Demolitions at center of battle over Jerusalem


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Deep in a valley below Jerusalem’s Old City, a narrow alleyway leads to the remains of three bulldozed Arab homes in an area slated to become an archeological park.

The homes, now just slabs of collapsed concrete, are in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Despite international protests — including from the U.S. secretary of state — the remaining 85 or so houses there, which were built without permits, are to be demolished to make room for a park the city hopes will be a major draw for tourists.

The dispute over the area, together with recent evictions in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, are the most recent markers in the battle over Jerusalem. Israel seeks to cement its control over the city in part by altering the demographic character of its eastern, Arab neighborhoods.

“Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet in July, in comments aimed at rebuffing U.S. criticism over plans for turning a hotel in Sheikh Jarrah into a Jewish housing project. “This means, inter alia, that residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city.”

Critics claim the government is purposefully boosting the Jewish presence in traditionally Arab eastern Jerusalem, creating “facts on the ground” in order to make it difficult to ever divide Jerusalem as part of a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians demand eastern Jerusalem as part of a future Palestinian state.

But the Israeli government insists that a series of development plans for the city’s eastern part are not driven by a political agenda. The plans, in an area in and around the Old City called the Holy Basin because it is dotted with holy sites, call for more green space, better parking and repaved roads. Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah are both in that area.

“Government policy is governed by one overriding principle: that it is important to continue developing the city for benefit of all inhabitants of Jerusalem,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told JTA. “The position is that Jerusalem will remain a united capital and the government wants to see all its communities flourish.”

Maher Hanoun sees things differently. He was evicted from his home in early August after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the land on which it was built belonged to Jews, according to documentation dating back to the Ottoman era.

Hanoun’s family, refugees from the fighting in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, lived in a house built there by the United Nations in the 1950s, when the land was under Jordanian rule. Now homeless, Hanoun and his family have opted to stay on the sidewalk across from their old house, sleeping on mattresses and passing their days under the shade of a small olive tree.

“They want to destroy our homes and build apartments for settlers,” Hanoun said.

The house’s new residents are Jewish. An armed guard watches the front gate, which is locked. A small Israeli flag flaps in the wind from the rooftop. Across an adjacent valley, more Israeli flags are visible on other homes.

Israel captured Eastern Jerusalem, along with the entire area known as the West Bank, in 1967 during the Six-Day War. When Israel later annexed eastern Jerusalem, the state offered Israeli citizenship to Arabs living there. Most refused, instead becoming permanent residents of the city with some of the same rights as Israelis, including Social Security payments.

The Jerusalem municipality says all eviction orders in Jerusalem are lawful, and that the law is applied to both Arab and Jew. But critics say evictions and demolitions are pursued aggressively in Arab parts of the city and only rarely in Jewish parts of the city, and that Arab Jerusalemites are forced to build illegally because their requests for building permits are regularly rejected.

“This is a proxy war carried out by the government of Israel by means of agents: the extreme right-wing groups active in east Jerusalem,” said Daniel Seidemann, founder of Ir Amim, an Israeli organization that advocates the equitable sharing of Jerusalem between Jews and Arabs. “Virtually every government organ from the Prime Minister’s Office on down is involved and the goal is, No. 1, territorial. This is a conscious effort to ring the historic basin with messianic settlements.”

The city rejects such charges.

“The mayor and the municipality apply the law equally,” Stephen Miller, a spokesman for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, said of demolition orders. “Anyone is free to build, expand and live as they desire as long as they follow the law.”

American Jews are among the main supporters of increasing the Jewish presence in eastern Jerusalem, donating $25.4 million over the past five years to purchase and build homes there, according IRS filings reported by Bloomberg News.

The City of David Foundation, which in recent years built an elaborate visitor’s center in Silwan where King David is believed to have laid the foundations for Jerusalem, is one of the Jewish groups involved in buying Arab homes in eastern Jerusalem. Known by its acronym, Elad, the group has helped settle 500 Jewish Israelis in those homes beginning in the 1990s.

“The City of David is not only a museum, in the sense that one feels the past; it is also the expression that the Jewish people have returned to their land,” Doron Spielman, director of the foundation’s overseas division, wrote in an e-mail to JTA.

“One of our goals is to enable a thriving Jewish community to exist in the ancient City of David alongside our Arab neighbors,” he said. “The desire of Jews to buy land and live in the area is so high, and their Arab neighbors are at times willing to take advantage of the opportunity and purchase homes in another area of Jerusalem or outside the city.”

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