Home Demolitions: A Challenge to Israel’s Moral Credibility

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“I still remember the day the Israelis destroyed our house. It was the last day of Ramadan…. Suddenly we heard some noise outside, and when my father looked out from the window, he saw the Israeli tanks in front of our building. I started crying and shouting. I knew they came to kill us….” Young Palestinian boy before his home was demolished

Of all the policies of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, home demolitions are one of the most disturbing. Since the year 2000, almost four thousand Palestinian homes, farm structures and other buildings were wrecked. These were “administrative demolitions,” having nothing to do with security or war. Last year, over one-thousand men, women and children were made homeless when their homes were destroyed along with most of their belongings. These demolitions occur without prior notice. There is just a knock on the door, sometimes even in the middle of the night as happened in the village of Anata last winter. The soldiers and bulldozers are outside, and the residents are ordered to evacuate immediately. Sometimes they are given a few minutes to grab whatever belongings they can. Sometimes they are prevented from doing so. Whatever is left behind is destroyed, buried under the rubble.

West Bank Palestinian house before it was demolished. See below for after demolition.

The result is a total loss of the most important asset the family has. Most of these families are poor to begin with. The demolition completes their impoverishment, leading to a psychological trauma with lasting physical and mental health impacts. And to add insult to injury, they often are fined tens of thousands of shekels to pay for the cost of the demolition.

West Bank house pictured above after it was destroyed.

This destruction occurs because Palestinians have constructed or renovated their homes, farms, and businesses without obtaining building permits. The catch-22 they face is that it is almost impossible for them to obtain building permits.

Some readers may find this information troubling.  Which brings up the question of why I am writing about this material at all.  My hope is that readers will forward this information on so as to inform as many others as possible about these practices. This is how pressure can be brought to bear on American and Israeli government and community leaders to take action to change these practices.

Background on Demolitions

The West Bank is divided into three areas.

  • Area A: 18% of the West Bank land. Under the complete control of the Palestinian Authority.
  • Area B: 21% of the land. Under joint Israeli-Palestinian control. Israel and the Palestinian Authority jointly control the security and law enforcement in this area while the Palestinian Authority controls certain administrative functions.
  • Area C: 61% of the land. Under the complete control of Israel.

In addition there is East Jerusalem, the eastern half of the city that was conquered by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. This, along with 28 nearby Palestinian villages, was annexed into the Jerusalem municipality immediately after the war, becoming part of Israel.

Palestinian administered Areas A and B are divided among 200 separate communities, the vast majority of which are less than one square mile in size. All of these areas are separated by Israeli controlled Area C land. Thus the parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority are fragmented, discontinuous enclaves that inhibit effective governance and economic development. The map looks like Swiss cheese. Most of the vacant land near communities that would normally be used for the natural expansion of villages is designated as Area C, unavailable to the Palestinian residents living right next to it.

Map of the West Bank showing Palestinian administered Areas A & B (beige color) and Israeli controlled Area C (Brown color). Notice how Palestinian controlled areas are isolated, discontinuous enclaves.

Israeli policies prohibit Palestinians from building in Area C. New construction must conform to the master development plans that are produced by Israeli authorities. Unfortunately, Palestinian communities have been left out of the master plans so Palestinian construction is permitted in just 1% of Area C.

In East Jerusalem, the situation is slightly better. Palestinians are allowed to build on 13% of the land. However, that land is already densely populated with little room for new construction. Plus, although technically they are allowed to apply for a building permit, bureaucratic procedures are onerous, expensive, and entail lengthy delays (sometimes years).

94% of building permit applications in Area C and East Jerusalem have been rejected in recent years. The result is that housing becomes overcrowded and unlivable as families grow, businesses cannot expand, and Palestinian villages cannot legally build even essential infrastructure to meet their communities’ basic needs.

Demolitions occur because Palestinians build or renovate existing structures without building permits. Even major repairs, such as replacing an old leaky roof, requires a building permit. For individual Palestinians, the choice they face is to give up their homes and move to Area A, or to build and take the chance they will avoid demolition. Most choose the latter because they don’t want to leave their homes within a close-knit community of social and family ties.

Ruins of West Bank house demolished in 2012.

In addition to Palestinians, 510,000 Jewish Israelis live beyond the Green Line, the former Israeli border before the 1967 Six-Day War. Of these, about 200,000 live in large and rapidly expanding Jewish neighborhoods that ring the outskirts of East Jerusalem, creating a barrier between Palestinian neighborhoods and the rest of the West Bank. See a previous blog post to visualize this better.

The remaining 310,000 Jewish settlers live in Area C in 250 Jewish settlements, of which about 100 were illegally built according to Israeli law. Large numbers of additional illegal housing units each year are constructed without building permits on Palestinian claimed land. Despite their being illegal, the government connects them to the electric grid and water system, builds access roads, provides army protection, and residents enjoy all the benefits of Israeli citizenship. The neighboring Palestinians in Area C have few of these benefits and are governed under a separate military and judicial system.

Home Demolitions in Area C

This year through April 17, the United Nations reported 209 structures were destroyed – 25 were demolished just last week – making 418 people homeless (click here to download the latest weekly report of demolitions, plus political-related violence and injuries, in the West Bank). Here is a recent example of a home demolition described in the April 16th edition of Haaretz.

“On Monday, March 26, 2012, darkness fell on Khabis Sawaftah’s family. While the family members were busy with their morning tasks, two bulldozers, 12 vehicles from the Civil Administration, Border Police personnel and about 40 additional soldiers descended upon them, ordering them out of their home. Khabis, his wife and their five children stood 20 meters away, with the soldiers standing between them and their house. The family watched Civil Administration personnel dump their belongings – sacks of lentils and rice, blankets and mattresses, schoolbooks and clothing – all tossed around as if they were garbage.”

It took 40 minutes to demolish Khabis’s home. He is a poor farm worker tending groves of date palms. After the demolition, the Red Cross provided his family with a small plastic tent. Other than that, they were left on their own. The Jewish reporter who wrote this story described Khabis’s 13 year-old son looking at her with intense hatred since she belonged to the people who destroyed his life.

