Malice or misunderstanding? The Jerusalem municipality last week razed a house belonging to an Arab-Jewish couple in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, a move that the family claims violated a deal they had made with the city meant to give them time to legalize the construction.
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The city, for its part, claims that the agreement, under which a demolition order would be issued but not implemented for a year, was meant to give the family time to evacuate the home, not legalize it.
M. is a Jewish woman married to Mohammed Swahar, with whom she has five children. Last Monday morning M. was awakened by loud knocking at the door. “When I opened it there were policemen there. They said, ‘Ma’am, we have a demolition order here. Please leave the house,” recalls M. “I told them that I have small children and that I wanted to dress them first, but they said no, dress them outside.
“The policemen came into the house with dogs, waking the children, who started crying,” she continues. “They grabbed my husband and hit him because he tried to get to the crying children. ... I told them I was Jewish, that I’d served in the army, and that I was prepared to leave if they’d give me a chance to pack, but they wouldn’t agree.
“All my life I taught my children that we’re all human beings, that we’re all equal. Their grandmother and grandfather are Jews and Israelis. But now all that’s buried under the house,” says M.
The municipality has picked up the pace of demolitions in East Jerusalem since the beginning of the year. In 2013 there were 25 demolitions, a great many of them of uninhabited structures. In the month and a half since the start of 2014, there have already been 12 demolitions, most of inhabited structures. In recent years the city was under diplomatic pressure to avoid demolitions, but sources involved with the matter say that since the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have resumed there has been less diplomatic pressure, which has enabled the demolitions to continue. The relative quiet in East Jerusalem in recent months has also facilitated the demolitions, the sources said.
After the family was removed from the house, city workers went in and quickly emptied out its contents. According to the family, items were thrown out the windows, and a substantial portion of their property remains buried under the ruins. Around 90 minutes after the knock on the door, the bulldozer had finished its work and the house the family had lived in for 13 years was rubble.
“My daughter left her laptop in the closet, and her sister to this day is looking for her baby doll. The school bags, notebooks and textbooks were all left in the house,” says M. “But the worst thing is the state the children are in; if they hear a dog barking in the distance they think it’s the end of the world. Yesterday there was an inspector here, and my son ran to me screaming for me to hide him because a policeman had come to take his father away.”
The family is now living in a tent provided by the Red Cross.
According to their attorney, Ibrahim Abidat, the demolition contravened the declared municipal policy not to demolish homes that have a chance of being legalized in the future. The home was built 18 years ago and in recent years the family had kept trying to get a building permit, to no avail. The area in which the home is located has a municipal plan that was drawn up to enable the Palestinian residents to “launder” their illegal construction, but the plan has been stuck in committees for years.
A year ago, the Swahars came to an agreement with the city under which a demolition order would be issued for the home, but its implementation would be delayed by a year. According to the municipality, the delay was agreed on to allow the family to prepare to move out so the home could be demolished, while the family says the delay was instituted to give them a chance to get a building permit.
“I just invested 120,000 shekels [$34,200] in renovations a few months ago,” says Swahar. “Do you think I would have done that if I’d known they were planning to destroy it?”
“The [urban plan] is stuck and so I can’t get the permit moving,” said Abidat. “I ran here that morning in my pajamas and I asked [the policemen] to give me two hours, until the courts opened and I could get a restraining order, but they refused.”
The Jerusalem municipality says that the family’s claims “do not correlate with the facts, since the court made its decision [on the demolition order] with the agreement of Mr. Mohammed Swahar, so the claim of not knowing is strange. Under the agreement with the owners of the property a demolition order was issued for the structure, while they were given a period of a year to prepare and evacuate the building.
“Police gave the residents time to collect their belongings,” the municipality added. “After the building was evacuated, a municipal subcontractor emptied the contents of the structure into the family courtyard. After the removal of the contents, the home was demolished in line with the agreement between the parties and the court decision.”