Israel Delaying East Jerusalem Demolitions to Calm U.S. Ire

Although municipality has targeted thousands of homes, none has been razed since January.

The Jerusalem municipality has refrained from demolishing homes in East Jerusalem for the past five months, in a move widely seen as an effort to ease tensions with the United States and assuage fears of an outbreak of violence among the Arab residents of the city.

The official explanation is that the de facto demolition freeze - the longest recorded in recent years - is a temporary one caused by budgetary constraints. Indeed, there have been no demolitions in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem since the hiatus began, and a municipal official said home demolitions would resume once deliberations on the Interior Ministry's budget have been completed.

But observers on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed skepticism about the city's explanation.

"The system of enforcement is operating as per usual - with the exception of the bulldozers," said Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem city council member and a founding member of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Over the past five years, the Jerusalem municipality and Interior Ministry have razed between 80 and 90 homes a year in East Jerusalem, with 89 homes destroyed last year. Most of the demolitions were carried out by the city.

But though thousands of homes have since been targeted for demolition and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has signed off on 33 demolition orders since January, no homes have been razed since then.

The last house demolition in East Jerusalem took place in October.

Margalit, a member of the dovish Meretz party, and MK Uri Ariel of the right-wing National Union say the hiatus is linked to international pressure on Israel.

"The municipality, out of its own interests, does not want to carry out the demolitions, so it made sure that there would be no budget for doing so," said Ariel. "This is what happens when politics is mixed with zoning laws. As a result, we lose all control. This is what happened in the Negev and the Galilee."

Ariel said that in light of the diplomatic standoffs over the construction of Jewish homes and razing of Arab homes in Jerusalem, the municipality has been instructed to obtain approval for house demolitions from the Prime Minister's Bureau.

"Every home demolition requires the presence of police," Ariel said. "The new procedure is that the police district commander gets in touch with the police commissioner, who in turn contacts the prime minister's military secretary, who makes the decision based on diplomatic considerations."

However, a municipal official said the city was not required to obtain a green light from the Prime Minister's Bureau.

Remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year, in which she spoke out against the municipality's decision to raze 88 homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, marked a turning point, with the number of home demolitions dwindling considerably since she made the comments.

Barkat has recently announced a revised plan for Silwan that he said would necessitate the demolition of a quarter of the homes originally slated for destruction.