18 Oct

The Jerusalem municipality has announced its intentions to demolish 88 homes in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, located in East Jerusalem, in order to establish an archeological park. The proposed demolitions will render 1000 Palestinians homeless in this neighbourhood that lies just outside the walled Old City, an area filled with biblical history. The Jerusalem municipality has come across technical and legal problems and has postponed, if only for the meantime, the demolition of the houses. This could buy the residents of those houses some time to find a new house and perform a change of address us post service.

The municipality wants to enlarge a small archaeological site in the area where the 88 homes are located and create a national park. Uri Shetrit, the Jerusalem city engineer who issued the demolition orders claims that the motivation behind the proposal is based on the cultural and historical importance of the area for the Jewish people. Historians say that King David established his kingdom on the site where the Silwan neighborhood is located. According to Shetrit, the plan’s objective is to return this area, which is has a large Palestinian population, “to its landscape of yore.”

Yet Palestinians and Israeli human-rights groups see it as yet another attempt by the Israeli government to use such zoning methods to obstruct Palestinian population growth in Jerusalem. The demolition would be one of the largest since 1967 in a single area of Jerusalem. Although around 160 homes in the area were destroyed in 2004, they were spread out over many Palestinian neighbourhoods. This policy compliments other parallel efforts to shift the population balance in the areas of eastern Jerusalem, which was occupied by Israel in the 1967 War, such as the building of a security barrier wall that absorbs a large portion of the West Bank Israeli settlements, housing demolitions in other Palestinian neighbourhoods, and housing construction in Israeli settlements in the area despite previous agreements requiring Israel to freeze settlement expansion. These efforts will eliminate the feasibility of returning East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority under a future peace accord, a strategy which carries grave economic, political, and cultural implications for Palestinians.

Shetrit stresses that the law permits the proposed demolitions because the homes were built on land designated in 1977 as a “green area” where no construction was allowed. Many argue that the Israeli government saw the adoption of strict zoning plans as a way of limiting the number of new homes built in Palestinian neighborhoods, thereby ensuring that the percentage of Arabs in the city did not grow, fearing the influence a greater population percentage would grant Arabs living in Israel. Palestinians have complained that it is often difficult for them to obtain building permits in East Jerusalem, and that they have no choice but to build illegally.

One problem Shetrit faces in his plan is the fact that houses built before 1967 are not “illegal” under Israeli law and there exists no legal way to destroy them. For Palestinian residents of Silwan, proving legal ownership of these houses may be difficult, considering the fact that some legally built homes in the neighborhood dating before 1967 may have been approved by the Jordanian municipality. One Palestinian of Silwan said his home was built by his father in 1961, six years before Israeli troops entered the area during the war. Like many others, he has many documents proving his family’s legal rights to the land, including an old, torn legal document dating back to the Ottoman Empire. While most of the houses were built in the 1980’s and 1990’s, some of the houses in the neighbourhood were built as early as the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Of the houses built after 1967, those that are seven or more years of age cannot be demolished even if they were built without permits and their owners can only be charged with practicing illegal building, a fact acknowledged by the municipality. However, the homeowners could be barred from residing in the buildings, a legal loophole that would make demolishing “abandoned” houses possible under separate laws and guidelines at a later date.

A coalition of Palestinian and Israeli human rights and peace organisations is working with a committee of Silwan residents to raise awareness of the issue, increase community cooperation, and to take legal action against the demolition project. Along with other organizations, AIC has accomplished this by producing documentaries and inviting Knesset members, international diplomats, and journalists for tours of the neighbourhood in order to expose and educate them on the subject. The Silwan committee of residents, which was started in response to the threat of demolition, now provides such community services as day camps for the children and collective clean-up projects in the neighbourhood.

Posted By AIC 2005 Fellow

Posted Oct 18th, 2006

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