For the fourth consecutive day on Tuesday, torrents of winter rain fell from the skies, and rivers of water flowed through the streets of Jerusalem and nearby areas. The ground is waterlogged, and can’t easily absorb any more – this has been the best rainfall in a parched region in nearly five years.
In these wet + miserable conditions, two Palestinian families evicted on 2 August (the Hanoun and Ghrawi families) were still camped out on the streets across from their former homes in the Sheikh Jarrah region of East Jerusalem, bitterly watching Israeli settlers move around in the relative warmth and dryness inside.
Last Wednesday, Israeli Border Police forcibly dismantled a small square white plastic tent — the kind that can be rented for use at “events” — that had been sheltering the members of the extended Ghrawi family. That evening, after a class, I passed by. It was dark, and a seasonal chill had already set in. Adults in very bad moods, depressive and shocked, were sitting around in plastic chairs beside five or six children sound asleep on bedding placed directly on the sidewalk. Some black mesh fabric was draped around a tree they were under, and one woman pulled aside a flap to show me the sleeping children.
Hatem Abdel Qader (Eid), a Fatah official from East Jerusalem, was on his mobile phone a few feet away. Abdel Qader was for a year the adviser on Jerusalem affairs to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad before being sworn is as Minister earlier this year, and then abruptly and almost inexplicably resigning a few weeks later. The reported reason was his disagreement over the lack of Palestinian support for Palestinians facing problems in East Jerusalem.
Abdel Qader told me that he had, just two days earlier, been sentenced to 20 days banishment from the Old City of East Jerusalem, after being detained during recent confrontations at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. He also said that the Hanoun and Ghrawi families had gone to Ramallah to seek help from the Palestinian Authority, but were treated badly.
An earlier home eviction in the same Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood took place a year ago, on 9 November 2008. Um Kamel al-Kurd and her disabled husband were roused from their sleep and put out on the street — she, handcuffed — in their nightclothes. Ten days later, Mr. Al-Kurd died of a heart attack in a nearby hospital, as Um Kamel sat in a tent that supporters had erected for her in the valley just tens of meters down the hill from her former home — and opposite the shrine of the tomb of Shimon HatZakik, believed by Jews to have been a priest in the second Jewish temple (while some Palestinians believe it is, instead, the resting place of a Muslim wise man …)
This minor religious site has become the justification for what some national-religious Jews are planning across this small valley — the eviction of Palestinian families living in 28 neighboring homes, in order to construct some 200 apartments in a large new complex housing Jewish families, in a very sensitive East Jerusalem spot.
The three homes evicted up until today were built by the United Nations in the early-to-mid-1950’s for these families who had been displaced from their original homes during the fighting that surrounded the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Jordanian government authorized the donation of the land on which the homes were built.
Some of this land, according to claims by the settler organizations, belonged to Jews before 1948, but had to be evacuated during pre-State fighting. Israel did not control East Jerusalem until its conquest in the June 1967 war, when Jordanian forces were routed from both East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Turkish government earlier this year assisted lawyers for the Sheikh Jarrah families to do a search of the Ottoman archives in Ankara (and Istanbul) for proof concerning the land ownership claims, and provided certification that no Jewish ownership claims could be found. Perhaps the former Jewish tenants had been renters? In any case, the Israeli Supreme Court dismissed the Turkish documentation, and the evictions of the Hanoun and Ghrawi families proceeded, despite international protests. Jewish settlers moved in within hours, under Israeli Border Police protection.
What happened today, in the fourth home (of the 28 targeted in Sheikh Jarrah) was described this way in Haaretz:
“Rioting settlers forced a Palestinian family from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah out of their home on Tuesday, after the district court denied the residents’ appeal to remain on the premises. Shortly after the verdict was passed dozens of settlers stormed into the house with hired security guards, and demanded that the family vacate immediately. A violent riot erupted between the settlers and the neighborhood’s Palestinian residents, and police were called to disband the protesters”.
According to this Haaretz report, this home was not built by UNRWA for the refugee families in 1953-1956 — instead, one of those refugees, Rifqa al-Kurd, “had the house built 10 years ago for her married daughter”.
Haaretz added: “The particular house, built 10 years ago by the al-Kurd family, was unoccupied and locked for eight years by court order pending settlement of a land-ownership dispute. Police kept members of the family back as a dozen Israeli men removed furniture. ‘They can go to Syria, Iraq, Jordan. We are six million and they are billions’, said Yehya Gureish, an Arabic-speaking Yemen-born Jew who said his family owned the land and had Ottoman Empire documentation to prove it. ‘This land is Israel. We are in Israel. God gave this land to the Jews. The Torah tells us so. You want war? Declare war on God, not on us’, he said …
During the 1970s, a committee of Sephardic Jews claimed ownership of the land, according to papers which proved that they had purchased it from the Turks before the war … The court decided after long deliberation, that the Sephardic committee’s claim to ownership is legal, but the Palestinian residents had also received a protected residency status which forced the Jews to keep them on as tenants. Since then the committee filed several claims stating that the Palestinians had breached the lease with their new landlords, and demanded that they be evacuated from the premises. Due to these recurring claims, several Palestinian families were evacuated from their homes and replaced by settler families”. This Haaretz report can be read in full here.
