Jerusalem: Palestinians at risk of displacement due to demolition

70 Palestinians face displacement by Israeli occupation authorities in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Al-Tur (Al-Jazeera)

Zena al-Tahhan

Al-Jazeera  /  November 9, 2021

Seventy residents say they will be left homeless if Israeli authorities greenlight demolition of their building in occupied East Jerusalem.

Al-Tur, Occupied East Jerusalem Some 70 Palestinians, about half of whom are children, are at risk of forced displacement in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Tur as they await an Israeli court decision over the fate of their five-storey residential building.

Israeli occupation authorities informed residents on November 4 that they had a week left in their homes before the building would be demolished for lacking a building permit.

The residents told Al-Jazeera they were offered another ultimatum on Sunday: to either pay a refundable 200,000 shekels ($64,400) and have until the end of the month to self-demolish, or the state will do it for them – at a cost of two million shekels ($644,000).

Hussein Ghanayem, the residents’ lawyer, said that he filed an appeal on Monday, and that a court hearing is scheduled for Thursday for authorities to decide what steps they will take.

The five-storey apartment building lies in the Khallet al-Ain sub-neighbourhood of Al-Tur (pronounced At-Tur), which is also known as Jabal al-Zaytun (Mount of Olives). It has housed the 70 residents from 10 families since its construction without an Israeli-issued building permit in 2012, like many other homes in the area, according to the families’ lawyer.

Rights groups and Palestinians have long documented the refusal of Israeli authorities to issue building permits in occupied East Jerusalem, which the United Nations says is part of a “restrictive planning regime” that “makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits, impeding the development of adequate housing, infrastructure and livelihoods”.

The residents have chosen to remain in the building until the bulldozers arrive. They have repeatedly applied to obtain a permit, and spent close to nine years in courts battling the demolition order, but were met with rejections by occupation authorities under different pretexts each time, they say.

“We’re staying here until they come and force us to leave,” said 47-year-old Rania al-Ghouj, as she and her family gathered for breakfast in her ground-floor apartment on Monday morning.

She and other residents say they neither have the 200,000 shekels ($64,400) to pay to the state, nor do they intend to demolish the building themselves, due to the safety risks involved.

“It’s collective forced displacement. There’s nothing we can do at this point,” Iyad, Rania’s 25-year-old son, echoed.

“They think that if they demolish our homes they will get rid of us – they don’t know that this will only increase our resilience,” added Iyad, as he stuffed falafel into a piece of ka’ak – a Palestinian sesame bread native to Jerusalem.

Since moving into the building, the families have been paying monthly fines to the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem Municipality amounting to 75,000 shekels ($24,153) per family, per year, for living in an “unlicensed building”. They also pay high property tax known as Arnona in Hebrew, as well as lawyers’ fees. Many of them say they are in debt, while others say they cannot afford to rent a home in another area.

According to the lawyer, Ghanayem, the land is privately owned by a member of the Abu Sbeitan family, who have apartments in the building. But he says occupation authorities refused a licence, saying the land “is zoned for public use”. He told Al-Jazeera that authorities said they intend to build a school for the area instead.

According to the United Nations, only 13 percent of occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed following the 1967 war, is currently zoned for Palestinian development and residential construction, much of which is already built up.

“Inadequate and inappropriate planning of Palestinian neighbourhoods has led to the widespread phenomenon of ‘illegal’ construction and the demolition of structures by the Israeli authorities,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has said.

Some 57 percent of all land in occupied East Jerusalem has been expropriated, including from private Palestinian owners, for both the building of illegal settlements and zoning of land as “green areas and public infrastructure”. The remaining 30 percent, OCHA notes, comprises “unplanned areas” where construction is banned.

‘Draining our nerves’ 

Myassar Abu Halaweh, a young mother to three daughters, moved into the building with her husband in 2013 after having sold some of her gold to afford a down-payment on the $100,000 apartment at the time.

The 31-year-old told Al-Jazeera that the November 4 decision came as a shock to the residents, who had hoped to receive a permit eventually.