The pace of demolitions is rapidly increasing. In 2009, 275 structures were demolished, including 116 homes. In 2011, the number doubled to 622 structures demolished, including 222 homes.

Human rights organizations allege that home demolitions are just one piece of a larger strategy to force all Palestinians out of Area C to the isolated, urban cantonments in Area A controlled by the Palestinian Authority or to leave the West Bank entirely. This would make room for the uninhibited expansion of Jewish settlements where construction continues at a rapid pace. In many cases, home demolitions occur within sight of construction in Jewish settlements – Click here to see a video of an example.

The Aftermath of Demolitions

Thousands of Palestinian homes are issued demolition orders. However, it can take years, even decades, before they are actually demolished. This leads to a life of prolonged stress and uncertainty, culminating in a traumatic event when the army and bulldozers show up without advance notice. Demolitions lead to prolonged homelessness or moving away. Those with large enough social networks often break up their families by dispersing members among far-flung relatives and friends for long periods. This leads to psychological and physical health issues for the children and parents, affects school performance, and destroys the family’s integrity. The devastating financial loss of the physical home and their belongings can never be recovered.

“There was no opportunity to remove our furniture,” recalled Ahmad, “and we had 15 minutes to get our important papers. It was so difficult – we had no recourse, no court [of appeal], no choice but to see our home demolished. That night we slept in the street, since the soldiers turned the place into a closed military area. [Afterwards], we stayed with family and the neighbors – by god, we spread ourselves between aunts and uncles. The family was dispersed, and this deeply affected us.”

“One of the most difficult things [to experience] is to be in a house, then to be on the pavement. How can this be true? There is no clothing, no money…There is no money to buy anything.”

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Click the links below to watch two short videos about demolitions.

and

Punitive Demolitions

A widespread perception is that houses are demolished because terrorist suspects or wanted persons were living there. The objective is to create a deterrent. In fact, after 1,500 homes were destroyed for this reason since 1983, the army stopped these demolitions in 2005 because they concluded the strategy was ineffective. Besides destroying the lives of thousands of people, without trial and without proving culpability (many families did not realize someone living with them was involved with terrorism or that the person was wanted for other non-violent opposition activities), these demolitions also were a form of collective punishment which is prohibited by international law.

A Concluding Narrative

Since it is the human element that makes the policy of home demolitions so unsettling, I will end with a narrative about Manal, a pregnant woman with five children who was renting an apartment in East Jerusalem near her parents. Her story includes many typical characteristics of demolitions.

“It was November 2008,” recalls Manal. “I was six months pregnant with my youngest child. On that morning I was having breakfast at my parent’s house and my daughters…were at school. I received a phone call at about 10:00 a.m. from one of my neighbors saying: ‘Come home! They’re about to demolish your house.’ I didn’t believe her but left my mother’s house and ran back to my house. On the way back, I saw many police and soldiers around the house. There were perhaps five jeeps and about 30 police and soldiers standing around the house. The owner of the house [the landlord] was arguing with them, saying that he was waiting for the [court] paper to stop the demolition. But then, after about an hour of waiting, two bulldozers that were there started to demolish the house….”

“Everything that I owned was in the house, my clothes and the girl’s clothes, school books, kitchen things, and most importantly, medical records and equipment for my daughter, Hayat (13), who suffers from a heart condition.  I begged the soldiers to allow them to let me take my personal possessions out of the house. I said I don’t care about the house, that I only wanted my things,” remembers Manal. “They refused to let me into the house, but they sent some men in who took out a few things – a couple of couch beds, a refrigerator and the TV, which were the first things they would have seen when they walked in. They just threw them out of the house – breaking the legs on the couch beds. I couldn’t do anything about it. – I had a severe headache and felt like I couldn’t walk.”

“It took about an hour-and-a-half for the Israelis and their bulldozers to destroy the house. The whole house collapsed on top of our things so we couldn’t get anything else out…. My daughters found out that their home had been demolished on their way home from school….”

…The family had to move back in with Manal’s parents. “It was very crowded,” she says, “and my husband didn‘t want to come and visit us there because there was no space. Me and my daughters slept in one room, the living room. It was very difficult. My children’s school performance suffered – they couldn’t study because there was no space and too much noise with so many people. The only person working in the house was my brother who supported us all,” says Manal.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel.

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News Roundup

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There were two pieces in the news the past few days that I want to pass on.

1 – Leonard Fein, founder of Moment magazine and well-known op-ed writer, recently published an important column outlining developments going on right now in Jerusalem that will make a two state solution impossible within the next 12 to 24 months. I covered this in a post on January 16th titled A Virtual Tour of Jerusalem. You might want to click on that title to view it in conjunction with Fein’s column below since the virtual tour will show you on a map what he is discussing.

You can read the full article, ‘Decapitating’ Palestine, Killing Peace, at http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/decapitating_palestine_killing_peace_20120208/ . Here are some excerpts:

“This needs to be said as urgently and as clearly as possible: Israel’s settlement policy in and around Jerusalem is not merely controversial; it is calamitous.  Unless it changes, it will within a year render a two-state solution to the conflict impossible….

But most Jews, according to survey results, here and in Israel, prefer a two-state solution, even if they think it unlikely in current or readily foreseeable circumstances. 

Because my concern here is specifically with Jerusalem and its relevance to a two-state solution, I set to the side all the controversial and all the illegal (according to Israeli law) Jewish outposts and settlements that dot the West Bank, all the violence that emanates from more than a few of them, all the land theft they have practiced and all the current governmental efforts retroactively to legalize them….

In East Jerusalem the pace of Jewish construction now borders on the frenetic.  The goal is so thickly to expand the Jewish presence in what was traditionally the heart of the national Palestinian community and so to encircle the remaining Palestinian neighborhoods as to separate Jerusalem completely from the rest of Palestine.  It amounts, from a Palestinian perspective, to a policy of decapitation. 

