Gideon Levy |

What Israel's Demolition of 70 Palestinian Homes Was Really About

Israel's razing of 10 apartment buildings in East Jerusalem, sanctioned by High Court, had nothing to do with security

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Muhammad Abu Tair in front of his demolished apartment building.
Muhammad Abu Tair in front of his demolished apartment building. Credit: \ Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The devastation is vividly visible through his office window: the scene of an explosion. The remnants of a blasted apartment building, his life’s enterprise, a house of cards that imploded. He had planned to build 13 stories here, and had completed nine, but last week the forces of destruction swept across the site and brought down it and nine other buildings. They left only the bottom two floors intact, but the blast wrought above them by soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, with crates of explosives scattered on every floor that produced a tremendous aftershock, makes it impossible to use the remnant of the bottom floors.

The building’s owner casts a sad gaze over the ruins, his eyes damp and red from a lack of sleep, and he says softly, not for the first time: “I’d like to ask Meni Mazuz how this is this going to help security” – referring to the judge who wrote the High Court of Justice’s decision letting the demolition proceed.

The question hangs ruefully in the air. The whole world of Muhammad Abu Tair, who owned the building that was toppled, lies in ruins along with the structure itself. “There is no justice at the High Court of Justice,” he says. “For years I’ve heard people say this, and now I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I will never go the High Court again. Its rulings are written by the IDF and the defense establishment, not by the court.”

The back of a grocery store on the edge of Sur Baher, a village in the southeast corner of Jerusalem, has been turned into a command post. Hanging on the walls are the incriminating documents, which, according to the owner, show the depths of the injustice and the heights of the absurdity: building permits issued by the Palestinian Authority, which has the exclusive prerogative to grant them here, an official statement by Israel confirming that it has no powers of supervision here. The result looms damningly outside the window: buildings demolished in one day with the okay of the High Court, one of the most potent instruments of the occupation and one of its most compliant collaborators.

In Israel last week, no one was interested in images that could only be reminiscent of events in Syria and the Gaza Strip. On the still-standing ground floor of the apartment building, Abu Tair tries to estimate the staggering damage he has suffered – the 9 million shekels ($2.6 million) that he invested in the building, while the costs of the demolition and the clearing of the rubble will add another 2 million shekels, he says. He also mentions how he’s trying to plan his future, now clouded in uncertainty. His speech breaks off abruptly from time to time, like a trauma victim.

In the name of security, Israel violated the Oslo Accords, its own planning and construction regulations, and the principles of natural justice. The buildings were too close to the separation fence to Israel’s liking, and the High Court acceded tacitly to the wrongdoing. Abu Tair’s suggestion – to build, at his expense, a high concrete wall to maintain Israel’s security and dot the area with security cameras, also at his expense – was rejected outright by Israel.

Buildings demolished by Israel in Sur Baher, a village in East Jerusalem, July 2019.Credit: \ Alex Levac

But the breaches in the fence created by the soldiers and the police who took part in the demolition were still there this week, without anyone bothering to repair them: mute evidence of the “security concern” lie. Every child in Sur Baher knows that this destruction had nothing to do with security. Israel only uses this as an excuse to implement its policy of a silent population transfer in Jerusalem.

Sur Baher is a theater of the absurd: a Palestinian village annexed by Israel to Jerusalem. Part of its area lies within the city’s municipal boundaries, the rest is in the area of the Palestinian Authority, and the security barrier slices along its outskirts. Areas A and B, which in Jerusalem are under PA control, their residents carrying Israeli blue ID cards, their cars bearing yellow Israeli license plates, supposedly under PA control, and all of it on the Israeli side of the separation fence.

The Jerusalem municipality doesn’t provide any services here, the area is outside its jurisdiction, but the PA is prohibited from providing services – this is Jerusalem, you know. Only the PA can issue building permits here, not Israel, but Israel still razes buildings that were granted permits by the PA. Limbo in nowhere land.

The Wadi Hummus neighborhood was the site of last week’s demolition derby, which saw the destruction of 10 buildings, containing 70 apartments between them. On the way there one crosses enormous earthworks connected to the widening of what has been known since Jordanian times as the “American road,” which is about to become another settler expressway, connecting Ma’aleh Adumim to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. Not far from here is another Palestinian village that belongs to Jerusalem, Umm Tuba – its residents are the ones who are building and moving to Wadi Hummus.

In 1994, land belonging to Umm Tuba was expropriated in order to build the settlement of Har Homa, and nine years later a second expropriation took place, this time to build the road that runs to the settlement of Nokdim, home of former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. All told, Umm Tuba, whose 5,000 inhabitants belong to the Abu Tair clan, lost about 1,000 dunams (250 acres), most of its area.

There was nowhere left to build. In 2008, young people from the village began buying land in Wadi Hummus and building there. It was the only place where a building permit could be obtained – being under PA control – and construction costs are relatively cheap in the neighborhood. It looked like a good solution, and soon more people moved to Wadi Hummus.

