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Palestinians Are Being Forced to Destroy Their Own Homes

Self-demolitions began a few years ago thanks to restrictive building laws that are part of an official Israeli policy aimed at maintaining a Jewish majority in the city of Jerusalem.

by Sam Gilbert and Dylan Collins
15 April 2014, 6:00am

Iyad Al-Shaer in the home he built and subsequently had to demolish. Photos by Dylan Collins

In the Shu’Fat neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Palestinian Iyad Al-Shaer stood inside the gutted interior of a modest breeze block structure. The building, an addition to Iyad’s own home, was set to be a new residence for his brother Baser and his fiancé. But the fully furnished home, complete with a heart-covered bedroom that Baser had designed for his future child, now had three gaping holes punctured in its roof.

Just days after completing construction, the Israeli-controlled municipality issued Iyad a demolition order for his “illegally” constructed home, built without one of the expensive permits issued by the same set of authorities. Unable to afford the protracted and costly legal battle, he chose to destroy the structure himself.

Self-demolitions like this began a few years ago and have continued—albeit somewhat under the mainstream media’s radar—ever since, with Palestinians compelled to destroy their own homes in order to avoid the steadily increasing fines leveled by the municipality.

The demolished roof of Iyad's brother's home

While the Palestinian population in the city has quadrupled to over 300,000 since 1967, municipal authorities have only zoned nine percent of East Jerusalem land for Palestinian construction. Even with this space being set aside, permits are rarely granted, and the result is widespread “illegal” Palestinian construction—which, of course, Israeli authorities can then order to be demolished.

Tens of thousands of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents now live under the constant threat of having their homes demolished by Israeli authorities, part of a policy of displacement that has been taking place in Jerusalem with a startling degree of public support for more than four decades.

“We know that there are some 20,000 ‘illegal’ Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem,” Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) told us. “[That’s] about a third of the Palestinian housing stock.”

“They don’t consider us citizens, so they push. It’s not a personal thing—I am one of many,” says Iyad. “They push us to go outside of Jerusalem. I call it a soft transfer.”

Iyad walking through the home that he built and subsequently had no other option but to demolish

Wringing the city dry of any Palestinian or overtly Arab presence is not a new Israeli practice. What is relatively new, however, are the self-demolitions being inflicted on the Palestinian community—the financial penalties giving people no other option than to destroy their own homes and move away. Meanwhile, Israel saves face; houses are being cleared without the pesky publication of photos depicting their systematic ethnic cleansing of the area—no bulldozers, no Israeli youngsters wielding M-16s, and no wailing women. It is a PR miracle.

“For Israel, it’s much better for you to destroy your [own] home,” said Iyad. “The media doesn’t have to know.”

According to Richard Falk, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in occupied Palestinian territories, Israel’s policies in Jerusalem are “unacceptable characteristics of colonialism, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing.”

Speaking at a press conference in Geneva at the end of last month, Falk accused Israel of creating an impossible situation for Palestinians in Jerusalem, using bureaucratic processes such as the “revocation of residency permits, demolitions of residential structures built without Israeli permits, and forced evictions” to push Palestinian families out of the city.

In order to legally build in Jerusalem, one must first acquire a 150,000 shekel [$43,200] building permit from the Israeli authorities. Permits are rarely given to Palestinians, and those who are lucky enough to get one face difficulty paying the full fee, as nearly 80 percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line. Consequently, thousands are left with no choice but to build houses without the required permit, putting their new homes at risk of demolition.  

“It’s a bad feeling,” Iyad said, describing the day he had to drill through the ceiling of his brother’s dream home. “When you start and you damage your home yourself... I am a man, but I was crying. I am still a human being—I have feelings. I tried to be a man, but man is a human being.”

According to the Palestinian Counseling Center, while all families whose homes are demolished suffer from considerable trauma, “Those who demolish their homes themselves bear additional shame from straying from the national position of remaining steadfast in resisting the occupation’s policies.”

Maher Sorri standing in what's left of his home

In February of 2014, Israeli bulldozers arrived at Maher Sorri’s house, threatening to demolish the home he had built for his wife and child. The municipality had originally come to destroy a neighboring house, but when clashes broke out in resistance to the impending demolition the forces of the Jerusalem Municipality turned their sights on Maher’s home, which had been built without a permit three years before.   