“We’ve been going through the same thing for the past nine years – we got several demolition orders before, but we didn’t give up – we kept appealing the decisions,” said Abu Halaweh. “Last year, we got indications that it was going to get licensed, so my husband and I started investing more into our home.”

“This was going to be the house we settled in. It’s like, when you start to see your life finally coming together, they push you back down to below point zero.”

“I graduated university while I was living in this house, gave birth in it, raised my daughters in it. It is a witness to the love we fostered in our family. The time we spent in it during corona!” she continued with tears streaming down her face, before her youngest daughter, five-year-old Mariam, embraced her with a kiss.

“They are draining our nerves – draining us financially and emotionally,” she said, adding that she and her husband are still paying off the cost of the apartment.

“We’re going to stay here, in tents. Why should we leave with such ease? This is no different to Sheikh Jarrah. Seventy people being made homeless is another Nakba.”

No place to expand

At-Tur is one of the most overcrowded Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. Two illegal Israeli settlements have been built on the neighbourhood’s lands, while it is blocked from expansion by neighbouring Palestinian villages, settler roads and the [so-called] Separation Wall.

According to Bimkom – an Israeli rights organization consisting of planners and architects – the “historical core” of At-Tur is “very densely built and has almost no land reserves for residential construction”.

The planning rights group noted that the “only hope for expansion is to the northeast, where the unrecognized sub-neighbourhood of Khallet al-Ain is located,” but that a national park plan is being advanced there, while “additional housing clusters are considered illegal because they were built on areas not zoned for housing”.

“The residents of At-Tur, primarily those in the unrecognized and unplanned areas, live under the constant threat of home demolitions and evacuation orders,” Bimkom wrote in 2014.

Ghanayem told Al-Jazeera that he defends the residents of 155 other buildings and homes in the Khallet al-Ain area that lack permits.

“From 1967 until today, they have not created one masterplan that meets the needs of residents of At-Tur,” said Ghanayem. “Unlicensed building in At-Tur is not because people don’t want to license, it is because of the reality that people live in,” he added, noting the dramatic increase in the neighbourhood’s population versus the lack of permits issued by the Jerusalem Municipality.

According to Israeli media, the municipality submitted a structural map on Sunday for At-Tur and the nearby town of al-Issawiya that will need to be discussed and approved by authorities. It remains unclear whether the plan will allow residents to obtain licences, which is a lengthy and costly process, for existing or new buildings.

At least one third of all Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem lack building permits, potentially placing more than 100,000 residents at risk of displacement, according to OCHA.

Local NGOs and rights groups have long pointed to a range of Israeli practices and policies in Jerusalem aimed at altering the demographic ratio in favour of Jews, a goal laid out as “maintaining a solid Jewish majority in the city” in the municipality’s 2000 masterplan.

Unlawful settlement expansion, Palestinian home demolitions, and restrictions on urban development are some of the main ways being used to realise this goal, according to rights groups.

‘No excuse’

Back in the al-Ghouj family home, Iyad, who lives with his parents, along with his two sons, wife, and siblings in their three-bedroom apartment, told Al Jazeera he hopes his children “will have a better future” than his.

“There’s no alternative for us – nowhere to go. There are huge spaces here, there’s no excuse for them to prohibit us from giving a permit,” said Iyad, pointing to the large open space adjacent to the building.

“The world should come and see the injustice that the Palestinian people live in, the indignity. We are not the first or the last people to go through this.

“We see how in settlements like Modi’in buildings pop up, or in the West Bank how a few settlers set up mobile homes and a few years later it’s a built-up settlement,” said Iyad.

Fayez Khalafawi, 60, whose family owns two apartments in the building, agreed.

“If we bring settlers to come live here, they’ll get a permit in 24 hours and the state will do everything for them,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The Jerusalem Municipality does not want any Palestinians in Jerusalem.”

Zena al-Tahhan is Al-Jazeera English’s digital correspondent in Jerusalem