Thus, if building projects now under way or already approved are completed, it will not be possible for Palestinians from Bethlehem to Jerusalem’s south or from Ramallah to its north, to access Jerusalem.  And if, as seems likely, Israel finally begins active development of the area known as E1, East Jerusalem will be hemmed in on all sides.  It will not be available as the capital city of a new Palestine, nor as Palestine’s commercial and intellectual center. The northern half of the West Bank and its southern half will have been bisected, Palestine will successfully have been cantonized, transformed into a set of disconnected towns and villages. Palestine will not be a viable state. 

The acknowledged leading expert on what is happening in and to Jerusalem is Daniel Seidemann, founder of Ir Amim (A City of Nations). In his own writings and in the work of Ir Amim, it is made clear that the grim prospect of a de facto separation between all of Jerusalem and the Palestinian hinterland is no longer a distant hypothetical; it is around the corner. Seidmann himself is convinced that by 2013, currently unfolding facts on the ground will have destroyed the prospect of a two-state solution.”

I wonder how many rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders in America or in other countries are aware of this? I suspect very few. For sure the average person in the broader Jewish community is not. I hope they wake up soon. As always, I encourage you to forward this on.

2 – To gain some insight into how some of Israel’s policies have devastated Palestinian life in East Jerusalem, here is an interesting article from the Los Angeles Times about one neighborhood that was severed from the rest of Jerusalem by the separation wall: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-jerusalem-barrier-20120207,0,4118563.story

Reporting from Jerusalem— With a fire extinguisher in his hand and a cellphone pressed to his ear, principal Sameeh abu Rameelh battled an electrical fire in his Jerusalem high school’s computer lab while pleading with the fire department to come to his aid.

But when the emergency dispatcher heard that the school was in Kafr Aqab, separated from the rest of Jerusalem by a 36-foot-high concrete wall, he told Abu Rameelh that firetrucks wouldn’t cross Israel’s separation barrier without army protection.

The principal turned to the West Bank city of Ramallah, hoping Palestinian Authority fire crews would help. Sorry, they responded, but they were not permitted to enter Jerusalem.

Eventually, Abu Rameelh said, he and some volunteers put out the blaze. No one was hurt, but the lab, with 40 computers and desks, was gutted….

Palestinian-Settler Interactions in East Jerusalem, Part 2

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While I was on a tour this past December in the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem with Rabbis for Human Rights we stopped in to visit with Ahmad Qarae’en, a respected neighborhood leader. We met in a small community and youth center located on the main street of Wadi Hilweh, a neighborhood abutting the Old City walls. The center was in an old house fronted by a jerry-built structure that felt like it was part tent and part exposed walls – an addition that was clearly built by local residents. We sat on hard benches and chairs in front of Ahmad as he told us what it was like to live in Silwan.

Ahmed was using crutches and by the way he efficiently moved around with them it was obvious he did not have a temporary injury. I assumed he had some kind of a disease from childhood or a long-term genetic condition. That was until he recounted the story of how he had been shot in both legs outside a Jewish settler compound while trying to protect his son from being beaten by a settler. You’ll be able to read his story below.

This is the second in a series of posts that will explore the interaction between the Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian residents whom they want to displace. Most of the material that follows comes from a report produced in 2010 by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). You can access the full 59 page report, titled “Unsafe Space,” at www.acri.org.il/pdf/unsafe-space-en.pdf . Please keep in mind that I have chosen just a sampling of testimonies to illustrate some points below. These are representative of what thousands of Palestinians experience as part of their daily lives.

Armed Security Force

The cost for security to protect the Jewish settlers in the Arab neighborhoods close to the Old City of Jerusalem ballooned in 2011 to 81 million NIS (New Israel Shekels), or over $20 million. The Israeli Ministry of Housing pays for these private security services. A recent article in Haaretz reported that part of this money to protect settlers was diverted from social needs such as public housing in Israel. Keep in mind this is the government paying for security services for private residences, just one of the myriad ways that the government supports the settler NGOs who work to evict Palestinians from their homes.

As the ACRI report states, the private security guards “…employ verbal and physical violence, and even make use of loaded weapons. Moreover, according to residents the security guards are “quick on the trigger”, and perceive themselves as holding the ultimate power to serve as arbiters of daily life in the neighborhood.

Unlike police officers, whose ability to use force is limited by the strict guidelines established by law and police procedure, private security guards are not subject to these laws nor are they obligated by the basic rules that guide the police in carrying out their duties. Security guards do not undergo the same training as police officers, nor are they under the supervision of a publicly administered body. The result is that the security guards employed in East Jerusalem are not reined in by any clear working definitions, a situation which invites the abuse of power.”

Just one example of this was the killing of an unarmed father of 5 children by a security guard in 2010. See http://settlementwatcheastjerusalem.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/the-guards-just-shoot/.

The guard claimed it was self-defense but here is Israeli TV coverage of the same incident which provided video evidence that challenged the security guard’s story. But, as usual, the head of the Jerusalem police accepted the guard’s account. No charges have ever been filed for this killing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hb8pq9qrfRQ.

There are multiple such examples of these private guards using violence and live ammunition against Palestinian residents. They also affect the more mundane aspects of daily life as explained by this 14-year old boy in Silwan who described what it is like to play in a neighborhood with no playgrounds or parks and under the watchful eye of hostile guards: “Every time we play ball and the ball lands near the guards, they stop us from playing. They take the ball and throw it to the bottom of the wadi [valley], and so we’ve lost the ball and can’t get it back. The problem is that we, the children of Silwan, have nowhere else to play. I come home from school, eat lunch and prepare homework, and then I go to play in front of our house with the neighborhood kids, but the settlers don’t like that and neither do their security guards. They always accuse the little kids in the neighborhood of throwing stones at the settlers’ houses, but that’s not true. They don’t want to see us play. The police always believe their claims.”

