The High Court of Justice has given the green light to demolish 13 large buildings in East Jerusalem which are under the control of the Palestinian Authority, a ruling Palestinians say sets a precedent that will enable the demolition of thousands of buildings in the West Bank.
The Wadi Hummus neighborhood is located on the edge of Sur Baher, in southeast Jerusalem. Unlike the rest of the village, this neighborhood lies beyond the city’s municipal boundaries, in the West Bank. Most of the area it occupies is designated as part of Area A – i.e., under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
But after local residents submitted a petition while the separation barrier was being built, beginning in 2003, the location of the fence was moved so that it would not pass through the heart of Sur Baher. Thus Wadi Hummus ended up on the Israeli side of the barrier, although legally it is considered to be part of the West Bank and under the PA’s authority.
Sur Baher residents say Wadi Hummus is the only area that remains for future expansion of the village, which is surrounded by the fence and Jewish neighborhoods. Many buildings were erected in the neighborhood over the last decade or so, most occupied by young couples and families from the village. The buildings set for demolition have some 100 apartments, 20 of which are tenanted and the rest are under construction.
Building permits for the construction were issued by the PA's planning ministry. However, seven years ago, the Israel Defense Forces Central Command issued an injunction banning construction of buildings within 250 meters of the separation barrier. Locals say the order was not publicized and they had no knowledge of it, and that in any case, it is the PA that has planning authorization in the area.
Two years ago, the army issued demolition orders for 13 new buildings constructed in the area mentioned in the injunction. Residents appealed to the High Court, reiterating that the army does not have the authority to demolish buildings that received building permits from the PA, that the order was not publicized and that they built their homes without knowing that the IDF had prohibited it.
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Attorney Haitham Khatib, who is representing the residents in their petition against the Defense Ministry, says that an examination of an IDF map of construction boundaries shows that along the part of the barrier in the territories, far from Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, the army prohibits building within 250 meters of the fence. However, as the barrier approaches the city limits, construction is permitted right next to it.
“If it’s dangerous to build next to the fence, then why is it no problem in those areas?” Khatib asks.
Khatib and PA officials who on Sunday visited the protest tent set up in Wadi Hummus, say the High Court ruling sets a precedent that seriously infringes on the PA’s sovereignty and opens the door to mass demolitions of buildings near the separation barrier throughout the West Bank.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg," Khatib says. "The army has been given a green light and will start to act in all the different areas."
On behalf of the petitioners, Khatib submitted a professional opinion to the court regarding possible security problems, which said that any such problems could be resolved by raising the height of the barrier and adding surveillance cameras – but that argument was rejected.
“What makes more sense," Khaib asks. "Demolishing the building or raising the height of the barbed-wire fence?”
Ultimately, Justices Menny Mazuz, Uzi Fogelman and Yitzhak Amit did not grant the petition and accepted the Defense Ministry’s position. They wrote in their ruling: “Continued construction without a permit in close proximity to the security barrier limits the operational freedom of movement near the fence and increases friction with the local population. Such construction may also serve as a hiding place for terrorists or persons residing illegally within a non-involved civilian population, and enable terrorists to smuggle weapons or even enter into Israel from that area."
The justices said they accept the defense officials’ position that extensive construction alongside the fence "Substantially impacts the barrier’s security effectiveness, while endangering the lives of civilians and members of the security forces, and that there is a military-security need to restrict construction next to the fence in order to prevent this risk.”
In the course of the legal proceedings, the government did agree to reduce the number of structures slated for demolition and, in the case of some of the buildings, to leave the lower floors intact and demolish only the upper floors.
One of the buildings slated for demolition is home to Bilal Qiyaniya, his wife and their five children, ages 2 to 15.
“I have worked hard since I was 17, putting a shekel aside every day, and after 20 years I put all my money, plus loans that I took, into this building," he says. "Now they’re send me back 20 years. The children keep asking when they’re coming to demolish the house. I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll have to live in the street.”
“Most of our lands were taken to build Har Homa,” says Mohammed Abu Tir, contractor of a large building that is due to be demolished, referring to a nearby Jewish neighborhood.
“What was left they took for the barrier and the 'American highway' [a road built in the eastern part of the city]. Now they’re going to tear down our buildings here. What do they want people to do? Why tear down the buildings if you could just build a stronger fence?”