserve it for future Jewish housing. How many “tourist parks” does one city really need?

Here is one example of this:

The Jabal Abu Ghneim neighborhood was initially defined as a green area to prevent the neighboring Palestinian villages of Sur Baher and Umm Tuba from expanding. It was later rezoned for residential construction for the new Jewish settlement of Har Homa.

In general, there are very different attitudes and conditions used by the Israeli authorities about planning in Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods. For Jewish ones, the authorities tend to promote and assist as much as possible  so that they can settle as many people as possible on the available land. For Palestinians, it is the opposite. They are confronted with numerous obstacles and restrictions.

Difficulties in Building “Legally”

On average, according to the Jerusalem Center for Social and Economic Rights (JCSER) the Jerusalem municipality grants Palestinians only 150 building permits per year. In addition to all the other bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining these visas, they also cost 25,000 USD—an unaffordable sum to most Palestinian residents.

Because of these obstacles, there are an estimated 1400 houses inside the Old city that are in desperate need of renovation but cannot get the permits. Because of this and the natural population increase, large scale “illegal construction” is the result.

Double Standards

When a Palestinian builds or renovates without the proper permits, the Ministry of Interior and Jerusalem Municipality respond by imposing high fines and by carrying out house demolitions. These demolitions can take place within 24 hours—leaving Palestinians no opportunity to go to court to defend themselves.

There have been some demolitions in West Jerusalem (the Jewish part) but only of an extra room or porch—never a whole building like in Palestinian neighborhoods. JCSER estimated that 84% of building violations take place in the Jewish sector of Jerusalem. While Palestinians are responsible for 16% of building violations, more than 60% of the demolitions are carried out on Palestinian homes.

Table of Palestinian Homes Demolished in 2009

Table of Palestinian Homes Demolished in 2010

Forcing Palestinians to Demolish their own Homes

As families grow, the homes need to grow as well to accommodate them. So what happens when the Israeli authorities will not give out the necessary permits so that the families can add extensions? Or when they delay giving out the permit for months or years?

In these cases, many families decide to build without permits. In doing so, they risk demolition and thousands of shekels in fines. If the family does not demolish their own home, the Israeli authorities will do it—and then send the family a bill for the costs of the demolition—leaving the family homeless and broke.

Abu Shusha Family

Abu Shusha, his wife and five children live in Al Tour neighborhood in East Jerusalem. In order to accommodate his growing family, Abu Shusha decided to add a room to the house. Soon after, he received a demolition order from the Jerusalem municipality, along with a fine of 90,000 NIS (24,384 USD).

The municipality claims that the land on which the room was constructed is part of the “green area” and therefore no construction is allowed there.

Officials from the Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli Ministry of Interior came to Abu Shusha’s house to threaten his family. They informed him that if he doesn’t destroy the room himself in the next 24 hours, the municipality will destroy it and charge the family additional costs to cover the expenses of the demolition.

To add a twist to this story, the Abu Shusha family had just moved to Al Tour neighborhood from Sheikh Jarrah. Sheikh Jarrah is one of the most infamous neighborhoods of East Jerusalem because of the problems caused by Israeli settlers moving in, and forcing Palestinians out with house demolitions.

The policy of Judaization by the Israeli authorities had forced this family to move only to be forced to demolish part of their own house.

Legal Statement

According to Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions, the destruction of property is prohibited. This means that the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israeli Interior Ministry, which adopted a policy of demolishing homes in East Jerusalem since its illegal annexation, violate the Geneva Convention.

On 24 November 2001, the UN Committee Against Torture stated Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in breach of article 16 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Israel ratified in 1991.

For more information, check out JCSER’s website at: http://www.jcser.org/

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