Settler Violence:

It is the day-in and day-out threat of violence by the settlers that wears down the Palestinian residents. An example is this woman’s account of living next to a settler house. “The settlers’ house doesn’t have a permanent family living in it. There are only men there who are always accompanied by security guards, and they are all armed. In the evenings when they arrive at the apartment, there is a lot of noise, shouting, singing and prayer, and this generally lasts about an hour. I knock on their door so they’ll understand that they are making a lot of noise, then they come out, yelling at me and pushing or hitting me, and it develops into a confrontation…. The situation is even worse on the weekends, on Friday and Saturday, when there is much noise. They always knock on our door to deliberately taunt us, they sing at full volume, they shout. From the moment the Jewish Sabbath begins until it ends, it is impossible neither to sleep nor sit and relax.

Last week, Padi, my 12-year old boy, was walking in the corridor [between her house and the settler house] when at the same moment a settler passed by. He pinned my son’s body against the wall slammed his head into the wall — for no good reason, just to intimidate and harass our kids. One day I arrived at home and saw that my granddaughter was crying. I asked her what had happened and she told me that a settler from across the hall had passed her as she was sitting on the stairs and hit her for no reason.

We had another incident, one time when the children and I were sitting in the stairwell. They came, passed over us and began beating my little boy to a pulp. I couldn’t stand by, I got up to protect my child, and five of them jumped me and hit me on the head.”

Impunity from Prosecution:

Settlers act with impunity against Palestinian residents with no fear of police action. The ACRI report cited one woman who filed 20 complaints against violent settlers and not once was any action taken by the police. Other Palestinians report that the police refuse to accept their complaint forms alleging settler attacks or, even worse, when they try to file complaints they are themselves arrested as the instigators of the violence. A typical example follows.

During a neighborhood party of Palestinian residents, a local woman reported “10-12 settlers came out of the al-Kord family house in the direction of the second house under their control. One of the settlers was holding a video camera and he filmed me and all the girls [with me] in a very provocative manner: he pointed his camera at me and approached to within a foot. I shouted at him and asked him why he was filming me? He gave no reply and continued to shoot until finally I moved his camera aside. In response, he punched me in the face. As a natural reaction I defended myself, pushing him backwards, but he wouldn’t stop hitting me all over my body.” Police, who were nearby and witnessed the event, did nothing to stop the beating. This woman was so badly beaten she was taken to the hospital by an ambulance. When she went to the police station afterwards to file a complaint, she was arrested for starting the fight. Ultimately she was given a three-month restraining order from her neighborhood and a 700 shekel fine.

This woman continued, “What really hurts, deep in my heart, is that it’s always the Arab residents who are blamed in every situation. I went to file a complaint with a broken nose and a body full of cuts and scratches, and the police arrested me! With the settlers, it’s the opposite: they harass us and beat us, and nothing is done to them, which only leads them to abuse us more”

An even more telling story was related by a mother in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood whose 17 year-old son was attacked by a settler. Her son was arrested when he filed a complaint at the police station. His mother gave this account. (Bold highlight is my emphasis.) “All my photographs, the three witnesses I brought, and all the evidence in favor of my son amounted to nothing. On the contrary, the investigator ignored it all and extended the remand of my son for another 24 hours. The investigator also said that he regretted that nothing could be done for my son and that he believed our story, but those were his instructions from above. When we asked about what happened to the settler who created this mess, he said that the problems in our neighborhood are endless and that he has no cause to arrest him.”

Repression of Non-violent Palestinian Leadership:

Unfortunately, Palestinians often resort to stone throwing out of a sense of helplessness and rage. They feel totally trapped in a system of violence and oppression that is rigged against them. At least part of the cause for this is that other, non-violent means of protests are met with disproportionate violence from the police or army: tear gas, stun grenades, and bullets. Community organizers who espouse non-violent protest are persecuted and banned, leaving no other outlet for the anger. In 2011 the police made a concerted effort to destroy the community organizations that oppose the settler activities in East Jerusalem by targeting the leaders. See http://settlementwatcheastjerusalem.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/police-silwan/.

Next to Last Words:

The ACRI report sums up the settler violence and repressive government policies by pointing out that eventually all of society suffers.

“Selective and discriminatory enforcement of the law by the police, which turns the Palestinian residents into readily-available victims and permanent suspects; the arrest of minors in the middle of the night; the free reign granted to security guards, who use force broadly without even minimal supervision; the unequivocal and unacceptable preferential treatment shown towards Jewish needs in the neighborhood when it comes to planning, building and developing, to the point of taking control of precious land resources; the sweeping violations of freedom of movement, and more – in all these, the authorities systematically favor the needs and interests of the Jewish settlers over the basic needs of the Palestinian residents, while making daily life in these neighborhoods intolerable.

The results…are catastrophic in all that pertains to the preservation of human rights, and it undermines the basis for the existence of a well-ordered society and government.”

Final Words: The shooting of Ahmad Qarae’en in Silwan:

I began this post by describing a tour sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights where we met with Ahmad Qarae’en, the community leader who was shot and crippled. As a fitting end for this post I have included below his account because it ties together so many of the threads that were discussed above.

“My injury occurred on Friday, September 11, 2009. At 5:45 p.m. I returned from prayers [on the Harm al-Sharif/Temple Mount] and I was very tired from the fast, as it was the middle of the month of Ramadan. I was lying on the sofa, when suddenly I heard shouts. I put on shoes and went down the street to see what had happened. A neighbor’s son told me that a settler had hit another neighbor’s children. The boy pointed him out to me, and said it was over now and that everything was OK. I turned to go home, and suddenly I heard the screams of my little boy, and when I turned back I saw my oldest son coming to protect him from the settler. It was then that the settler pointed his rifle at the chest of my eldest son.

I came straight at the settler and shouted “Why are you beating up kids?” He raised his M-16 and said: “I’ll shoot you, too,” and he started walking backwards. I kept asking him: “Why are you hitting them?” When he reached the sidewalk, he tripped and fell to the ground. His friend who was with him told him: “Get up and shoot him,” and he got up and shot my right leg in the thigh. I fell and started shouting ‘Ambulance, ambulance!’ Suddenly I heard another shot and then I saw a little 13-year old boy named Amir Farouk screaming ‘My leg, my leg!’ The settler had shot him too. He then returned to me as I was lying in the street and my oldest son Wadi’e was hovering over me, crying. He shot me again, this time in my left knee.

