The National / July 8, 2021
An estimated 1,500 residents are facing demolition orders in Al-Bustan area.
Palestinians in a valley below Jerusalem’s Old City are fighting Israeli orders to demolish their homes, a move which residents say is intended to make room for a tourist park.
While boys in Al-Bustan played football outside, Fakhri Abu Diab sat in his living room which may soon be turned to rubble.
“We don’t know when the bulldozers are coming. When they come to demolish our houses, they demolish our life,” said the 59-year-old, who grew up in the Al Bustan area of Jerusalem’s Silwan neighbourhood.
The Palestinian neighbourhood lies below the southern walls of the Old City, with Al Aqsa mosque – the third holiest site in Islam – visible from the streets below.
Famed for its natural spring, the ancient village is now filled with tightly-packed homes topped with water tanks.
An estimated 1,500 residents are facing demolition orders from the Israeli authorities, which have controlled the area since the country’s military captured East Jerusalem in 1967.
“The house is not just the ceiling, wall and floor. It’s our past, our future, our life,” said Mr Abu Diab.
Israeli authorities say the homes were built without permits. Last month the UN’s humanitarian office criticized Israel’s “restrictive and discriminatory planning regime” in parts of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which “makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain” permission to build.
Mr Abu Diab, a former accountant and member of the Defence of Silwan Land Committee, said he was repeatedly refused permission to expand his childhood home. The family went ahead and built extra rooms, which now house 12 relatives of three generations.
The father-of-five said for years his family has paid a thousand-shekel ($300) monthly fine for breaching building regulations.
Of around 100 buildings under threat, 17 could be demolished at any moment while Mr Abu Diab’s home is up against an August 15 deadline.
Residents say their community will be replaced with a tourist garden, as part of an expansion of the City of David archaeological site. The attraction is supported by Israeli authorities and run by the pro-settler organisation Elad.
Officials from the City of David did not respond to a request to comment on the site’s expansion.
Hagit Ofran, a settlements expert from Israeli NGO Peace Now, said she saw plans drawn up for the park back in 2008.
“There is an official government plan that is called ‘King’s Garden’,” she said. “It includes the demolition of all of the houses in Al Bustan.”
To stave off their neighbourhood being razed, residents agreed with Israeli authorities to draw up alternative plans for the area which could see them keep their homes.
“Every several months, the Palestinians would ask for more time to see if the plan is approved and not to demolish [their homes]. Every time the municipality said it agreed to the postponement,” said Ms Ofran.
The years-long process came to an abrupt end at the start of 2021, when Peace Now says the Jerusalem municipality refused a further postponement.
“This new stand of the municipality put everyone under a lot of pressure,” said Ms Ofran.
The municipality said it was a court decision and that the “King’s Garden” plan has not been promoted by Mayor Moshe Leon, who was elected in 2018. It would not confirm whether the proposal was still on the table.
“The mayor has made great efforts to reach a dialogue with the residents of Al Bustan to promote a joint plan that will minimise the number of buildings to be demolished and maximise the potential for open, public and green areas, for the benefit of the local residents,” a spokesman said.
“The residents’ representatives rejected all the proposals presented to them,” he added.
The municipality did not detail what these proposals were, nor say whether any compensation or support had been offered to the residents who are due to be displaced.
Israeli authorities demolished a butcher shop in Silwan last month, sparking protests by Palestinians. The UN reported that multiple demonstrators were injured by rubber bullets and tear gas fired by police, which said people threw stones at officers.
If residents do not demolish their own properties before the given deadline, they risk being billed by Israeli authorities for the costs of the bulldozers.
Sitting under a whirling fan, Mr Abu Diab described a “black future”.
“We have nowhere to go. We will be on the street, homeless,” he said. “Why? Because they want to make gardens here.”
Rosie Scammell – correspondent, Jerusalem