The 4-year-old Criminal: Jerusalem City Hall Insists on Demolishing the Home of 60 Palestinians

Without approval from a master plan by Jerusalem's municipality, Palestinians in the eastern A-Tur neighborhood must take matters into their own hands. It has birthed an ecological and social disaster

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Residents of the building, last week.
Residents of the building, last week.Credit: Emil Salman
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Imad Asmaa al-Ghouj is only four years old and is already a criminal: He lives in a house that was built without a permit. The apartment in the 10-unit building where he was born and still lives has a demolition order against it. The address: the Khalat al-Ayn section of Jerusalem’s A-Tur neighborhood.

“He’s afraid to go to sleep at night in case they demolish the building when we’re inside, and he comes home from preschool with the food I made for him because he can’t eat due to all the stress,” his mother, Asmaa, said early this month.

“My husband’s young brother, who is 12, and who lives here with his parents and sisters, is afraid he’ll come back from school and find the house demolished. And when people ask my little son Yanal where we’ll go if they demolish it, he says to a tent outside, because we don’t have anywhere else to go.”

The building where the al-Ghouj family lives was built about 10 years ago. There are several dozen more like it in Khalat al-Ayn, and they’re home to about 4,000 people. They were built without building permits because the Jerusalem municipality isn’t revising master plans for East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods that would suit population growth and local needs.

Without an urban building plan, no construction permits are issued, but people have to live somewhere, so they build a roof over their heads on plots they own or buy apartments built by developers. That’s how it is in A-Tur and every other Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Children of the building slated for demolition, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Amazingly, several times the municipality has given the impression that Khalat al-Ayn would be designated an area in A-Tur where construction will eventually be allowed. “So why insist on demolishing the building and destroying our lives?” asked Asmaa, who is 24.

“My husband’s parents worked hard for many years so they could buy this apartment. My father-in-law has had cleaning jobs, my mother-in-law took care of the elderly, and they saved every penny. Before that, they lived in the Old City in a kind of room that once served as a barn for donkeys.”

In early October, police officers and inspectors showed up at the building and announced that it had to be vacated; it would be torn down within a week. Between one court stay and another, the residents have been at wits’ end, as if they were living on borrowed time.

“I was here when their patrol came at 10 A.M. There were police, Border Police, and two other people from the Interior Ministry. I felt like I was being thrown back to square one,” Asmaa said.

“When I got married five years ago, we couldn’t rent an apartment anywhere in Jerusalem because rents are high. We never even considered buying. Also, as Palestinians, we can’t ask for a mortgage because we’re not citizens. We decided to crowd in here with my husband’s parents and siblings until we saved a little money,” said Asmaa, who studied law at Hebron University.

“At first I didn’t tell the children that they might demolish the house, but when reporters began coming all the time, we had no choice but to explain the situation to them.”

Asmaa al-Ghouj and her son, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Among the 60 people in the building, 27 are children. They play and run around outside the building as if everything were normal, while their parents tell visitors about their fears and nightmares.

Mothers tell of children who’ve started wetting their beds at night, while others choose to spend the night in their parents’ car out of fear that a bulldozer will show up. Imad, the 4-year-old, proposed smearing the tiles at the entrance with soap so that the people coming to demolish the building would slip.

Ecological and social disaster

Before 1967, A-Tur spanned 8,800 dunams (2,195 acres). After Israel occupied the West Bank, it expropriated most of the village’s land after annexing it to Jerusalem. Only 1,747 dunams remain, according to the rights groups Bimkom and Ir Amim. A full 1,400 dunams are part of development plans that have been approved over the years. On most of this area, only sparse construction has been allowed, with only two stories per plot.

In 1967, A-Tur had 4,000 or 6,000 residents (different sources give different figures). According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the neighborhood had 28,000 residents in 2016. Local officials then estimated the number at 35,000.

Attorney Hussein Ghanayem, who has been representing A-Tur residents for nearly two decades, including those in Imad’s building, estimates that the number is approaching 45,000.

Original residents of the neighborhood, as well as those in the rest of East Jerusalem who due to a lack of urban building plans and overcrowding moved to neighborhoods outside Jerusalem years ago, returned and settled in A-Tur after Israel put up its separation barrier; they were afraid Israel would revoke their residency status.