One of the guys called an ambulance, but since I was bleeding a lot and the ambulance hadn’t arrived, the guys loaded me into one of their cars to drive me to the hospital. We had not yet left the neighborhood, when a border policeman stopped us near the Muslim cemetery. They removed the driver and handcuffed him and told him he was under arrest. All attempts to explain to him what had happened were to no avail. After a few long minutes, a border policeman opened the door of the vehicle and when he saw me bleeding, he did not react at all. He shut the door and stood next to us while talking with his superiors. After three minutes, a regular police unit arrived and released us. We had barely traveled another 10 meters when the border police stopped us again for another 3-4 minutes. This time, drivers who witnessed our first arrest and were stuck in traffic began shouting at the police that we were wounded, until they were convinced to let us pass.

They took me to the hospital on Mount Scopus, where I received about 7 units of blood. Before I even entered the emergency room, a police investigator arrived and asked the medical staff to stop my treatment so that he could question me. He collected my testimony, while the medical staff treated the second child who was wounded along with me. The hospital closed the entrance to the emergency room and didn’t allow anyone to enter and visit me other than my wife. Police were stationed at the entrance to the hospital.

After two days I underwent surgery, and as I came out of the operating room, still under the influence of anesthesia, two police officers arrived and demanded to question me. My two brothers who were in the room with me tried to explain that I had just come out of surgery and was still in intensive care, but they threatened to arrest my brothers if they didn’t leave the room. The officers accused me that I jumped the soldier and tried to wrestle away his weapon. Until that point, I didn’t know he was a soldier, I thought he was a settler, because he was in civilian clothes and looked just like the rest of the settlers in our neighborhood, and those who come to visit them. The investigators took DNA evidence from me and stated that they also wanted to question my two children.

The summons for the questioning of my two children arrived at my hospital ward after about a week. On the fourth day after the shooting, they questioned my youngest boy for about 3 hours. His mother, who was present at the questioning, told me that the questions seemed designed to make the child feel that it was his fault for what happened to his father, that if he hadn’t gone out to play in the street, then his father wouldn’t have fought with the settler and wouldn’t have been shot. They asked him repeatedly why I went out into the street, what happened to your father, and so on. During the investigation of my oldest son, they shouted at him in Hebrew all the time and he did not understand a thing. Two investigators questioned him at the same time, while another typed into the computer.

I was hospitalized for 20 days. A month later I received a call from the Russian Compound from “Room 4” (the Investigations Unit which deals with cases from East Jerusalem.) They told me to come down for further questioning. I told them that I can’t walk, but if they wanted they could come to my house and question me there. My attorney, Michael Sfard, wrote them a letter that I cannot come in for questioning, and since then they never called me again. Recently I learned that the prosecutor closed the case against the man who shot me. He was arrested for a total of 24 hours and then he went home as if nothing happened.”

Palestinian-Settler Interactions in East Jerusalem, Part 1

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Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Goldstein,
There is none like you in the world.
He entered dressed up as an officer
And cocked his Galil rifle.
He snuck quietly into the hall named for Isaac.
He took aim at the terrorists’ heads and squeezed the trigger tight
And shot bullets and shot bullets and shot,
And shot bullets.
[Refrain]
Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Goldstein,
There is none like you in the world.
Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Goldstein,
Everyone loves you.

Lyrics to a song of praise for Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the settler who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron during Purim in 1994.  Sung by Jewish settlers at a Purim celebration in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem (see this short video: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3857671,00.html)


Until now I have provided many facts and figures to describe the conditions that have been imposed on Palestinians in East Jerusalem. On January 2nd and January 10th I outlined the strategies used by settler NGO’s in collaboration with the government to evict long-term Palestinian residents from their homes. On January 26 I described how the government has deprived Palestinian East Jerusalem of resources, causing severe social and economic distress to the populace.

But statistics cannot convey the struggles of day-to-day life in East Jerusalem. So this is the first of several posts that will open a window into how the influx of settlers and government actions have impacted the personal experiences of Palestinian residents.

Two populations:

There are two populations living side by side in the areas abutting the Old City of Jerusalem who hate each other. Before getting into the specifics of Palestinian-settler interactions, I think it is useful to try to gain an understanding of the attitudes and beliefs of these two groups.

Jewish Settlers

The Jewish settlers who have moved into Palestinian neighborhoods are ideologically driven by a messianic vision of redemption. These religious settlers believe they have a divine right, actually a commandment, to settle the land of Israel. It is a spiritual act to serve a transcendent purpose. These beliefs have also been reinforced by 60 years of brutal terror attacks and wars. Many view the Palestinians as a modern incarnation of Amalek, the tribe that harassed the Hebrews when they wandered in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. God commanded the total destruction of Amalek without mercy.

Perhaps the best insight into the attitudes of these settlers, and those with similar ideologies, can be gleaned from what happened during the Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) celebrations last year. This day, which commemorates the re-unification of Jerusalem in 1967, is usually a disturbing day for Palestinians but this one was particularly difficult. 40,000 settlers and their supporters rallied throughout East Jerusalem, hurling curses at Arab residents and mass chants of “Death to Arabs.” For 24 hours, through the middle of the night, thousands of religious youth marched through densely packed Palestinian neighborhoods until the early morning hours, screaming out nationalist songs. This link is a truly frightening video clip that illustrates through actions and words the sentiments of a large and influential segment of Israel’s population: http://www.en.justjlm.org/487

David Shulman in The New York Review of Books provided more detail about this troubling day and placed it within a broader context at this link: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/jul/07/two-marches-two-futures-jerusalem/

As Shulman points out, “The slogans call up rather specific memories: I couldn’t help wondering how many of the marchers were grandchildren of Jews who went through such moments—as targets of virulent hate—in Europe.” Nevertheless, these are the sentiments that are prevalent among the settler population living in the midst of thousands of East Jerusalem Arabs. Let’s keep this in mind when viewing the next series of posts that will examine settler interactions with the Palestinians.