On the wall of Muhammad Abu Tair’s offices is a document: minutes of a meeting of the supervisory committee of the Supreme Planning Council of Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank. The document, dated August 22, 2010, states: “This is Area A and no military orders prohibit construction there. Building permits issued by the Palestinian Authority were issued, for the area where authority, under the planning and construction laws, is vested in the PA. Resolved: We decide to close this case.”

The decision refers to the apartment building on whose ground floor we are now sitting. In 2011, Abu Tair and several family members bought the land on which the now-demolished building stands. When they began digging at the site, the Civil Administration issued a stop-work order. It turns out that after the separation barrier was built, Israel decided to prohibit construction between 250 and 350 meters (383 yards) from it.

But the stop-work order expired on December 31, 2014. Abu Tair and his partners waited, and when the order expired and no new order was received, they started to build. At the end of 2015, when construction was at its height, he received a demolition order. He went on building, in the wake of the Civil Administration’s 2010 decision, and petitioned the High Court against the order.

Over the next two and a half years, the court held four hearings. Abu Tair says he came out of each one of them with a very good feeling. “I felt that the justices were my lawyers.”

Buildings demolished by Israel in Sur Baher, a village in East Jerusalem, July 2019.Credit: \ Alex Levac

Then came the decision affirming the validity of the demolition order and acceding to all the IDF’s demands. A request to postpone the demolition until another petition could be heard was also rejected. Justices Menachem Mazuz, Uzi Vogelman and Isaac Amit accepted the Defense Ministry’s arguments, and wrote in their decision: “Continued construction without a permit in close proximity to the security fence 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 noninvolved civilian population, and enable terrorists to smuggle weapons or even enter into Israel from that area … There is a military-security need to restrict construction next to the fence in order to prevent this risk.” Security – for Israelis only, of course – is a consideration that overrides all others.

Abu Tair was given a month to demolish the building. “I’m not demolishing it,” he replied. On Monday last week, at 2:30 A.M., the phone rang in Abu Tair’s home. He’s 43, a father of four, and for the past two years was occupied exclusively with the impending demolition of his apartment building. On the line was his brother, who told him that soldiers had cut through the separation fence and that a large contingent of forces was heading for the neighborhood.

He arrived within minutes. He hadn’t slept at all the four previous nights – since the High Court decision ruling out a further postponement of the demolition. He simply waited for them to arrive and start the wrecking process. The Border Police had already sealed off access to the unfinished building and tried to prevent him from entering. “I thought war had broken out.” Hundreds of police and soldiers took up positions in the neighborhood, he says.

He managed to get into the structure. Border Police officers took him out by force, arrested him and took him to the police station in Atarot, in the north of Jerusalem. By now it was 5 A.M. Before the military jeep departed, he saw soldiers scattering through the building and planting explosives. The police charged him with interfering with police officers in the line of duty; later an incitement charge was added. He was released on bail at 5 P.M. and ordered to stay out of Wadi Hummus for three days. That evening, on television, he saw his building, his life’s work, blown up.

He also saw the revolting video, posted on social media, in which an IDF captain and two policemen exult and embrace to celebrate the demolition. That, he says, was the hardest moment. “When I saw people happy over the explosion – that was harder than seeing my building being blown up,” he says.

“The policeman who detained me in the building said: ‘I’m a police officer, I don’t decide, it’s a High Court decision and I’m only doing my job.’ I said to him: ‘A terrorist says the same thing. He goes to blow himself up and says: I was sent.’ But when I see the officer and the policemen jubilant, they didn’t just come to do their job. They were happy to come and destroy, happy to kill a person.”

We go on a tour of the ruins. An impressive 13-story building in reddish stone that’s a few dozen meters from the toppled tower, and was undamaged last week, was the model for his project, all 40 of whose planned apartments had already been sold. A modest children’s swimming pool lies deserted nearby the ruins, entrance 20 shekels ($5.70). The occupants of the neighboring structures were home when the IDF demolished the 10 buildings. They watched the destruction from their balconies. In some cases only the upper floors were demolished. Now 24 people, who were already living in five of the apartments, are homeless; the other flats were still under construction.

Dogs sniff around in the ruins, adding an apocalyptic touch to the picture. The wrecked buildings lie on both sides of the separation fence. The barrier here consists of two stretches of fence and a security road. Anyone can cross the fence in a few minutes, Abu Tair says. The IDF left a sign at the sites that were laid waste: “Danger, demolition! Entry prohibited.” Pointing to what’s left of his apartment building, Abu Tair says, “I want to ask Meni Mazuz: How does this help security? There you are, it’s demolished. Is security better now? I want an answer from Meni Mazuz, who decided to destroy 40 families.”

One day this week, after midnight, Abu Tair sent a text message: “We think everyone tricked us. The IDF and the High Court were quick to demolish so they could help Netanyahu win more seats in the Knesset. Why? The right is great at screwing the Arab population.”

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