x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Israel drives on with Palestinian demolitions

Coming after the Israeli prime minister's Washington visit, the destruction of Palestinian homes will prove another setback for peace efforts.

Hafez al Rajabi stands with his wife Dalal and children stand amid the ruins of their home in Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem.
Hafez al Rajabi stands with his wife Dalal and children stand amid the ruins of their home in Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM // Israel's policy of home demolitions has accelerated in recent days, with two houses destroyed yesterday in the West Bank and another six in East Jerusalem on Tuesday. In all, Israel has demolished more than two dozen Palestinian homes since the beginning of the year, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (Icahd) leaving an estimated 130 people homeless.

In occupied East Jerusalem, the home demolitions policy is part of what Palestinians and activists say is a larger scheme to further the "Judaisation" of the city at the expense of its Palestinian residents. Elsewhere in East Jerusalem on Tuesday, 32 new homes in the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Zeev were approved for construction. Coming after last week's visit to Washington by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who called for the start of direct negotiations with the Palestinians, the settlement tenders and house demolitions mark a further setback for US peacemaking efforts. George Mitchell, the US Middle East peace envoy, was due in the region yesterday, but it is unclear what he can offer the parties.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation is adamant that settlement construction must end before direct negotiations can start. It will hold up the latest developments as proof that Israel is not serious. Mr Netanyahu - under pressure not to extend a moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements that does not include East Jerusalem and runs out in September - is keen to show his right-wing constituency that Israel answers to no one over Jerusalem.

The Israeli government maintains that all of Jerusalem be Israel's "eternal, undivided capital". "Israel can't give the impression that it is vulnerable to pressure," said Jeff Halper of Icahd. He stressed that when the US reaction to house demolitions was to issue a mild verbal rebuke - on Tuesday the US State Department called them "not helpful" - it amounted to "a green light".

As for the people left homeless, "who cares about them", said Mr Halper. "They are the least of the considerations." Standing in the rubble of what until Tuesday had been her home, Dalal al Rajabi could only agree with that assessment. She pointed at a white tent that had been erected in the middle for her and her four children. "That was donated by the Red Cross," she said with resignation. "This is where we now sleep."

Mrs al Rajabi, 31, had not been at home when the bulldozers came on Tuesday. She was at the doctor with her youngest, two-month-old Dareen. It was her sister-in-law and neighbour, Linda al Rajabi, who had called to alert her. When she returned, her house had been already cordoned off by Israeli police and the bulldozers were halfway through tearing it down. Some of the family's possessions had been carried outside - "anything that wasn't screwed down", according to Mrs al Rajabi, who witnessed the whole demolition. They were still standing there a day later, pictures, clothes and toys, all exposed to an unrelenting sun.

The rest came down with the house. The Israeli authorities say the house was demolished because it was built without a permit, a fact Mrs al Rajabi does not dispute. That the demolition of homes in occupied territory is considered illegal under international law does not appear to figure in Israeli calculations. Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem after occupying it in 1967, an annexation not recognised by any country.

The al Rajabis had tried to get a permit, but the cost and time involved rendered such an endeavour prohibitive, Mrs al Rajabi said, and makes it all but impossible for Palestinians in general to be able to afford to build legal housing. "My husband [Hafez] is unemployed. How can we even begin to afford the lawyers, let alone the permit," said Mrs al Rajabi, estimating total costs as high as several hundred thousand shekels.

Indeed, as much of Palestinian East Jerusalem has been deemed so-called "green zones" by the Israeli municipality, the amount of land for residential building has been dramatically reduced, driving up property prices and limiting the space for Palestinian expansion and natural population growth. Moreover, with nearly 65 per cent of Palestinian families in Jerusalem living under the poverty line, according to a May report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, some have been forced to move outside Israel's separation barrier to the West Bank, where land is more affordable.

But in doing so, Palestinians risk losing their Jerusalem residency rights, which are revoked if they fail to prove that their "centre of life" is the city. This is a provision that, if not explicitly, only applies to non-Jews. Jews, from all over the world, have a permanent right of citizenship in Israel. "The Israelis want us out," said Mrs al Rajabi. "We have no rights in the city, and there is no justice for us because we are Palestinian."

It is a verdict with which Mr Halper concurs. "This all comes under the rubric of the Judaisation of Jerusalem. That means getting Palestinians out, increasing control of the city and increasing the Jewish presence." okarmi@thenational.ae