The days since 38-year-old Murad Hashimi lost his home in occupied East Jerusalem have been some of the most difficult of his life.
Not only did he lose the home he was born and raised in, but he was forced to demolish it with his own two hands.
“When I was destroying my house, it was like I was in a daze,” Hashimi told Mondoweiss. “I couldn’t think clearly. Even now, I can’t think about anything except the house.”
Murad is the latest addition to the growing list of Palestinians in East Jerusalem who have made the unbearable decision to destroy their own home.
With Israeli building permits too expensive for most Palestinians in Jerusalem, many are forced to build their homes without a license, and thus face the Israeli demolition order that inevitably follows.
When officials from Israel’s Jerusalem Municipality served Hashimi with a demolition order for the home he built 20 years ago, he was given two options: demolish the house himself, or wait for Israeli forces to destroy his home, and then pay them a demolition fee.
“The decision to destroy my house by my own hands was difficult, but I had to do it for economic reasons,” Hashimi said, adding that it was significantly cheaper for him to tear down his own home than let the Israelis destroy it, and incur the demolition fee.
Due to the high costs of renting demolition equipment, the Hashimi family worked with activists to start a GoFundMe page to help alleviate the financial burden.
“Where else in the world do you have to ask strangers for money so they can help you demolish your home?” he asked.
“I can’t describe that feeling,” he said as his voice started to crack. “It was very, very difficult. I still haven’t accepted that this happened.”
“With every stone that I tore down, I felt like I was destroying a piece of my soul.”
A 20 year fight
Murad Hashimi was born in the Wadi Qaddoum area of Silwan, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem located just south of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
He grew up with his siblings in his parents’ small one-story home, that has been around since the 1950’s.
In 1998, he and his brother Juhar decided to build an extension on top of the original family home. The new level would consist of two apartments, one for either brother and their future families.
“We decided to build without permits because the Israelis make it very difficult for Palestinians to get building permits,” Hashimi said. “For example you need to meet a minimum requirement of land area to get a building permit, specific amount of area to build; but in East Jerusalem there is a lot of overcrowding and the space we have does not meet the Israeli requirements.”
When Murad and Juhar worked out the costs of building legally, they knew it was something they would never be able to do.
“Of course we wanted to get the proper permissions, but the cost of obtaining the building permissions alone was more than twice what it would have cost us to actually build the place,” he said.
The brothers completed the new addition to their home in the same year they started. The project cost them around 120,000 shekels.
Murad would go on to get married and have four children, all born and raised in the house he built with his brother.
“From the moment we finished the house, we lived with the fear that the Israelis would come to destroy it,” he told Mondoweiss. “It’s a fear all Palestinians in Jerusalem live with.”
“You know that day will come, but a small, naive part of you still has hope that it never will.”
Despite his highest hopes, that day did come for Murad just a few years after he built the house.
Over the past 18 years, he said, he has exhausted every legal option in an attempt to retroactively legalize his home.
“We appealed to the courts, we got engineers to prove that our building did not violate any of the municipality’s building codes, we paid thousands of shekels for lawyers, but it was all for nothing,” he said.
“Going into it, I knew that no Palestinian had ever been successful in legalizing his home after receiving a demolition order, but I still had to try,”
Though he could not legalize his home, Hashimi’s efforts did buy him some time with the courts.
“The demolition order was consistently delayed for a long time, and I got to live in my home for 20 years, which is more than a lot of people here.”
A few months ago, Hashimi’s luck ran out. Israeli forces arrived to his home with a final demolition notice.
“We knew it was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier on us,” he said.
‘It’s a vicious cycle’
The story of the Hashimi brothers is a familiar tale in East Jerusalem, which is home to some 300,000 Palestinians, who have lived in the city for generations.
When Israel illegally occupied and annexed East Jerusalem into its territory in 1967, the Palestinians in the city were given the status of “permanent residents” in the city, meaning that they are not citizens of any country: neither Israel, nor the Palestinian Authority-administered West Bank.
Over the years, Israel has used a number of tactics to “Judaize” Jerusalem, by incentivizing Jewish settlement in the city, and placing severe restrictions on Palestinian residential or other construction in East Jerusalem.
Israel’s Jerusalem Municipality has zoned only 15% of the land in East Jerusalem for residential use, despite the fact that Palestinians make up 40% of the city’s population, leading to severe overcrowding in Palestinian neighborhoods.
An estimated four out of five of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem live under the poverty line.
Coupled with extremely expensive building permits that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, these policies have created a reality in which Palestinians like the Hashimis have no choice but to build without permits.
According to UN documentation, at least a third of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem lack an Israeli-issued building permit, placing over 100,000 Palestinians at risk of displacement.
“I know very few people in East Jerusalem who have gotten permits, but it ended up costing them up to 450,000 shekels,” Hashimi told Mondoweiss.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” he said, “the system is designed to work against us.”
‘We will not leave Jerusalem’
Despite the cost-saving decision to demolish his home himself, Hashimi anticipates his family will feel the financial strain for years to come.
“I still ended up paying more than 25,000 shekels ($6,630) for the cost of all the demolition equipment,” he told Mondoweiss, adding that the family received over $2,000 from the GoFundMe page.
Between the cost of building the house, all the legal fees over the years, and now the demolition costs, he estimates he has lost more than 200,000 shekels ($53,030).
“It will take us a really long time to recover,” he said, adding that between his brother’s family and his own, 14 people — more than half of them minors — have been displaced as a result of the demolition.
For now, Murad and Juhar are staying in the original family home on the ground floor, which remains in tact. Their wives and children are staying with their wives’ families.
“My family is scattered in different places,” Hashimi said, “we don’t feel whole when we are not together.”
“The demolition has really affected my children. This is the house they grew up in and it’s the only place they’ve ever known,” he said. In the days after the demolition, his kids were too distressed to go to school.
With his family torn apart and his bank accounts depleted, Hashmi’s future seems bleak.
“I can’t even think about planning for the future,” he told Mondoweiss. “Our whole life has been destroyed. I don’t know what to do.”
When asked if he would consider leaving East Jerusalem for the West Bank in search of more affordable housing options, as many Palestinian Jerusalemites have done over the years, Hashimi shook his head.
“No, absolutely not, I don’t want to leave Jerusalem. That is what they want us to do,” he said.
“Jerusalem is the most important thing to us, we can’t leave from here. Whatever they put us through, we will never leave Jerusalem.”