The International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who were present with the family pending evacuation, has written, in an email message, that it’s not the whole house, but only a section of it, that was in question — and suggests that the issue was not only ownership, but also the matter of a building permit for the newer addition:
“40 settlers, accompanied by private armed security and Israeli police forces, entered a section of the home, threw out the family’s belongings and locked themselves in. The take-over came after an appeal submitted by the family’s lawyer was rejected by the District Court. In their appeal, the Palestinian family was challenging an earlier court decision that deemed a section of the house illegal and ordered that the keys be given to settlers. The settlers proceeded to enter the house, while the court did not grant them the right to enter the property. The al-Kurd home was built in 1956. An addition to the house was built 10 years ago, but the family was not allowed to inhabit the section because the municipality refused to grant them a building permit. Visibly unequal laws are used to make it possible for settlers to move into a home where it was declared illegal for Palestinian residents to inhabit. The Israeli authorities exercise their abilities to demolish and evict Palestinian residents, while ignoring building violations from the Israeli population in East Jerusalem. The al-Kurds have become the fourth Sheikh Jarrah family whose house has been occupied by settlers in the last year. So far, 60 people have been left homeless”.
UPDATE: According to a press release received on Friday 6 November from Human Rights Watch:
“In the week beginning October 27, 2009, Jerusalem municipal authorities used bulldozers to demolish five residences, while thousands more Palestinians are threatened with demolition of their homes. In the demolitions of the five buildings from October 27 to November 2, Israeli authorities displaced 57 Palestinian residents, including many children. Three other buildings were partly demolished. Israeli authorities justified destroying the homes primarily on the grounds that the owners lacked building permits, which are extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain.
Jerusalem municipal authorities demolished three Palestinian-owned buildings on November 2, displacing 31 people. Residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor told Human Rights Watch that at 8 a.m., two bulldozers demolished the homes of the al-Shwaike and al-Qawasmi families, displacing 14 people. The buildings, joined by a common wall, were built in 1982.
“We didn’t even know the building was going to be destroyed before it happened,” said Haroun al-Qawasmi, who lived in one of the buildings with his wife and four adult children. “There were scores of soldiers there, and they told us that we had built the house without a permit.”
Tareq al-Shwaike said that he was not informed of any demolition order before his family’s adjoining building was destroyed, displacing him, his wife and three children, his mother, his sister and her husband. “The municipality told me I have to clean up the ruins of what they destroyed or else I’ll have to pay when they do it,” al-Shwaike said.
The third home, in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem, was destroyed at around 2 p.m. Human Rights Watch was unable to contact residents of the building, but according to initial reports by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and by Al Maqdese, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization based in East Jerusalem, the demolition displaced approximately 17 members of the Rajaby family.
On October 27, Israeli authorities demolished two homes in East Jerusalem, and partly destroyed three others. Residents of a two-story building in the Sur Baher neighborhood of East Jerusalem told Human Rights Watch that scores of Israeli soldiers and police officers surrounded the building at 5:15 a.m. and ordered the residents to leave immediately. The authorities did not allow the residents time to remove their furniture or other belongings before three bulldozers demolished the building, which housed 17 members of an extended family, including five children.
“Soldiers entered our house without asking and detained my daughters and sons,” said one resident who did not want his name used. “We only had time to get our clothes.”
He said the building’s first floor was built 11 years ago, and a second floor was added later to accommodate the owner’s married children. A second resident said that his family had owned the land on which the house was built for at least three generations. The residents said the family had spent 150,000 shekels (US$37,500) over the years in failed attempts to obtain a permit for their home.
At 9 a.m. on the same day, Israeli authorities demolished the East Jerusalem home of a 73-year-old Palestinian woman and her 32-year-old son, who did not want to be named. The son said he had constructed the building from pieces of wood and metal sheeting after Israeli authorities demolished their initial home on the site in 2006.
“We have been living on this site for 40 years,” he said. “They destroyed our first house because we didn’t have a permit. So I put up the zinco (sheet metal) building. It wasn’t a permanent building, just a hut.”
He received a first demolition order in May and a second one in September. “I can’t afford a lawyer so I went to the court myself, but they told me, ‘You don’t have a file here.’” He was afraid the authorities would punish him further by fining him for the demolition.
Human Rights Watch interviewed other East Jerusalem residents whose homes were partly or completely demolished in three separate incidents on October 27. Israeli authorities may impose heavy fines for illegal construction on Palestinians whose homes they bulldoze, so some East Jerusalem residents have “self-demolished” their homes to avoid financial penalties. One resident had begun but not completed “self-demolishing” his building when it was bulldozed, and was afraid of being fined by Israeli authorities. Another family whose home was demolished was still paying a fine of 60,000 shekels (US$15,000) for illegal construction.
Israeli authorities state that house demolitions are carried out against homes that have been built illegally without official building permits. However, a UN report published in April found that it is extremely difficult for Palestinian residents to obtain such permits under Israeli law, which Israel applies to annexed parts of the West Bank in violation of international law.
The UN estimated that roughly 60,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem currently live in buildings that the Israeli government has designated illegal. A December 2008 report by the European Union (EU) found that Israel was “actively pursuing the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem” by means including the construction of Jewish-only settlements and demolitions of Palestinian houses.
The European Union report concluded that Israel’s housing policies in East Jerusalem unlawfully discriminate against Palestinian residents. Like Israeli citizens, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem may obtain building permits only for buildings in areas zoned for construction. The Palestinian population makes up over 60 percent of East Jerusalem’s population, but the Israeli government has zoned only 12 percent for Palestinian construction, according to the EU report. Even in this small zoned area, many Palestinians could not afford to complete the application process for building permits, which is complicated and expensive.
In contrast, Israel unlawfully expropriated 35 percent of East Jerusalem for the construction of Jewish settlements, for which building permits are much easier to obtain. Since November 2007, Israel approved building permits for 3,000 housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, as opposed to fewer than 400 building permits for Palestinian residents, according to the EU report” …