In Jerusalem, Palestinians Have a Choice: ‘Destroy Your Homes, Or We’ll Do It For You’

In Jerusalem, Palestinians Have a Choice: ‘Destroy Your Homes, Or We’ll Do It For You’

It was 5:30 am on the morning of  Wednesday, March 22, 2017, a date etched in Hanadi Abu Rumouz’s memory.

Abu Rumouz’s husband was getting ready to leave for work in the Beit Hanina area of Jerusalem, but something happened that the family did not expect. There was rapid, loud knocking at the the door, then Israeli Defense Forces stormed into their house.

"They attacked us as if we were criminals," Abu Rumouz, 33, recalls to Raseef22. 

The soldiers dispersed inside the house, grabbed Abu Rumouz's husband and tied him up, and began shouting, “House for demolition!" Her five children woke up from their sleep, terrified. The youngest was three years old.

"They told me to take nothing, and leave the house immediately,” she continues.

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After attempting to resist for a short while, she asked her children to bring their school bags and books. She gathered their ID cards, and they left their home for the last time, with nothing more than the clothes they had been sleeping in.

She was taken back by the large number of IDF soldiers surrounding the house and the neighborhood.

She pauses for a moment, as though reliving the moment of demolition. "The municipal workers entered, collected some of our stuff and threw them to us in a pile. Then the demolition machine approached and rigged its claws in the middle of the roof of our house, for which we had not yet finished paying off the mortgage. They demolished it as we stood there and watched our lives being demolished with it.”

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Building Permits Impossible to Obtain

For Palestinians living in Jerusalem, life is characterized by the myriad obstacles, bureaucratic and otherwise, placed ahead of them by Israeli state institutions.

Among such practices are home demolitions, which are practiced under a legal cover. However, the purpose of these demolitions, according to some residents and lawyers, is to gradually push the Arabs out of the city, or at the very least, to make their lives difficult.

Like most cities in the world, building a house in Jerusalem requires a building permit. Yet, the complexity of the licensing procedures, which often takes several years to complete, as well as the uncompromisingly high rent prices, drives some citizens to build on the lands they own without obtaining a permit.

This only marks the beginning of a whole new set of problems. Once the building is completed, the municipal workers come, and with the support of the police, they subject the homeowners to fines and demolition orders.

A study published by Al-Maqdese for Society Development,  entitled "Construction in Jerusalem: Procedures and Complications", revealed that the permits are based on the 1965 Israeli Planning and Building Law, which many consider to be a tool to impose Israeli control over the land, paving the way for its appropriation for public benefit.

How it Began

Abu Rumouz and her family’s problem began seven years ago, when she and her husband built their small home, not exceeding 80 square meters, on a plot of land that they own, which is suitable for construction according to municipal plans.

Abu Rumouz did not obtain the permit, so the police suspended the construction on orders from the Jerusalem Municipality, and demanded that she obtain a permit and pay a fine of 80,000 shekels ($21,000).

Surely enough, they sought the help of a lawyer who supported them in paying off the fine in installments until the permit was issued. They began the procedures under the supervision of an engineering office, that helped them develop the necessary plans.

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"We sent the engineering plans to the lawyer, he would take them to court and work on postponing [the demolition order] until we completed the permit, and we settled in our home on that basis," Abu Rumouz notes.

Mohammed Dahla, a lawyer specialized in Jerusalem demolition cases, tells Raseef22 that lawyers intervene in court in such cases.

"We ask the courts to allow for a year or a year and a half extension to obtain a permit, and thus begin the procedures of trying to license the building to save it from demolition, after the families have already spent large sums on its construction," he adds.

However, the Israeli authorities’ pressure on the Abu Rumouz family increased over the last year prior to the demolition, and the court refused to further delay the order or wait for the permit. The municipality began to take pictures of the house, and sent notices to the family stating that the house was marked for demolition.

Until the fated day came.

Obstacles to Obtaining Permits

The task of obtaining a building permit in Jerusalem often takes between three to five years, and costs more than the construction itself, with $50,000 that homeowners need to secure for it. 

Dahla moreover notes that the municipality of Jerusalem imposes a number of conditions on citizens applying for permits. The most controversial condition is that the land that is set to be built on must not be confiscated, and should be specified for construction according to the municipal structural plan, rather than agricultural activity or otherwise.

According to Dahla, these conditions practically obstruct Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from obtaining a permit, due to the confiscation of large parts of their land since the beginning of the occupation decades ago, as well as the confiscations over the past years for the establishment of settlements and infrastructure, and the separation wall.

The obstacles do not end there. According to the law, the local committee and municipal committee in charge of making organization and construction decisions consists only of Israelis.

