The Jerusalem municipality has begun issuing demolition orders for buildings in East Jerusalem, where illegally-built homes have sprung up due to sparse regulation. The city says only 11 judicial demolition orders have been issued, but according to residents, in some cases one order relates to a number of buildings. Some of the buildings are nine- and 10-story apartment houses where dozens of families reside, which means that hundreds of people are at risk of losing their homes. However, due to diplomatic pressure, it is unlikely that the city will be able to carry out the orders.
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Most of the orders are in two neighborhoods near the Shoafat refugee camp, in the north of the city on the Palestinian side of the separation fence – Ras Hamis and Ras Shehada. Approximately 70,000 Palestinians live within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, but on the far side of the separation barrier. Since the barrier was built, these neighborhoods have been almost completely neglected by the authorities. According to the municipality, due to adverse security circumstances city employees cannot provide proper services to these locales. Mayor Nir Barkat even suggested about two years ago that responsibility for these areas be transferred to the Civil Administration, which operates in the West Bank. Supervision of construction is among the services lacking, leading to the illegal construction of many multi-story apartment houses.
A few months ago the police arrested a number of suspects in connection with fraud involving the land on which some of these buildings were built. Residents say they bought the apartments without knowing that they were illegal. Last Thursday, court orders issued at the request of the Jerusalem municipality were affixed to the walls of the buildings, stating that the owners have 60 days to demolish them, and if they do not, the city will do so.
Residents of Silwan on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s Old City say they also received demolition orders last week.
The number of demolition orders carried out by the city has declined greatly in recent years due to American and European pressure to put a stop to the policy. The current round of demolition orders began on the same day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that progress be made on a number of construction plans over the Green Line, ostensibly as compensation to the right wing for the release of Palestinian prisoners. It is possible that the city was given a free hand to issue the demolition orders in the same context.
Although the number of demolition orders has declined, the city uses the threat of such orders to force apartment owners to pay fines and fees of tens of thousands of shekels.
Suleiman Turk, a resident of Ras Hamis, lives with his wife and nine children in a home now slated for demolition. The house was built in 2002, and in that same year a demolition order was issued, but Turk’s attorney argued that it was illogical to demolish a single-story home while letting multi-level illegal structures stand. Turk was required to pay NIS 67,000 and the city gave him 18 months to obtain a permit. “I brought in an architect, but she said there was no chance I’d get a permit because when they built Pisgat Ze’ev, they defined us as a green zone,” Turk said, referring to a large Jewish settlement northeast of the city.
Turk said all his neighbors also received demolition orders. “They must want to destroy the whole neighborhood. Maybe they were waiting until after the election. I’ll fight this legally until the last minute and if they demolish the house, I’ll put up a tent – I have nowhere else to go,” he said.
Attorney Keren Tzafrir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said: “Anyone who visits these neighborhoods, which are within the Jerusalem municipal boundaries, will be shocked to find the Third World. The authorities have refused for years not only to develop the area, but even to do basic planning that would allow tens of thousands of residents to build legally. The only efforts they make are to drag these families into legal proceedings, which lead to fines of hundreds of thousands of shekels that pour into the city’s coffers and provide legal grounds to demolish buildings and life in East Jerusalem.”
The Jerusalem municipality responded: “This matter involves 11 large structures that were built without permits and illegally on the outskirts of the neighborhood. The notices are from the court that legal proceedings have begun and call on the owners of the property to make the proper arrangements. The Jerusalem municipality provides a variety of services in the outlying neighborhoods in sanitation, welfare, education, social affairs, roads, summer camps, youth, recreation, culture, etc. It does so while facing many challenges involving both the need to be accompanied by security and the difficulty of locating complexes and buildings for activities that have legal permits.”
The municipality also said the mayor had taken major steps to close gaps in East Jerusalem that have developed in the last 40 years in education, infrastructure, construction and welfare.