Palestinians:

The Palestinians in East Jerusalem view the settlers as invaders who intend to force them out of their homes so as to populate their neighborhoods completely with Jews. Indeed, this is the stated goal of the settlers and the NGOs that support them – and the government is clearly cooperating with this endeavor as well. As noted previously, the settlers live in heavily guarded compounds in houses from which Palestinian residents were evicted. The evictions were facilitated by allegations of fraud and by laws specifically designed for the sole purpose of removing Palestinians from their homes. Many more families were forced out when their homes were demolished by the authorities. In the Silwan area, large tracts of land have been expropriated for archeological digs managed by Elad, one of the settler NGOs, and many more homes are threatened with demolition when a large tourist attraction that is planned will be built.

Everyone knows someone in these close knit neighborhoods who was made homeless by these actions. Compounded by the lack of municipal services, this has caused huge resentment towards the settlers and the government. Indeed, many residents know it is only a matter of time until they too will lose their homes without any recourse.

Like the settlers, there certainly are radicals among the Palestinian population who are driven by messianic or religious zeal. But the vast majority of residents simply want to raise their children, build a good life for themselves, and live in peace among their families and friends. They also yearn for political independence and equal rights.

Given the conflicting goals, friction is inevitable between the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian residents. In a democracy it is the role of government to mediate disputes, enforce the law equally, and provide all residents with equal opportunity. That is not happening. Settlers receive all the support of the government as they attempt to displace the Palestinian residents who are helpless in the face of an overwhelming power.

In the coming posts, I will describe the experiences of the Palestinian populace, using their own words whenever possible, as they interact with settlers and the police.

A Tale of Two Cities

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“The day Jerusalem was liberated was the day that the city heaved a sigh of relief and began to spread its wings, for the benefit of its Arab and Jewish residents alike….We will never again allow Jerusalem to become a separated, bleak and divided city.“ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

When Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke those words at the Jerusalem Day ceremony in 2010, he was already too late. Unbeknownst to his audience, Jerusalem had already become bleak and divided.

This is a tale of two cities, one rich with parks, well cared for neighborhoods and tourist attractions; the other impoverished and deprived of even basic services. And as for a united Jerusalem spreading its wings for the good of Jews and Arabs alike, well, you decide below on the efficacy of that claim.

As background, as I covered in a post on January 16, A Virtual Tour of East Jerusalem (I urge you to “take the tour” if you haven’t done so already), Israel annexed in 1967 all of what had been East Jerusalem plus 28 nearby villages and incorporated them into the municipality of Jerusalem.

Fast Forward to 2012:

Let’s see how the Palestinian population has fared 45 years later when compared to Jewish West Jerusalem.

Population: There are 303,000 Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, one-third of the population, out of a total of 835,000 people in the Jerusalem municipality (2009 data).

Poverty: 65% of Palestinian families live under the poverty line as compared to 31% of Jewish families. (This is 2008 data. Economic conditions in East Jerusalem have gotten much worse since then so these figures have deteriorated further.)

Children:  74% of Palestinian children live under the poverty line compared to 45% of Jewish children. (Also 2008 data)

Schools: Average class size is 32 students in East Jerusalem versus 24 students in West Jerusalem. School buildings are neglected, often run down. The Jerusalem municipality’s own statistics listed 50% of East Jerusalem’s classrooms to be sub-standard in 2009 (704 out of 1,360) including 221 that were deemed unfit.

In addition, due to an estimated shortage of 1,000 classrooms in the municipal schools there, an estimated 11,000 Palestinian children (12% of school age children) did not attend school for the 2009-2010 school year due to lack of space. Tens of thousands of others were forced to attend private schools, which posed a severe financial burden on the mostly impoverished population. In 2008, the per-student budget allocation for elementary school children in Jewish West Jerusalem was 400% higher that in East Jerusalem: 2,372 NIS (New Israel Shekels) per Jewish student versus 577 NIS per Palestinian student.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that there is a 50% drop out rate for Palestinian children compared to 7.4% in the Jewish sector.

Several recent court rulings have ordered the Jerusalem municipality to build more classrooms and to increase the East Jerusalem school budget. How these rulings will be implemented is a question that will unfold over time.

Pre-school: There are roughly 15,000 three and four year olds in East Jerusalem. Despite the importance of early education on child development, 90% of them are not enrolled in a pre-school educational program. This is not for a lack of interest. There are only 2 municipal pre-schools in East Jerusalem compared to 56 in West Jerusalem.

Land: One-third of the land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated by the Israeli government from Arab owners since 1967.

Housing: As of 5 years ago, over 50,000 housing units for Jewish residents has been built on this expropriated land. That number is larger today. No housing has been built for Palestinian residents.

Housing density for existing homes in East Jerusalem is almost double what it is for Jewish residents: on average, 1.9 people per room versus 1 person per room. It is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits to construct new houses or to repair existing ones due to discriminatory policies. The result is massive illegal construction without safety inspections and the constant threat of demolition by the government.

View of East Jerusalem neighborhood

Municipal Services: There are minimal municipal services provided to East Jerusalem residents. A simple walk through neighborhoods will reveal decrepit roads and sidewalks, and few public parks or playgrounds. Hundreds of streets are not provided with trash collection services that results in trash piling up everywhere.

Street scene in East Jerusalem

Water connections: 160,000 Palestinian residents, over half the population, have no legal connection to the water network. Either they jury-rig connections to the water mains or they use stored water in containers.

Sewage: Estimates state that East Jerusalem is in need of 50 kilometers of new main sewage lines. Entire neighborhoods still use cesspools, not ideal for densely packed urban neighborhoods, and existing sewage facilities are antiquated and poorly maintained. It is not unusual for sewers to overflow and for sewage water to run above ground close to homes.

NOTE: These last few items pose a risk to public health from infectious disease but they continue to be ignored by municipal authorities.

Postal service: 10 post offices serve Palestinian areas compared to 42 in West Jerusalem. Mail delivery is only partial and sporadic making commerce more difficult.

In addition, Palestinian residents face the ongoing menace of home demolitions and eviction, especially in the neighborhoods directly abutting the Old City where the government works closely with several ideological NGOs to evict Palestinians and replace them with Jewish settlers (For details, see my posts of January 2 and January 10).

