#SaveSilwan: 1,500 Palestinians under imminent threat of displacement

View of Al-Aqsa Mosque from the neighbourhood of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem (Saleh Zghari)

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  June 27, 2021

The clock is ticking for some 100 Palestinian families in the occupied East Jerusalem town of Silwan who have been forced to face an impossible decision: either demolish their own homes, or wait for Israeli forces to carry out the demolition. 

It’s a fate that the families in the al-Bustan neighborhood of Silwan have been fighting tirelessly against for years, and on Sunday it will all come to a head. Earlier this month Israel issued a series of demolition orders giving the families in Al-Bustan 21 days to evacuate and demolish their homes. 

According to the demolition orders, if the residents, numbering around 1,500 people, do not destroy their own homes themselves by Sunday June 27th, the Jerusalem municipality will carry out the demolitions, and charge the residents with the demolition fees. 

The Israeli government has targeted the families in Al-Bustan with demolition orders for over a decade , under the pretext that their homes were built without a permit from the Jerusalem Municipality. 

In turn, the municipality has sought to push plans by settler organizations to turn the area of Al-Bustan into a biblical park and connect it with the “City of David” archaeological park.

“The first demolition orders came in 2004 to the Al-Bustan neighborhood, targeting 124 families in the center of the neighborhood, ” Quteibah Odeh, 27, a social worker and resident of Al-Bustan told Mondoweiss. “But until this day, the people in Al-Bustan have remained steadfast, and have not left a single home yet. And we don’t intend on leaving,” he said. 

Odeh, who was born and raised in Al-Bustan, is one of the more than 1,500 residents of the neighborhood whose home is under threat of demolition. He said that neither he, nor any of his neighbors intend on demolishing their own homes. 

“They [Israel] say we have ‘illegal construction’, or buildings without permits, or that the fight to take over our homes and our land is a ‘real estate dispute’. But at its core, it is a political and ideological battle,” Odeh said. 

 “If you look outside your window in Silwan you can see Al-Aqsa Mosque. We hear the sound of our prayers from the mosque here in Silwan. It’s a strategic location for the occupation,” Odeh said. 

“And this is the real battle: Israel is trying to move settlers in and push Palestinians out, so they can change the reality on the ground.”

Record number of demolitions

The ultimatum given to the families in Al-Bustan is a common practice in East Jerusalem. According to UN documentation, at least one third of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem lack an Israeli-issued building permit, placing over 100,000 Palestinians in the city at risk of displacement. 

Only 13 percent of East Jerusalem, most of which is already built up, is zoned for Palestinian construction, while on the other hand, 35 percent of East Jerusalem has been allocated for Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. 

Israel’s restrictive planning regime in Palestinian neighborhoods in the city, coupled with the fact that the municipality rejects the vast major of Palestinian requests for building permits, creates a coercive environment in the city that puts Palestinians at further risk of displacement, rights groups say. 

In 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 175 Palestinian structures were demolished or seized by Israeli forces in East Jerusalem on the grounds of lacking building permits. 

Of those structures, around 47% were self-demolitions, up from an average of 21 percent in the previous year. Since the beginning of 2021, nearly 50 per cent of all demolitions in East Jerusalem have been carried out by the owners themselves.

“The destruction of property in an occupied territory is prohibited under the Fourth Geneva Convention, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations,” the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a report

“The destruction or confiscation of property commonly also results in the infringement of a range of human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living,” UN OCHA said.

“They don’t give us permits, then fine us for not getting a permit, and then they come and demolish your house. And after they demolish your house, they send you the bill for the cost and expenses of the demolition,” Odeh said.  

“Is there anything more oppressive than this?”

Evictions in Batn al-Hawa

But the Palestinians living in Al-Bustan are not the only residents of Silwan who are battling attempts to save their homes. 

Just a short distance away is the neighborhood of Batn al-Hawa. Just south of the Old City, Al-Aqsa Mosque is visible from almost any rooftop, balcony, or street corner in the neighborhood.

For many of the Palestinian residents of the neighborhood, however, the views of their historic town and the city of Jerusalem are obstructed by Israeli flags flying on the rooftops and draped over the side of buildings, scattered throughout Batn al-Hawa. 

According to rights groups like B’Tselem, Batn al-Hawa is the site of one of the most “extensive expulsion schemes” in East Jerusalem in recent years, in which Israeli settler groups are attempting to forcibly expel the neighborhood’s Palestinian residents and replace them with Jewish settlers. 

One of the hundreds of residents of Batn al-Hawa under threat of expulsion is 50-year-old  Zuheir al-Rajabi. His family of four were handed an eviction notice in 2015 along with 86 other families in the neighborhood, ordering them to leave their homes. 

“We are a family of refugees and now they are trying to displace us again,” said Al-Rajabi, who was born and raised in Batn al-Hawa after his family was kicked out of their home by Israel in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1966. 

“Anyone in this situation would be miserable. Being displaced more than once is an indescribable feeling. We were forcibly displaced from our homes in the past, and now they are trying to do it again,” he said. 

Through a series of legal mechanisms sanctioned by the Israeli courts, an Israeli settler organization by the name of Ateret Cohanim has been filing eviction orders against the families in Batn al-Hawa, including Al-Rajabi’s family, since 2002. The eviction orders have been filed under the pretext that the plot of land in Batn al-Hawa was previously owned by Jews more than a century ago. 

While Israeli law allows for property to be transferred to Jews who claim previous ownership from before the establishment of the state of Israel, that same right is denied to Palestinians like the Al-Rajabis who were dispossessed from their original homes. 

To date, Ateret Cohanim has already taken control of six buildings in Batn al-Hawa, comprising 27 housing units, and has ongoing legal proceedings to evict at least 81 Palestinian families, numbering 436 people. Since 2015, 14 families in the neighborhood have already been forcibly evicted. 

As Al-Rajabi walks through the neighborhood, he passes by the large Israeli flags hanging from the homes of his former neighbors who were forcibly evicted from their homes. 

“This is an occupation and nothing is going to stop them from enacting their policies,” Al-Rajabi said. “They will do everything, arrest us, imprison us, and kick us out, just as they did with our neighbors.”

‘The international community must take action’

As the deadline for the forced destruction of the homes in Al-Bustan looms, Palestinians are doubling down on calls for people to spread awareness about the situation in Silwan. 

Calls to #SaveSilwan flooded social media over the weekend, as people urged the international community to intervene and stop the demolitions. 

“We ask the international community to take action, and to take a stance,” Al-Rajabi told Mondoweiss. “We are not speaking about destroying one house or kicking out one family, we have entire neighborhoods and entire families being threatened.

“And it’s not just Silwan,” he said. “It’s Sheikh Jarrah, and it’s all of Palestine. The international community has a responsibility to intervene and stop these war crimes, the destruction and forcible displacement of the families.

“We do not have any other place to go. We were kicked out in 1967 and they want to do the same now,” Al-Rajabi said. 

While the international community has failed to prevent evictions and demolitions in Silwan before, people like Quteiba Odeh are feeling more hopeful than ever before that this time, things might be different. 

“Over the past few weeks we saw people around the world react to what is happening in Palestine, and we saw them becoming more aware of the occupation,” Odeh said. “We will be stronger in our resistance when we have more people supporting us.

“Today I feel different than before, I feel like we have support, we have a family, and people to stand up with us and people who care.

“The Palestinians love life, and want to have a decent life, a future. We want dignity, we love our land, and we are going to stay on our land. We are not going to go anywhere else,” Odeh said. 

“Our pain is huge, but our hope is bigger.”

Yumna Patel is the Palestine correspondent for Mondoweiss