The new Ecumenical Accompanier team in East Jerusalem, one each from Sweden, Norway, Australia and the UK, started our work on March 27, 2015.
On March 31, we were informed of a house demolition in the district in which we live and went to investigate. We met the Amro family. Radwan Amro was able to tell us in English what happened. Sometime ago the family had built a small wall without permission and at 5am Israeli armed forces had arrived with a bulldozer and dogs, a helicopter hovering overhead, and had demolished the wall and part of the house. This demolition also removed a small stall and fridge from which the two elderly and blind members of the family sold drinks and sweets. The matriarch of the family was 81 and we were told that she had been evicted from her home in West Jerusalem in 1948 and the family had moved to this house. She was sitting in the part of the house which remained. She was in tears.
The family completely accepted that they did not have permission for the wall.
The context of planning permission, however, is different to that we are used to in the UK.
According to the Society of St Ives, the Catholic Centre for Human rights in Jerusalem:
“Housing, and furthermore adequate housing, is fundamental to human dignity and thus is recognized in UN and international human rights law and charters as a basic human right. Yet in East Jerusalem alone around 60,000 Palestinians live under the threat of home demolition by the Israeli authority, with 1,600 demolition orders pending. It is almost impossible under the current legal situation to obtain a building permit in East Jerusalem.
“In 1969 following the occupation of the West Bank, and the annexation of East Jerusalem and the surrounding Palestinian villages, Israel confiscated over more than a third of the annexed lands, which were privately owned by Palestinians, and designated them either as new neighborhoods for the Jewish population, or as ‘green areas’, meaning a no building zone. No new neighborhoods for the Palestinian residents of the city have been established since then.
“For many years, no new plans and building schemes were put in place for the Arab neighborhoods in the city, leading to a situation where building permits could not be obtained, yet, the population grew and with it the need for more housing units.
“In some areas though, plans were put in place allowing for legalizing already existing buildings, and allowing for further housing units, which soon got inhabited and the plans were outdated again, given they did not take into consideration the growing needs of the population.
“According to human rights organisations B’tselem and the Israeli Committee again House Demolitions (ICAHD), from 2004 to 2009 almost 500 houses in East Jerusalem were destroyed by the Israeli authorities.
“In East Jerusalem most of the demolition orders were issued because of so called ‘illegal’ constructions, which means that the building was constructed without a permit by the Israeli authorities.
“But building permits for Palestinians living in Jerusalem are nearly impossible to obtain. Permits are needed in order to build on one’s land or in order to add a floor or extension to an already existing home. Statistically only five percent of all permit requests by Palestinians are approved by the authorities and the average time period for approval is 5-10 years. This, when compared with the fact that building permits for settlers are approved at a rate of 90-100%, reflects the severity of the situation. Additionally, financial hurdles are put in place – permits typically cost around 30,000 US dollars (mostly administrative fees). This amount must be put in perspective – salaries are low and almost 70% of the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem lives below the poverty line. The only solution for Palestinians has therefore been to build illegally on land which they legally own, in order to accommodate their growing residential needs. The demand of housing units is more than urgent – the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem grew from 60,000 in 1967 to around 200,000 nowadays.”
The family, despite their distress, was happy to tell us their story.
To try further to set the context for our work, you will know that Jerusalem is a profoundly important issue for Israelis and Palestinians, and for Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Jerusalem’s population at the end of 2011 was 804,400, of which 499,400 were Jewish, 281,100 Muslim, 14,700 Christian, 200 Druze and a further 9,000 residents who were not classified by religion in Israeli Interior Ministry records.
The city has been a divided city since the end of the 1940s war with West Jerusalem was brought under Israeli control and East Jerusalem under Jordanian occupation. The situation changed in the six-day war in 1967 when Israel came to occupy the West Bank, The Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, a process which was further formalised in 1980 when the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) passed the Basic Law by which Jerusalem is declared to be the “complete and united” capital of Israel. The city boundaries have since been further expanded and different policies have been put in place to encourage illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and in other parts of the West Bank to change the demographic set up and ‘facts on the ground’.
Today, the status of Jerusalem remains one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The international community rejected the annexation as illegal and treats East Jerusalem as Palestine occupied by Israel. The international community does not recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the city hosts no foreign embassies.
That is a very basic summary to the background to our work. If you would like to read more, the UN agency responsible for the coordination of humanitarian affairs in occupied Palestine (UNOCHA) has written a helpful briefing on some of the particular issues in East Jerusalem.
It is perhaps easy to see the Palestinian people as victims, or to accept reports that we must all have read, which put forward doubts as to the Palestinian people’s ability to form a viable country. However a report published this week by UNOHCA, called Fragmented Lives: A Humanitarian Overview 2014, states:
“The overall situation described in this report is a protection-based crisis, with negative humanitarian ramifications. This crisis stems from the prolonged occupation and recurrent hostilities, alongside a system of policies that undermine the ability of Palestinians to live normal, self-sustaining lives and realize the full spectrum of their rights, including the right to self-determination. Were these factors removed, Palestinians would be able to develop their government institutions and economy without the need for humanitarian assistance.”
Just two small examples of that ability – the first, an organisation called Sawa. Sawa campaigns against violence against women. In the UK we know how hard it has been, and is, to combat domestic violence. Sawa has established a quite amazing help and counselling service. We felt it would put many more privileged countries to shame and represents a huge achievement in such a conservative society. Their slogan is this:
We have a right to live without violence…Reject it….Resist it and Talk about it.
And secondly, we have been made so welcome by the Palestinian people we have met — and to emphasise the positive further, at the end of our street there is a senior girls school. They emerge beautifully dressed in their blue uniforms — most with heads covered with white hijabs and wearing blue hoodies with the slogan:
Let us hope they do.