Home in East Jerusalem shortly after being demolished. Note pile of rubble in the background.

The construction of the Separation Wall, as noted in previous posts, has disrupted the flow of commerce by severing neighborhood from neighborhood and all of East Jerusalem from the nearby commercial centers of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the rest of the West Bank. This has caused massive economic dislocation and impoverishment.

Separation wall in Jerusalem. Note how it splits this neighborhood in two, severing all connections.

The data above is just a sampling of the comparisons between Palestinian East Jerusalem and Jewish West Jerusalem. For those interested in more details, you can read a full report that was produced by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an organization that fights for the rights of all Israelis. (For more details, see http://www.scribd.com/doc/31806771/Report-May10-ACRI-Human-Rights-in-East-Jerusalem-Facts-and-Figures Scroll down to page 38 for English). A preface to the report sums it up as follows:

“Israel’s policy for the past four decades has taken concrete form as discrimination in planning and construction, expropriation of land, and minimal investment in physical infrastructure and government and municipal services. As a result, East Jerusalem residents suffer severe distress, and their conditions are worsening.”

“Life in East Jerusalem can be described as a continuing cycle of neglect, discrimination, poverty, and shortages. These, compounded by construction of the Separation Barrier cutting Jerusalem off from the West Bank, have led to the social and economic collapse of this part of the city. A large majority of East Jerusalem residents do not receive, and cannot afford to buy, the most basic services.

It seems to me that the facts on the ground in East Jerusalem belie the claim that Jerusalem is indivisible. East and West Jerusalem are like two separate worlds, one a modern urban environment, a magnet for visitors, and the other a neglected and impoverished backwater. The demand for a unified city which has been made into a roadblock for peace, the city that tourists are shown with reverence, is a Potemkin Village hiding the truth.

Update on recent Bedouin Home Demolitions:

Two days ago I linked to a late breaking story about a middle of the night demolition of several Bedouin homes. Unfortunately, more details have emerged that make the situation more distressing. In all, six houses were destroyed making many more families homeless than was originally reported. See this update to read what the experience was actually like: http://972mag.com/idf-commits-price-tag-attack-against-activists-resisting-home-demolitions/33866/

Salim Shawamreh's house before it was demolished. See the link above for the view afterwards.

Profoundly disconcerting in the above link was when one of the Israeli soldiers yelled at Rabbi Arik Aschermann, director of Rabbis For Human Rights in Israel who had rushed to the scene, to take off his skullcap because “he was a disgrace to Judaism.” This while the soldiers were escorting a bulldozer from house to house, demolishing them without any advance notice. In the dead of night, entire families – men, women, children and babies, bewildered and disoriented – were evicted into the cold winter rain with no shelter and just the clothes on their backs.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof. (Justice, justice shall you pursue.) Deuteronomy 16:20

A Virtual Tour of East Jerusalem

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Ten days ago I went on a drive through East Jerusalem with Ir Amim, a human rights NGO that works to protect the rights of all of Jerusalem’s residents and to prevent the establishment of facts on the ground from precluding a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the tour we stopped at high lookout points where we saw large areas of intertwining Jewish settlements, Palestinian villages, and the remaining open land in between. The situation on the ground is complex, especially given the rugged geography, so one really has to see it to grasp the situation in a meaningful way.

This poses a huge obstacle to fully understanding the torturous attempts at a peace process. Jerusalem is central to the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis – and every new construction project has symbolic importance and impacts the facts on the ground. Yet, if one has never actually seen the landscapes I saw with Ir Amim, understanding the ramifications of Israeli government actions or the rationale for Palestinian reactions is difficult. So I realized on this tour that most American, and even many Israelis, are at a disadvantage when trying to interpret new developments in the headlines.

To read the rest of this post, see http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-virtual-tour-of-east-jerusalem/

 

Elad and Jewish Settlement in Silwan

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Last week on January 2nd I posted a column about how the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has been evicting long-time Palestinian residents and replacing them with far-right Jewish settlers in the Palestinian area of Silwan in East Jerusalem. (see https://sevenmonthsintelaviv.com/2012/01/02/silwan-and-the-jewish-national-fund).

Although the JNF story has been in the news a lot lately, a key player in Silwan is Elad, an ideologically-driven settler organization. Their goal is to convert Palestinian neighborhoods close to the Old City of Jerusalem into Jewish enclaves. This post will deal with how Elad and Ateret Cohanim, an NGO with similar goals that is more active in other areas of Jerusalem, acquire property in order to evict the Palestinians who live there.

How Palestinians are Evicted from their Homes:

These right wing NGOs use five main strategies to take over property. Some of these strategies are straightforward legal methods but others are based on allegations of more questionable practices. In these latter cases whenever possible I have cited testimony from Knesset hearings or court proceedings to provide documentation for the allegations. (All of the information below is taken from reports produced by professional researchers at Israeli human rights NGOs, three of which I cite at the end of this post. As a disclaimer, Elad has sued Ir Amim, one of these NGOs, over a report that includes some of these allegations. Ir Amim is defending the report’s accuracy.)

1 – Absentee Property Law: Briefly, this law allows property to be seized by the state if it is proved that the owners live in Arab countries or in the West Bank (see my January 2nd post for more historical background). The application of this legislation to East Jerusalem first began in the late 1970’s.

How this law is implemented is especially interesting.

  •  The process begins when a deposition is filed with the Custodian of Absentee Property, which is an office in the Israeli Ministry of Finance, claiming that a property has an “absentee owner.” These depositions are often prepared by Elad or Ateret Cohanim.
  • The custodian evaluates the claim and, if accepted as valid (more on this below), declares the property as absentee.
  • The property is then transferred to the Jerusalem Development Authority which disposes of the property based on the recommendation of a committee in the Israeli Ministry of Housing. Representatives of Elad and Ateret Cohanim attend those committee meetings.
  • Not surprisingly, the properties are usually turned over to those NGOs for settler use. This completes the closed loop where the NGOs file the claims and then receive the property.
  • This process of registering property as “absentee” is not public. Palestinian residents and owners have no way of knowing it is occurring, they cannot stop the transfer of ownership with legal action, and they are not entitled to compensation. They can undertake legal action after the fact, which can take many years and is expensive, beyond the means of many families.

