Sharp Rise in Number of Israeli Demolitions in East Jerusalem Since Trump's Election

Even though mayor announced new master plan for East Jerusalem to allow legal Arab construction, such plans have been largely stalled in past years.

Salah Turk on the site of his demolished home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah.
Olivier Fitoussi

Home demolitions in East Jerusalem have risen dramatically since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. A source at city hall confirmed that since the changing of U.S. administrations, government restrictions have been lifted and the Jerusalem municipality has been allowed to demolish many more structures than during the term of former President Barack Obama.

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Since the beginning of the year, the municipality has reportedly demolished over 40 housing units in East Jerusalem. In all of 2016, 203 structures were demolished in the predominantly Arab part of the city.

According to data collated by the Ir Amim nonprofit, which studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem, in January and February alone the city demolished 42 housing units in East Jerusalem.

Last year’s demolitions included 123 housing units, plus storerooms, shops and stables. Twenty-two other structures were demolished by their owners in order to avoid the fine incurred by the municipality for the demolition.

Sa’ad Abasi from Silwan single-handedly demolished the house in which he and his brother had lived, yet the city maintained that the house was not sufficiently demolished and came to destroy the remnants – and he was charged for the expense.

Most of the residents whose homes were destroyed had tried to acquire a building permit or receive retroactive approval. The planning situation in East Jerusalem barely allows this, due to the lack of master plans and approved construction plans.

Even though Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has announced on several occasions that he intends to advance the preparation of an overall master plan for East Jerusalem neighborhoods in order to allow legal construction, such plans have hardly been advanced in recent years.

In a report published this week by Ir Amim and another nonprofit, Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, three examples were presented of plans that were ultimately rejected or postponed until an unknown date, due to difficulties raised by the municipality. Two of the plans were prepared by the residents themselves.

In 2008, residents of the A-Tur neighborhood presented a plan that they themselves prepared for expanding the neighborhood into an area called Halat al-Ayin. The plan suited the overall master plan for Jerusalem and even received the mayor’s blessing. After that, though, the municipality – together with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority – began to promote the declaration of the “Mount Scopus Hillside” national park, which effectively annulled the residents’ plan.

In the Tzur Baher neighborhood, meanwhile, residents tried to advance a plan that would allow them to build legally. For years, the planner hired by the residents – architect Ayala Ronel – was required to match it to the municipal plans. But ultimately, in 2013, the chairperson of the regional planning committee decided to shelve the plan since so much time had elapsed since it was presented.

The municipality is also working on a plan for the Beit Safafa neighborhood, but it is advancing at a sluggish pace.

“The Israeli government does not permit significant legal building plans in Palestinian neighborhoods and presents the Palestinian residents with a cruel choice: To be expelled from their city or to build without a permit and take the risk of demolition and a monetary fine,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for Ir Amim.

The Jerusalem municipality said it carries out court orders “as it is obligated by law, and without bias. The demolitions are carried out on buildings that are illegal and were built without a permit. Everyone who chooses to build illegally should know that the Jerusalem municipality will demolish his home. It saddens us that extreme left-wing organizations encourage the callous violation of the law just in order to promote their positions.

“The municipality continues to advance plans for residents of all parts of the city,” it continued. “In the neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city, plans are being advanced to add housing units with the aim of preventing illegal, uncoordinated construction that harms residents. Also, there is an increase in requests presented by residents for new building permits in the neighborhoods.”

Last week, the municipality demolished the home of the Turk family on the outskirts of Isawiyah. The father, Salah Turk, knew that his home was destined to be demolished, but said he was surprised by the timing of the demolition.

“I made coffee and something for the children to eat, then suddenly I see that the house is full of soldiers who told me we have 10 minutes to leave the house and take only what I can in my hands,” he said.

“I said I wanted to look for my child’s shoes – the child was grabbing onto me, crying and shouting,” Turk added. “They didn’t even let me find the shoes and I took the children out of the house. When I returned, I couldn’t believe that they’d destroyed everything.”

Turk said most of the family’s possessions remain under the rubble. He retrieved a bag of hummus from what was once the family kitchen, and in another area he showed the broken remains of his bed. He now lives together with his wife and nine children in a tin shack not far away.

“I intend to build a tent on my land and live there,” he said.

The municipality refuted his claims, saying, “This is a building that was being constructed, at the foundation stage, and nobody lived in the structure and there were no personal belongings there.”