Sharp increase in demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem

One hundred and ninety three people already affected in 2019 - compared with 176 in all of last year

FILE - In this April 17, 2019 file photo, Palestinians watch a family house destroyed by Israeli authorities in east Jerusalem's neighborhood of Silwan. Scores of Palestinian-owned residences in east Jerusalem now face demolition by Israeli authorities after the Supreme Court dismissed residents' appeal on the grounds that the houses were built illegally in a city park. Activists and Palestinian residents of the so-called "Peace Forest" say the case highlights the city's discriminatory housing policies, as construction by a nationalist Jewish organization accelerates in the same park. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

The US decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem changed the lives of Palestinian East Jerusalemites. But it is policies like Israeli-ordered demolitions of Palestinian-owned properties in occupied East Jerusalem – and this year’s uptake – that have a greater day-to-day effect on Arab residents and this city’s future.

More Palestinians in East Jerusalem were displaced in the first four months of this year due to demolitions of structures that Israel says are illegal than in 2018 overall: 193 people were affected in 2019 compared with 176 in all of last year, according to the latest United Nations figures.

As of April, 111 Palestinian-owned structures were demolished in occupied East Jerusalem – either by Israeli authorities or by the owners themselves, in order to avoid paying the hefty demolition fees charged by the Jerusalem municipality. On April 30, Israeli authorities demolished 31 structures between several occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhoods, the highest number in one day since the UN started systematically monitoring the practice in 2009.

“Demolitions in East Jerusalem have increased at a staggering pace over the last month, leaving tens of Palestinians displaced and others who have lost their livelihoods overnight,” United Nations Humanitarian Co-ordinator for the Occupied Territories, Jamie McGoldrick, said earlier this month.

Israeli authorities defend the demolitions as legitimate because the structures lack construction permits and therefore are illegally built. But Palestinian residents say that it is nearly impossible for a resident of occupied East Jerusalem to receive a building permit.

Only 13 per cent of occupied East Jerusalem is zoned for construction by Palestinians, with most of that area already built up, while Israeli planning authorities have allotted 35 per cent for Israeli settlements, considered illegal under international law, according to the UN.

In some cases, authorities destroy family homes of those convicted of crimes against Israelis, saying that it serves as deterrence against attacks by Palestinians against Israelis.

The UN has estimated that at least third of all Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem do not have an Israeli-issued building permit, meaning that over 100,000 Palestinians could be at threat of displacement.

Israel occupied and then annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, a move most of the international community rejects. The peace process of the 1990s slated the Palestinian eastern sector, which Jordan previously controlled, as the capital of a Palestinian state. In the decades since, however, Israel has extended its physical presence and control over East Jerusalem.

Occupied East Jerusalem residents, who number around 350,000 and make up over a third of Jerusalem’s overall population, are not citizens of Israel; rather, they are permanent residents entitled to many of the services of Israeli citizens. However, east Jerusalemites who live outside of Jerusalem for too long risk losing their residency – all while the poor quality of infrastructure and education mixed with high unemployment, housing shortages, and building restrictions are pushing people to leave.

“Israel controls every aspect of planning in the city and Palestinians don't have a say in planning their own city,” said Budour Hassan, advocacy officer at the Jerusalem Legal Aid Centre (JLAC).

Many of the structures demolished are extensions to homes that families built, as it’s traditional for parents to build new floors as their children marry, said Ms Hassan. In some instances, Israeli authorities have fired stun grenades, sponge-tipped bullets, and detained people to disperse residents who have tried to stop the demolitions or to retrieve belongings.

Ms Hassan connected house demolitions to a larger Israeli strategy of the “reduction in space” for Palestinians in Jerusalem, along with other policies like limits on family reunification and restrictions on residency.

“House demolitions are part and parcel of a larger Israeli policy aimed at displacing Palestinians and re-engineering the demographic status of the city and reducing the number of Palestinians,” she said.