The roads leading to the Wadi al-Hummus area of Sur Baher are narrow, bumpy, full of potholes and so steep your heart skips a beat and your hand switches to first gear. These narrow arteries are surrounded by very dense construction, inconsistent in its style and quality.
Here and there, a few ancient stone buildings stand out, their beauty untainted despite the rushed additions of a floor or a few rooms. In the absence of sidewalks, people walk among the parked cars and traffic. Sur Baher’s architectural hodgepodge is the necessary visual background to understand the demolitions that took place there this week at the neighborhood’s southeastern edge.
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Sur Baher; the name could mean a magnificent wall or a magnificent secret, the latter referring to a meeting where, according to one tradition, Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab planned his breakthrough into Jerusalem in the year 637. Studies of the village include conjecture about the changes the name has undergone from previous eras.
But in its current version it was first mentioned in the Ottoman census of 1596. At the time, 29 families of farmers and cattle raisers populated the village; they lived in caves, and when they expanded they built houses around family yards.
All that time they continued to cultivate the land and herd cattle in the large space between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. By the time Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, the number of those families’ descendants had reached about 4,700.
Today the number of residents in the village, which has become a “neighborhood,” is about 24,000, including the residents of the adjacent village Umm Tuba and a neighborhood set up about 100 years ago by the Obadiah tribesmen.
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The intolerable crowding is no coincidence. It’s the result of Israeli policy in Sur Baher as in other Palestinian villages that the state has annexed to Jerusalem. Israel has declared its desire to maintain a Jewish majority in the city by any means. Its main tools are a lack of planning in Palestinian areas, faulty planning, neglect, discrimination, demolitions, meager job opportunities and the cutting off of neighborhoods from their natural spaces. This policy projects disrespect of the Palestinian residents’ deep roots in their villages/neighborhoods and their longtime affiliation to Jerusalem.
Neither Sur Baher’s ancientness nor the deliberate crowding interested High Court justices Menachem Mazuz, Uzi Vogelman and Isaac Amit when, in their June 11 ruling, they let the state demolish housing units in the only land reserve the village has left. Around 6,000 people live in Wadi al-Hummus, some in high-rises next to the separation barrier. On Wednesday you could feel the tenants’ fear that Israel would tear down their homes as well.
Studies and reports by the rights groups Bimkom, Ir Amim and B’Tselem, as well as by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, provide the facts and figures mentioned here and explain how the road to that palpable fear was paved.
On the eve of the village’s occupation in 1967, its territory ranged between 9,000 and 10,000 dunams (2,470 acres). The various sources have somewhat different figures. Most of the village was annexed to Jerusalem and is within the capital’s borders. Around 1,500 to 2,000 of Sur Baher’s dunams remained outside the municipal border, in the West Bank. But as far as the residents are concerned, the space remained the same space.
Two planning steps by Israel have had a much greater effect on the local people: Some 2,250 dunams were already confiscated in 1970 for building Armon Hanatziv, a neighborhood to Israelis and an illegal settlement to the Palestinians and international law. In the middle of the ‘90s, around 250 more dunams were confiscated for Har Homa, the neighborhood/settlement closing in on the village from the south.
This is true not only of Sur Baher. Since 1967, Israel has confiscated about 38 percent of the 70 square kilometers (27 square miles) of the Palestinian territory it annexed to the capital, in order to build well-tended green neighborhoods for Jews.
The second step was to restrict construction in the annexed Palestinian villages. Wide tracts of their land were declared open areas on which building was forbidden. At the same time, to preserve the “rural character,” low building percentages were forced on them. In other words, the permitted built-up area in every lot was limited. Meanwhile, in the nearby settlements, high-rises were planned and built, to accommodate as many Jews as possible.
As of 2017, when Ir Amim and Bimkom released their report “Deliberately Planned” analyzing the severe housing problems in Palestinian Jerusalem, only 8.5 percent of all Jerusalem (which is 15 percent of East Jerusalem) was earmarked for Palestinian housing, even though 37 percent of the capital’s population are Palestinians.
Even in this small area, permitted construction is curbed, so the number of people per room is much higher among Palestinians than Israelis; this is why married sons and their families live with the parents in the same apartment. This housing shortage has pushed thousands of Palestinians from Jerusalem to nearby neighborhoods that haven’t been annexed to Jerusalem and generated the mass practice of building without permits.
A master plan for Jerusalem drawn up in 2000 and approved in 2009 has ironically been suspended because of the development possibilities it offered some of the Palestinian neighborhoods. The authors of the 2017 report – architect Efrat Cohen-Bar of Bimkon and Aviv Tatarsky of Ir Amim – note that the many demolition orders, the worsening housing shortage and the realization that the municipality would no longer plan for local Palestinians pushed East Jerusalem residents to craft detailed master plans themselves, at their own expense. But the municipality is holding up the approval process.
From 2009 to the end of 2016, detailed master plans – the only way to obtain building permits – were approved for Jewish neighborhoods/settlements in the city providing for 10,000 housing units. In the Palestinian neighborhoods, isolated plans were approved providing for only hundreds of housing units. Only 8 percent of the building permits for apartments in Jerusalem in those years were intended for Palestinians.
Since 2009, Israeli authorities have demolished or forced the owners to demolish 69 structures in Sur Baher. The pretext for the demolitions was the absence of building permits. Forty six of these structures were populated homes or homes in the process of being built, OCHA reported. Thirty families – 400 people, about half of them children under 18 – lost the roof over their heads.
Among the demolished buildings five were outside Jerusalem’s borders; that is, in the area defined as the West Bank – three buildings in so-called Area C and two in Area A. This week, on the pretext of their proximity to the separation barrier, the demolition of 10 structures in Wadi al-Hummus, two of them inhabited, was added, as well as the foundations of three buildings.
The silent population transfer
The construction in Wadi al-Hummus began when it was just called the West Bank and hadn’t yet been artificially split into Area A under Palestinian administration and policing responsibility, Area B under Palestinian administrative responsibility and Area C under Israel’s administrative authority on top of its military rule over the entire West Bank. This was done before the implementation of the Oslo II Accord in the West Bank and before the regime of movement bans between Jerusalem and the West Bank that was implemented starting in March 1993.
A legal campaign by the rights group and Haaretz’s follow-up managed to revoke this absurdity and reinstate the status of Wadi al-Hummus residents. A later legal struggle at the beginning of 2000 managed to prevent the neighborhood’s artificial severance from the Jerusalem part of Sur Baher, and in 2005 the separation barrier was built a few hundred meters east of the municipal border. Thus, amid the artificial classifications of occupations and agreements, Wadi al-Hummus is a hybrid area.
It’s also a sociological hybrid: It’s inhabited by Jerusalemites and West Bank residents alike, some married to Jerusalemites. Every six months the West Bankers are forced to renew a stay permit if they want to live in their own homes.
People who moved from other Palestinian neighborhoods also live there, including from the Shoafat refugee camp. The need to solve the housing shortage overcomes traditional communities’ fear of taking in “strangers.” An apartment built with a Palestinian Authority permit costs between $70,000 and $100,000, compared with $300,000 to $350,000 for a similar apartment in the Jerusalem-ruled part of Sur Baher.
When the military order banning construction in a 300-meter (328-yard) swath on both sides of the separation barrier was issued in 2011, there were already 134 structures in the banned area in Wadi al-Hummus. The housing shortage in Jerusalem was stronger than any order, and another 100 or so buildings have been built since. They’re all spread between areas A, B and C. The demolitions have led to a wave of denunciations from abroad. Will they stop the next demolitions?