This increased overcrowding and aggravated problems stemming from the neglect of infrastructure such as roads, sewage and drainage, in addition to the shortage of schools and other public institutions. Khalat al-Ayn, in the northeast of A-Tur, covers 200 dunams that turned out to be the neighborhood’s last land reserve.

When in 2011 a private contractor built the building where the al-Ghouj family lives, on land he bought from the Abu Sbeitan family, it was widely assumed that an urban building plan would soon be approved by the authorities. A plan had been drawn up for Jerusalem in 2000, the first such plan for the entire city since 1967. It was presented in 2004 and received preliminary approval in 2009. Since then, it has been frozen “because it included the possibility of developing certain Palestinian neighborhoods,” as noted in a report by Bimkom, which strives to achieve equality in planning.

The ruins of a residential building in the A-Tur neighborhood.Credit: Tali Meir

In 2005, when there was still an impression that the municipality and Interior Ministry were beginning to understand the planning, ecological and social disaster that was emerging in East Jerusalem due to the intentional long neglect, A-Tur’s residents ordered an urban building scheme at their own expense. Ghanayem, representing the residents, heard from professionals at city hall that Khalat al-Ayn had “building feasibility.”

Jewish residents in Jerusalem aren’t required to prepare neighborhood plans at their own expense, but in East Jerusalem this move, which is very expensive, has become common for lack of choice in the hope that the municipality and courts will make concessions to residents who have built without a permit. The hope is that the authorities will understand that this wasn’t a willful transgression but the result of distress that the residents aren’t responsible for. Residents, most of them salaried employees with low incomes, collected 800,000 shekels ($257,820) for financing the urban planning scheme, Ghanayem says.

Slowing down the process

The scheme was moving through the district planning committee when it turned out there was a competing plan. “To foil the plans prepared by the residents of Khalat al-Ayn and Isawiyah, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority submitted, with the support of the Jerusalem municipality, a different one: a plan for a national park on the slopes of Mount Scopus spanning 700 dunams that included areas that were initially designated for the two Palestinian neighborhoods,” said Aviv Tatarsky, who coordinates lobbying activities on planning at Ir Amim.

In January 2012 the parks authority told Haaretz’s Nir Hasson that it’s not a political body and was only interested in protecting nature and the landscape, maintaining the last section of the Judean Desert next to the city. The municipality said that the designated national park had high archaeological importance due to caves, cisterns and burial sites from the Second Temple period.

In 2015, an appeals committee at the National Planning and Building Council determined that the plan for a park couldn’t be approved before the municipality surveyed the development needs of the two neighborhoods. This survey has not yet been conducted. The municipality is currently preparing a master plan for A-Tur but both Tatarsky and Ghanayem say this plan is being drawn up without consultation with the residents or their representatives, with no attempt to determine their needs.

Furthermore, Tatarsky notes, “a master plan is nothing but a municipal policy document. It doesn’t change the planning situation and doesn’t allow for building permits to be issued.”

Parallel to the expectation for a realizable plan for the whole Khalat al-Ayn neighborhood, the tenants of the building where the al-Ghouj family lives have embarked on a winding legal-bureaucratic journey, with Ghanayem as their attorney. An administrative demolition order was issued three years after construction began, but a court criticized this order because, Ghanayem explains, “an administrative demolition order cannot be carried out with families still living there.”

Still, while the order was still pending, state prosecutors filed indictments against the residents for building without permits. Ghanayem’s appeals were denied. On Wednesday, the Jerusalem Court for Local Affairs agreed to delay the demolition by a week at the request of another lawyer who was representing another resident among the 10 tenants; this resident had not received a demolition order and was not among the people that the court found guilty.

“When I got married and moved here, I knew that my husband’s family was paying fines to the municipality because there was no building permit, but I knew there was hope we’d get one,” Asmaa said. “I thought we’d save money and move so we could live on our own, but with all the debts and fines, we couldn’t. We told ourselves that at least the house would remain, but then we realized it wouldn’t, that we were being thrown out onto the street.”

If the Finance Ministry’s enforcement authority carries out the demolition, the tenants will have to pay 2 million shekels. They have an option of demolishing the building themselves, but they have no idea how to tear down a five-story building with 10 apartments.

“There was a moment when I said, ‘That’s it, I want to leave this country,” Asmaa says. “I filled forms at an office in Tel Aviv that encourages emigration to Canada. I got there through an ad on Facebook in Arabic. My husband found out and said, ‘Are you crazy?’”

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