By EA Michael.
Sarah and her brother Mahmoud love horses. We talked to her next to the riding arena, built by her father and she showed us pictures on her phone of her as a little girl riding, and of her brother lying with a sickly foal under a blanket. Mahmoud was now in the Ukraine, training to be a vet so that he could fulfil his dream to live and work with horses.
The day hadn’t started as the family had planned. They had woken to the reversing “beep beep beep” sound of the bulldozer coming over the hill, its roaring engine and the noise of the caterpillar tracks on the road. Before they were properly aware, Israeli soldiers and police had arrived at the riding stables, along with the demolition team.
There were angry protests and scuffles between neighbours, who had come to see what was happening, and the armed Israeli military who were trying to make the area secure for the demolition team to get to work. The scene was captured on mobile phones as the distraught family watched the bulldozer enter their property. A neighbour, hurt by a soldier, retreated with a bleeding head.
While the police and Israeli Defence Forces kept the neighbours at bay, the bulldozer lumbered up the slope, between the riding school and the house and started to demolish the stables, home to eight horses. At least the soldiers allowed the horses to be led away, but Sarah tells us that one horse was kicked by a soldier. “I told him to stop” she said, and went on to add that the soldier replied “I don’t even care about you people; why should I care about a horse.”
The Al-Qaq family riding school was not the only casualty that morning. After the military had reduced the stables to rubble, the demolition team turned up the hill and set to work on an upper storey apartment and two ground floor store rooms belonging to their neighbour, Izz Burqan. It didn’t take long to crush the reinforced concrete structures, which were used to prepare food for the restaurant trade, into a mass of twisted metal and broken wreckage.
This was how the day started for the residents of Silwan, a built-up area in East Jerusalem, living with magnificent views of the Old City walls of Jerusalem, the Holy City, and the imposing Dome of the Rock…and up until this day, with the anxious threat of demolition over the heads. Two family’s lives disrupted. Two businesses in ruins.
Why does the Israeli military demolish Palestinian homes and businesses?
The Israel Defence Forces argue that the properties were all built without permission. Israel requires building permits from Palestinians through a process that is often bureaucratic, complex and costly. The United Nations OCHA (Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs) explains that the planning and zoning regime applied by the Israeli authorities, including the ways in which public land is allocated, makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits in East Jerusalem. The same procedures do not apply to the Jewish population, as we saw for ourselves when we were shown some new Israeli buildings further up the valley. Palestinian residents do not deny that they have no permits to build, but argue that it is impossible for them to get these permits. According to statistics obtained by Haaretz News, only seven percent of the building permits issued in Jerusalem over the past few years have gone to Palestinian neighbourhoods where 40 percent of the city’s population lives. UNOCHA reported that only 1.5% of building permits were approved between 2010 and 2014. In any case the local Palestinian population disputes Israel’s right to control the land, which they own, but which was annexed after the 1967 war, and which the United Nations does not recognise as belonging to Israel [i].
The family, along with others under the same threat of demolition had challenged the legality of the demolition orders but their claims were rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court.
“The court’s ruling is expected to affect some 60 buildings that are home to 500 people. But the judge wrote that despite the harsh repercussions “there are clear planning and construction laws and the High Court has ruled that whoever decides to build without appropriate permits can complain only to themselves for deciding to take the law into their own hands”
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Israel’s largest human rights organisation, “Nowhere is discriminatory housing and planning policies more clear than in Jerusalem. In East Jerusalem, the predominantly Palestinian population is only permitted to build on 17% of the land, while 35% of the land in planned Palestinian neighbourhoods has been designated as ‘open landscape areas’ on which it is forbidden to build.”
Haaretz News said of the Supreme Court’s decision: “It chokes off the ability of Jerusalem’s Arab residents to develop and build, and at the same time forces them into breaking the law. Then the judicial system punishes the perpetrators. In doing so the courts ignore the planning and construction reality and from what is known to all, or at least to all who seek to know and don’t bury their heads in the sand: Arab construction is restricted by declaring certain lands green areas, or limiting Arab construction to four-story buildings while Jews can build high rises. So while the courts may have issued rulings, they did not do justice, They may have been seemingly impartial, but they are supporting a system that is built totally on partiality.”
At the end of the morning we spoke to Sarah’s brother, still in the Ukraine, on her phone. He was angry. “They haven’t only destroyed our property, they have destroyed my dream” he said. He isn’t alone. Thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem live under constant threat to their homes and businesses; in many cases, the authorities follow through on this threat or force residents to demolish the structures themselves. From 2004 to the end of December 2018, Israeli authorities demolished 803 housing units in East Jerusalem[ii].
We met Mahmoud in person the following week (he had come home to see for himself what had happened) and his despair had been transformed into resolve to rebuild. “We won’t move – how can we? This is our home, our lives and it is where we can build our new dreams, which they can’t take away from us.”
[i] United Nations Security Council Resolution 478, adopted on 20 August 1980, is one of seven UNSC resolutions condemning Israel’s attempted annexation of East Jerusalem. Even after the USA decided to move its embassy to Jerusalem, the United Nations General Assembly (on 21 December 2017) passed resolution ES 10/L.22 declaring the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as “null and void”. Though strongly contested by the United States, it passed by 128 votes to 9 against with 21 absentees and 35 abstentions.
[ii] With no land reserves for development, the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem – which has grown more than fivefold since 1967 – remains confined within increasingly crowded neighbourhoods. According to statistics gathered by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, in 2015 population density in Palestinian neighbourhoods within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries was almost double that of Jewish neighbourhoods: an average of 1.9 persons per room and 1 person per room, respectively. Given this reality, Palestinians have no choice but to build without permits. The Jerusalem Municipality estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 housing units were built without permits in Palestinian neighbourhoods until 2004.