"These committees do not care about the Palestinians' interests or their urban plans and their needs; they provide the minimal amount of attention required to avoid condemnation from international circles," Dahla continues.

In recent years, the municipality has granted some building permits to Palestinians, but demand surpasses supply by far. The view is accentuated by the jarring contrast to permits given by the committees to the non-Arab residents of the city. 

Post-Demolition Violations

After the demolition was over and the house had been turned into a pile of rubble, Abu Rumouz and her family were forced to leave Jerusalem and live in her parents’ home behind the separation wall, in Qalandia Camp.  

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But their ordeal has not ended there. Currently, the municipality is demanding that they pay a fine of 50,000 shekel ($14,000), the cost of demolishing the house.

The homeowner is expected to bear the cost of renting of the demolition machines and the payments for the municipal and police workers, in addition to being responsible for cleaning up the demolition site. Otherwise, they are subject to additional fines.

Abu Rumouz says that the real goal behind the obstacles and the lack of permits is to reduce the Palestinian population in Jerusalem.

With the cost of renting a small house registering over $1,000 a month, most families are left without viable alternatives for remaining in the city after the demolition of their homes, and it becomes impossible to make use of the land owned by the family.

The Judaization of Jerusalem

Ya’coub Oudeh, human rights and housing monitor at the Land Research Centre of the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem, tells Raseef 22 that "54% of Jerusalem is classified as ‘green areas’, meaning that it is forbidden for Palestinian landowners to use it.”

He further explains that the green land is divided into dark green, which owners are forbidden from using at all, and light green, which means owners are permitted to plant crops of not more than a meter high. Finally, land classified as yellow is intended for the establishment of settlements.

According to Oudeh, 34% of Jerusalem is made up of settlements that were confiscated directly, while currently, only 12% of the city remains for Palestinians. Within this small area are buildings, mosques, and other establishments, which means that only about 4% remains for housing, restricting the Palestinian population into a very small area.  

Demolishing Your Own Home

Daoud Asaid, 47, has seven children. He built two rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen on the fourth floor of his old family building in Bab Hatta, near Al-Aqsa Mosque, and when the building was completed he was surprised by the municipality's request for demolition or a building permit.

He went to the municipality to apply for a permit.

Since he worked on a municipal garbage truck and had good relations with employees, one of the employees told him that he was wasting his time and money to get a permit that would not be issued, even if he paid the required amount.

"She told me that, in reality, they do not issue building permits, and that it would be a waste to spend time and money for that purpose,” Asaid says.  

The cost of violations amounted to $15,000, and a decision was made to demolish his house and remove the rubble within 48 hours.

Asaid demolished his home himself in 2013 to avoid the costs. His friends and relatives helped him. However, he was surprised that the municipality and the court did not recognize the demolition, and imposed a fine of $7,000 because he left a small fence on the roof.

And so he demolished the fence with his own hands.

Heightened Tensions

Oudeh also tells Raseef 22 that there are more than 35 separate demolition cases for Palestinians in Jerusalem, in addition to the demolition of more than 110 commercial, agricultural, and animal-rearing establishments during the first three months of this year.

He pointed out that citizens pay heavy fines exceeding $40,000 for construction without a permit in a city that is considered significantly less affluent than neighboring cities.

"According to Israeli estimates, Jerusalem is one of the poorest cities in Israel. If it is a poor city for Israelis, then consider the situation for a Palestinian in Jerusalem?" adds Odeh.

According to Dahla, discrimination between Israelis and Palestinians by the planning and building committees has become increasingly pronounced. Although the law does not officially distinguish between them in writing, it gives the concerned committees broad powers to act.

"When the planning and building committees set up the structural vision for Jerusalem 2020 nearly 10 years ago, the main goal of the Israeli planning policy in the city was the Judaization of Jerusalem.  Its strategic objective was for the number of Palestinians not to exceed 30% of the total population of East Jerusalem.”

Dire Financial Straits

Emad Jaber, 41, is from Beit Hanina in Jerusalem. He lived in his 85-square-meter home for three years with his wife and five children.  The municipality then sent him a decision ordering the demolition of his house because he did not have a building permit.

He resorted to court, and after the deliberations and delays, the demolition order was nonetheless issued. He was given the choice of either allowing the municipality to carry out the demolition for a fine of 70,000 shekel ($19,000), or to demolish the himself.

In September 2016, Jaber chose to demolish his house one his own, to save himself the costs, in light of his critical financial conditions.

“After the demolition order, there was no time to think. I had just a few hours to decide between paying the demolition costs and demolishing it myself," says Jaber.

"I was living in my own house, on my land, and my financial conditions were already tough. Now I have been forced to rent a house, and the conditions have gotten even worse," he concludes with a sigh.

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