As Isam Hamad Ali, a civil engineer in the Shu’fat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, drove his silver sedan along a wide dirt road near Israel’s Separation Wall, he pointed to every building he passed. The buildings he indicated – towering apartment complexes housing tens of families each – recently received notices from the Jerusalem municipality scheduling them to be destroyed in the largest wave of home demolitions ever proposed by the Israeli authorities.
On Thursday, October 31st, Jerusalem municipal officials affixed legal documents to residential buildings in the Ras Khamis and Ras Shahada neighborhoods near Shu’fat, the only Palestinian refugee camp in East Jerusalem. These notices stated that proceedings had been filed in the Jerusalem Local Court to request demolition orders for the houses, all of which were built without construction licenses.
The exact number of buildings and families affected is difficult to determine. Ronit Sela, head of the Human Rights in East Jerusalem project for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), puts the number of families targeted by the notices somewhere between two and eight hundred. Jeff Halper, Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, cites the possible destruction of 2,000 housing units covering 15,000 people in the area.
Sela told Mondoweiss that aid workers call the area “no man’s land” because of the Jerusalem municipality’s lack of data about the neighborhoods. The notices were addressed to “absent owners,” meaning the municipality did not have information on the names of the homeowners.
“When you create a no man’s land, there’s chaos,” says Sela, “and the facts and figures are very murky.” Even the residents of the neighborhoods aren’t certain whose houses were targeted. According to Sela, “some of it is just rumors… neighbors don’t necessarily trust each other.”
Getting a construction permit for a home can be difficult for Palestinians throughout East Jerusalem, but it’s impossible in these neighborhoods, says Ronit Sela, because there hasn’t been any urban planning done by the municipality since 1967. As a result, she says, “there’s no way to get a permit; there’s no regulations even that you need to follow.”
“The lack of planning in East Jerusalem is a policy, is deliberate, and brings Palestinians to a place where they cannot build legally almost anywhere in the city,” Sela says.
A psychologist working in a health center in Shu’fat affiliated with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, who requested anonymity for this report, spoke with Mondoweiss about the traumatic effects of demolitions on the families who lived in the houses. “After the home is destroyed,” she says, “they are in shock…the meaning of safety disappears.”
According to her, victims of the demolitions often turn to domestic violence or drugs – especially cocaine and heroin – in response to the stress and depression caused by the destruction. “They take them to forget,” she explains. In another sign of psychological distress, she notes, after their homes are demolished, many families continue to live in tents or other makeshift structures beside the wreckage.
Ronit Sela doesn’t believe that Israel would follow through on demolitions of this magnitude. “Most of us think it’s hard to imagine the Israeli authorities coming in and demolishing so many buildings and making so many people homeless,” she says.
The psychologist at the Shu’fat health center agrees. “Something terrible would happen,” if all the orders were to be carried out, she says.
Isam Hamad Ali was one of the residents whose home, which is currently under construction, received a demolition notice on October 31. Isam, like other recipients of the notices, was given until November 30 to appeal the order in court. This deadline was subsequently extended by two weeks.
However, Isam has already spent 600,000 shekels ($170,000 USD) on building his home, and he says that hiring a lawyer for the appeal would be a considerable financial hardship. Furthermore, he and other residents would have to claim ownership of the homes to appeal the orders, exposing themselves to potentially massive fines and taxes on the unlicensed properties that they have otherwise avoided because of the municipality’s lack of information on the area’s inhabitants.
“Nobody wants to go to court… but they are afraid,” says Isam.
One theory proposed by the residents is that the threat of the demolitions is a strategy of the Israeli authorities to collect these fines by forcing homeowners in the area to identify themselves when they challenge the orders in court. “If they don’t say anything, and if the Israelis are not serious about carrying out the demolitions, then that’s a better scenario,” says Sela.
Still, declining to appeal the court notice means living with the constant fear of the demolition orders being fulfilled. “If they don’t step up,” says Sela, “they have a future demolition hanging over their head.”
None of Isam’s family was home when the demolition order was delivered, but workers building the house who were present at the time say that approximately fifty soldiers arrived in the early morning to deliver the notice. A much larger force was stationed just on the other side of the Separation Wall, which runs about 20 feet from the back of Isam’s house.
Isam expresses hope that the house demolitions in Shu’fat might affect the ongoing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “It’s important for the negotiators to know about this,” he says. UN statistics show that the rate of home demolitions in East Jerusalem has risen this year during the peace talks.
So far, however, there has been no public acknowledgement of the home demolitions during the negotiations. The Association of International Development Agencies released a statement on December 4 signed by 36 NGOs calling for an end to the demolitions and stating that 207 homes and other properties have been destroyed in the West Bank since the peace negotiations began in July.
“I wish it was more on the agenda in general – that there was some outcry,” says Sela. “But I haven’t seen any statements on it, the only thing I’ve seen is media reports.”
The PA Ministry of Information did not respond to a request for comment on discussion of house demolitions during the peace talks.
Standing in front of his house, Isam speaks of his family’s plans to resist the destruction of their home. “When [the soldiers] come,” says Isam, “I and my two daughters will stand in front… of the bulldozers. We will try to stop them with our bodies. And we will die. That’s all we can do.”
“They have the arms,” Isam continues. “They have the force.”
“Just Allah is with us, nobody more.”