Israel on Track for Record Number of East Jerusalem Home Demolitions

Many families with houses built without permits have asked for demolitions to be delayed in light of economic hardship and the coronavirus crisis, to no avail

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The Abda family in front of their home in the Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood of East Jerusalem, August 20, 2020
The Abda family in front of their home in the Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood of East Jerusalem, August 20, 2020Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The government has significantly stepped up the demolition of homes in East Jerusalem this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis.

The city is on track for a record year in the number of razings in the mainly Palestinian eastern half of the city, following a a two-month suspension during the lockdown this spring.

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So far this year, the municipality has knocked down 89 residential units, compared to 104 for all of 2019 and 72 in 2018. In the first three weeks of August alone, 24 homes were torn down. Most of the actual demolition work is done by the residents themselves, in order to reduce expenses. The city’s legal department and the courts refused some families’ requests for a postponement due to economic hardship and fear of infection in East Jerusalem neighborhoods with a high incidence of COVID-19.

The Abda family – two parents and their four children, aged 10 to 22 – live in a small, single-story home at the edge of the Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood. The father, Fawz Abda, built it five years ago, without a construction permit, after he realized that it was impossible to obtain one. As a result of absent master zoning plans, inadequate infrastructure and difficulties in land registration, it is nearly impossible to build legally in most East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

A demolition order was issued for the home around a year and a half ago. All of Abda’s applications to the court for local affairs and to the Jerusalem District Court were denied, despite the fact that the family’s home is at the edge of the neighborhood, just a few meters outside of an area where a residential zone is planned. In addition, Abda lost his job at a hotel due to the collapse of the city’s tourism industry, and the family is in financial crisis.

The Abda family's home, East Jerusalem, August 20, 2020. 'Every time a backhoe passes by I think, that’s it, they’re coming,' Fawz says.
The Abda family's home, East Jerusalem, August 20, 2020. 'Every time a backhoe passes by I think, that’s it, they’re coming,' Fawz says.Credit: Emil Salman

The Abdas and their lawyer, Mohand Jabara, recently appealed to municipal legal advisor Haim Nargasi, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon, President Reuven Rivlin and many other figures in a bid to postpone the demolition until Abda finds new work, to no avail. On Thursday, police officers surveyed the site, and demolition is expected within days. The family has packed their belongings. “They said we’d have 20 minutes to remove our property, so at least we’ll have a little clothing,” Abda says.

“There’s no peace now. I wake up four or five times every night, my daughter and I sit and watch and suddenly the sun is shining. We have no other place, we’ll put up a tent here and stay, without electricity or internet,” says Faryal Abda, Fawz’s wife. What worries her most is the fact that without a home, her children won’t be able to study, since most of their schooling is remote and requires an internet connection.

“Every time a backhoe passes by I think, that’s it, they’re coming,” Fawz says. In the letter that Jabara sent on his client’s behalf to the city’s lawyer, he wrote that “the home is the only roof he and his family have, and its destruction will mean the parents and their young children will become homeless during this difficult time of the coronavirus outbreak.”

During the strict lockdown this spring, the city suspended home demolitions due to the emergency situation in the country, even though in this period the infection rate in East Jerusalem was very low. But after the lockdown was lifted in May, the demolitions resumed at an accelerated pace, and nearly every day homes are razed in that part of the city.

A coronavirus testing station in East Jerusalem, August 17, 2020
A coronavirus testing station in East Jerusalem, August 17, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwingenberg

According to data collected by the civil society organization Ir Amim, August is on track to break a years-long record for the number of home demolitions in East Jerusalem, despite the high coronavirus infection rate in the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods. Some 2,000 people in East Jerusalem have COVID-19, and every day dozens of new patients are diagnosed. In addition, the economic crisis is taking a particularly heavy toll in these neighborhoods, where many residents work in restaurants and in the tourism industry.

One of the reasons for the sharp rise in home demolitions is the introduction of the so-called Kaminitz Law, designed to crack down on unauthorized construction and to stop courts from extending demolition deadlines. The law went into effect in October of 2017, prompting indictments for offenses covered by the legislation. Among other provisions, the law prohibits courts from postponing the execution of a demolition order beyond one year.

In the past few months, the courts have denied dozens of requests to delay demolitions. According to Jabara, hundreds of homes will be razed over the next few months as a result of the legislation. Most of the demolitions are carried out by the residents, in order to save themselves the 120,000 shekels ($35,300) charged by the city, in addition to fines for building illegally.

Jerusalem city councilor Laura Wharton of Meretz attacked Leon over the demolitions, despite being part of the mayor’s coalition. She said that during the tenure of his predecessor, Nir Barkat, the city made an effort not to raze the homes of families with nowhere to go. “In the past there were certain rules that applied to demolitions. Even under Nir Barkat there was a policy that resulted in very few occupied homes being demolished. Today, with all due respect to the planning and building efforts, homes are being torn down and whole families are left without a roof over their heads,” Wharton wrote to Leon.

She proposed that a distinction be made among various types of construction violations. “There’s a difference between a family building a house in order to put a roof over their children’s heads and someone who builds homes as a business, for the sake of profit or out of greed. There is also a big difference between someone who builds without a permit and disturbs his neighbors and someone who builds a home and doesn’t bother anyone except for the inspectors,” Wharton wrote.

“As long as the coronavirus crisis continues, the state should freeze home demolitions,” says Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for Ir Amim. “It’s the right decision, both from the humanitarian perspective and for the obvious reason that the coronavirus outbreak in East Jerusalem affects the entire city. East Jerusalem residents are forced to build without a permit because the city and the Interior Ministry refuse to approve master plans for their neighborhoods. In such circumstances, the Kaminitz Law and the enhanced enforcement that it caused are a cruel injustice. You can’t deprive thousands of innocent people of shelter without giving them a solution,” Tatarsky says.

In a written response, the city of Jerusalem said the demolition orders are carried out in accordance with court rulings" “Since the beginning of the year a number of demolition orders have been carried out in the eastern and the western parts of the city, some of them by the municipality and in some cases the residents independently knocked down the parts that did not have a permit, in accordance with the instructions of the court.”

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