A neighborhood in East Jerusalem that faced demolition in 2005 is reliving the threat of destruction as the municipality of Jerusalem issued Sunday orders to evacuate Palestinian residents for recreational urban planning.
The Municipality of Jerusalem issued demolition orders to 88 homes and 1500 Palestinian residents on Sunday in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of al-Bustan in the Silwan village near al-Aqsa mosque, citing plans to turn the area into a public park.
"The owners of 80 houses in the al-Bustan neighborhood received eviction notices warning that the structures will be destroyed," Sami Ahmed Rwaidy, head of President Mahmud Abbas's Jerusalem office, told AlArabiya.net.
The municipality followed its orders with a press release explaining that the decision to raze the homes is based on the future urban planning of the city.
“It is important to the future of Jerusalem that this area be treated with the utmost strategic importance. Emek HaMelech (al-Bustan) is not intended for residential development but rather it is intended to be an open public space,” the statement said.
Yet while the press release noted the area is important for “Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike,” Rwaidy argued that the project is strictly for Jewish interests as it amounts to the transfer of the Arab population from central Jerusalem.
"The aim of these demolition plans is to drive out the Palestinian population from Jerusalem by gradually separating East Jerusalem from West Jerusalem," Rwaidy said, adding that the Israeli government aims to have a Jewish majority capital by 2020.
Jimmy Johnson from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICHD) agrees.
"The reason for the notices is not legal, but political," Johnson told AlArabiya.net. "Israel wants to manipulate the demographics of the city."
Silwan is home to 50,000 Arabs. The earliest houses in the neighborhood date from the 1940s and '50s, although most were built in the 1980s and early '90s on private land belonging to Silwan villagers. Some of the houses in this area were built before 1967 and another portion was built later in the 1970's.
Built without permit
The municipality of Jerusalem said that the reasons for uprooting the residential area are legal.
“Most of the illegal buildings were built within recent years without proper
permits. Illegal construction is illegal construction no matter where it is,” the press release stated.
Stephen Miller, spokesman for Nir Barkat, Jerusalem’s mayor told AlArabiya.net the decision to issue demolition orders does not lie with the Jerusalem municipality but is taken by the Israeli interior ministry and is based solely on the legal standing of the homes.
“The decision to demolish lies with the Ministry of the Interior and is upheld or contested within the court system,” Miller told AlArabiya.net, adding that the buildings in the neighborhood have been built without proper permits.
However acquiring building permits is difficult if not impossible, said Johnson, explaining that Palestinian residents are never involved in either the zoning or planning of the city. To obtain building permits means the ability to modify the zoning of areas that already pre-planned by the government.
“Permits require modifying the zoning of East Jerusalem and that entails legal power and hundreds of thousands of Euros, not counting the bureaucratic process," Johnson said. "This option is unavailable to Palestinians in East Jerusalem.”
ICHD attempts to mobilize by engaging the Israeli legal system long enough to create international pressure to stop the demolitions. While the homes under threat are technically illegal under Israeli law, Johnson said there is room for preventing demolitions on the political front.
“In the end the houses are technically illegal,” Johnson said. “We will not get support from inside the country but we can stop the demolitions if we garner enough international pressure.”
If carried out, the operation would be the largest demolition of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem since 1967.
Selwan residents: nowhere to go
Fakhri Abu Diab, a Silwan community leader, spearheaded many awareness campaigns since 2005. He said in 2005 the municipality attempted to demolish the same neighborhood but failed under mounting international pressure.
“The municipality along with many Jewish groups have tried to demolish Selwan claiming that it was built on the ruins of the location of the City of David,” Abu Diab told AlArabiya.net.
Abu Diab added that the municipality and the government's orders breed frustration in Palestinians who feel hatred towards a government that “does not seek to include us as citizens with rights."
The EU issued a statement opposing Israel’s latest plans to demolish Palestinian homes in Jerusalem.
"The European Union urgently calls on Israel to reconsider the settlement's planned construction, which would be in violation of international law, run counter to the roadmap, and is against commitments made by Israel to the Palestinians and the international community last year in Annapolis."
As for Abu Diab, he said he will stay in his home with his family until the end. "We would rather die in our homes while they tear them down. We have no where else to go."