Allegations of fraud have been made against Elad in preparing the claims of absentee ownership. For example, in a case that resulted in a Knesset investigation, Elad used the testimony of one Palestinian individual as the basis for many claims. Unfortunately, this Palestinian had a background that included perjury. During a 1991 Knesset hearing, Aharon Shakarji, then the Custodian of Absentee Property, testified that this Palestinian had been the sole basis for claims on “maybe ten or fifteen” properties in East Jerusalem that he had declared absentee. He further stated that he was willing to accept depositions from someone whom he knew “had committed perjury” without further investigation. When a Knesset member asked “Is it enough for you to get a letter from somebody and you grab the property?” Shakarji replied “Yes.”

In an unrelated court case involving the Custodian’s actions, a judge wrote in his final ruling, “Not only was the good faith of the custodian [of absentee property] not proven, but it has been proven beyond doubt that both the declaration of the entire property as absentee property and its sale to the Jerusalem Development Authority are both unacceptable because they were done in an extreme lack of good faith and there is no factual or legal basis to legalize them.”

2 – Previously Owned Jewish Property: Buildings and land in East Jerusalem that belonged to Jews or Jewish organizations before Jordan captured the area in the 1948 war (when Israel became a state) can be reclaimed and the Palestinian residents evicted. On the surface, this sounds reasonable as property is restored to the rightful owners. However, it is a one-way street. Palestinians residents of Jerusalem or the West Bank cannot reclaim their property in Israel that they owned prior to 1948. If they could, large areas of Jewish West Jerusalem would suddenly have many Palestinian residents since Jewish families who live in the many beautiful old Arab houses would have to surrender their homes.

One famous case in this category that began in the 1980’s involved Mohamed Gozlan and his family. They occupied a house that had been owned by the JNF. Mohamed’s father had sheltered and saved the Jews in his neighborhood during the 1929 Arab riots and was considered a hero. After a long legal battle the Gozlan family was evicted in 2005 and the JNF leased the property to Elad.

3 – Straw Men: It is alleged that Elad and Ateret Cohanim will sometimes use Palestinian ”straw men” who pose as buyers of property for their own use. After they purchase the property the straw men transfer ownership to the settlers. Because of the deceit and fraud involved in these transactions, they are kept secret. Some of these deals ended up in court when they became known.

4 – Threat of Demolition: As explained in previous posts it is extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain building permits to build new houses or renovate existing structures. Thus huge numbers of buildings in East Jerusalem are built illegally and subsequently face demolition orders. This can lead to financial ruin for the owners. There are allegations that the settler NGOs take advantage of this by offering to take property off the hands of the owners and assume the risk of demolition. After the sale is completed, the settler organizations get the demolition orders rescinded. In one recorded telephone call with someone instrumental in this process, it was stated that Ateret Cohanim had arranged with the municipal authorities for demolition orders to be issued on the properties they wanted to acquire, thus setting up the process.

5 – Land expropriation for archeological and tourist purposes: Large plots of land in Silwan have been acquired or are being targeted for archeological digs that will become ideologically-driven tourist attractions. The City of David National Park just outside the Old City walls is an example. It is run by Elad and is the only national park in Israel where both the archeology and operations are managed by a private organization. Elad keeps all of the ticket receipts. They are in charge of ongoing archeological work and educational programs that espouse their ideological perspective. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the park each year including tourists, students, and Israeli soldier groups for tours and programs.

Across the street from that site Elad is running another large excavation with plans to turn it into a similar tourist destination, and a third site is being pushed hard by the mayor of Jerusalem which would result in a significant number of Palestinian homes being demolished (demolition orders for 43 structures are currently outstanding at that Silwan site).

Additional Allegations of deceit: When I visited Silwan last month I heard more allegations of the use of fraud when taking over properties but I have not found independent corroborating data for those stories. However one accusation, which was detailed in one of the NGO reports I drew on for this post, is worthy of a Hollywood script. One of the mukhtars of Silwan, Lutfi Siyam, testified in court that shortly after the death of his illiterate grandmother, her fingerprints were stamped in the places for a signature on property sale documents.

The Result:

The result of all this property acquisition is that 2,000 Jewish settlers now live in East Jerusalem neighborhoods close to the Old City, often in gated compounds protected by video surveillance systems and private security guards paid for by the Ministry of Housing. These private guards are an armed force unto themselves in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods with little oversight or controls.

As you might imagine, the resentment and fear of eviction in many Palestinian areas is quite high as these settler enclaves convert these close-knit neighborhoods into areas resembling armed camps. In a future post I will address how this has significantly raised the level of violence and disruption, often making normal life impossible for the Palestinians who live there.

Further Reading:

The information in this post was taken from several research reports produced by Israeli human rights NGOs. For those interested in more details I suggest the following:

1 – The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), as its name suggests, works to protect the civil rights of all Israeli citizens. Their report “Unsafe Space” provides a good overview of the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem in the Appendix #1, beginning on page 35. It can be downloaded at this link: www.acri.org.il/pdf/unsafe-space-en.pdf

2 – Ir Amim is an organization that works to protect the rights of all of Jerusalem’s residents and to prevent the establishment of facts on the ground from precluding a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can download their detailed research report “Shady Dealings in Silwan” by scrolling down to the middle of this page:http://www.ir-amim.org.il/Eng/?CategoryID=254

As noted above, Elad has filed a civil suit against Ir Amim over this report.

3 – Emek Shaveh is a group of archeologists and residents of Silwan who are opposed to the ideologically driven excavations in East Jerusalem that are run by Elad. They challenge how those finds are being presented to establish a solely Jewish narrative to the exclusion of other historical periods and people. Emek Shaveh publishes reports and runs tours that present an alternative archeological story, including pre-biblical and post-temple periods, to illustrate the full range of Jerusalem’s history. See http://www.alt-arch.org/silwan.php and http://www.alt-arch.org/publications.php

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