Standing in front of his destroyed home, Maher told us: “There had been no demolition order issued—no previous warning at all.”

The young Palestinian man had been given a “choice”: destroy his own home or pay the 50,000 shekel [$14,400] fine levied by the Jerusalem municipality for their demolition “services.”

“It’s a common joke among [Palestinian] East Jerusalemites—the only services they get from the Jerusalem municipality are demolitions services,” said Sarit Michaeli, spokesperson for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.   

With nowhere to turn for support, Maher was forced to take matters into his own hands. He hired a relative with a tractor to destroy his house, saving 47,000 shekels [$13,500] in the process. The family now lives in his father’s house, six people sharing two small bedrooms. “We were very sad,” Maher told us. “[Before], we lived as a family, alone with privacy.”

The Red Cross gave Maher Sorri, his wife, and his young daughter a tent to replace their destroyed home

Talking to B'Tselem, we were told of five cases of self-demolitions in East Jerusalem so far this year, though others have likely gone unreported. And while this phenomenon is on the rise, Israel still has no qualms about getting its hands dirty. According to Jeff Halper of ICAHD, in November of 2013 alone, Israeli authorities issued 2,000 demolition orders throughout East Jerusalem. More East Jerusalem homes were destroyed in 2013 than in 2011 and 2012 combined, marking a five-year high, according to statistics compiled by The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

This year, demolitions continue apace. Hayat Abu-Saleh, an analyst from OCHA, told us that as of the March 26, 132 structures have been destroyed in the occupied territories, including 19 homes in Jerusalem. The majority of these demolitions were carried out by municipal bulldozers and various dutiful squads of Israeli police officers.  

One particularly depressing case occurred on an early February morning in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Qadoom. At 5:30 AM on the February 10, a squadron of 51 Israeli policemen descended on the home of Palestinian Mohammed Swahar, his Jewish Israeli wife Norean, and their four children. 

Standing next to the Red Cross tent that now serves as the family’s home, Norean explained that, just two months before, the family had spent all their savings renovating the entire house. A new bedroom for their son, a new Plasma TV, and even a craft area for the kids.

“When they came, they wouldn’t let us take anything out of the house,” Norean told us. “If they took it out, they broke it, destroyed it. I was over there with my children watching them destroy everything we have built.”

Mohammad and Norean Sawaher's children scavenge the rubble of their destroyed home for intact belongings

The traumatic event came as a complete surprise to the Swahar family. “We have never received a demolition order before, not in 20 years,” said Norean. “The municipality has no answer. The vice president of [the] municipality, his name is David. We had a meeting, I told him my house was destroyed and he said, ‘I don’t know anything about it.’”

The demolition, understandably, has taken a toll on the Swahars’ five young children. “The children were terrified—now they are wetting themselves every night, because they were coming into the house with dogs at 5:00 in the morning,” said Norean. “[The kids] were sleeping in their beds, when suddenly [there were] 51 [police] in the house. My husband was sleeping. They beat him up.”

When asked about the situation in East Jerusalem, Norean said: “They don’t want Arabs here. I was Jewish—I grew up in Israel and served in the army. When I met my husband, I converted. Now, I see how they treat Arabs and how they treat Muslims here. It’s not human.”

The Silwan neighborhood, which—like many Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem—faces serious overcrowding problems due to restrictions placed on it by Israeli authorities regarding construction permits and land use.

Besides the disregard for other basic rights, the restrictive building laws are part of an official Israeli policy aimed at maintaining a Jewish majority in the city of Jerusalem. And this elaborate system of discriminatory laws, policies, and practices diminishes Palestinian hopes of claiming Jerusalem as the capital of their future state by the day.

As Shawan Jabarin, director of the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, told us, “This is part of a long term plan of how to minimize and decrease Palestinian numbers in Jerusalem. How to change the demographic map, how to change the geographic map, the historical map, and even the narrative. House demolitions are just one method they are using to implement their plan.”  

Of course, little attention seems to be paid to the ramifications this has on the city’s Palestinian community. As Iyad told us, “We worry about the future of our kids. We have no hope, no options. The only option is to live behind the wall, to live outside of Jerusalem. I am from Jerusalem—why do you force me to live behind this illegal wall? I am from Jerusalem. I was born here.”

@collinsdyl