Zakariya Odeh, Coordinator for the Civil Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem
Legal and rights institutions are merely buying time in Israeli courts to postpone demolitions, confiscations and evictions
126 structures, including 83 homes were demolished since the start of this year
Zakariya Odeh, coordinator for the Civil Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, said during an interview with MIFTAH that Israel’s policies on the social, health and economic rights of Jerusalemites, in particular towards housing, have escalated in the recent period, citing the spike in the number of demolished homes, whether by Israeli municipal teams or coerced self-demolitions.
Odeh maintained that legal and rights institutions in Jerusalem are merely buying time in Israeli courts to delay demolitions, confiscations and evictions, especially since self-demolitions are carried out due to the threat of exorbitant fines that could reach up to NIS90,000 if the structure is torn down by the Israeli municipality.
Following is the full interview conducted by “Hosted by MIFTAH”:
**How do you explain the recent spike in home demolitions, especially “self-demolitions”?
This policy is not only about residency rights but is linked to other matters. It is important to point this out given that the recent spike in demolitions is linked to Israel’s urban planning in occupied Jerusalem. After the occupation of Jerusalem, the Israeli government made decisions that were geared towards the annexation of the entire city. One of these decisions was to expand the borders of the so-called Jerusalem municipality from 5.5 square kilometers (during Jordanian rule) to 71 square kilometers through the annexation of land from villages around Jerusalem. Thus, a law passed in the Knesset in 1980 declared Jerusalem a “united city” and capital of Israel. This constituted a legal foundation for the annexation process, which was linked to the policy of land confiscation as well. Israeli authorities took control over 88% of land in the eastern sector of Jerusalem, leaving 12% of the land for construction purposes, whether residential or commercial. This had a major impact on residency rights in Jerusalem and the possibility to obtain building permits. It should be noted that land confiscation was all to the benefit of settlements; today there are 15 settlements within the so-called Jerusalem municipality borders in which 215,000 settlers live, comprising one-third of the overall number of settlers in the West Bank. What’s more, Israel’s urban planning includes three plans: a regional plan, which became the 2020 plan, then later the 2030 plan and finally the 2050 plan. It is clear that the central goal of the planning policy is to increase control over the land and multiply the number of settlements and settlers in the eastern sector of Jerusalem while also decreasing the number of Jerusalemite residents. These plans did not take into consideration the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, which is clear from the underdeveloped and neglected infrastructure and roads in East Jerusalem’s neighborhoods.
**How did this impact on the residency rights of Jerusalemites? What are the most significant challenges and hindrances in this regard?
Israeli occupation authorities impose stringent restrictions on building licenses for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to the point that obtaining a permit can take from five to 10 years in addition to the cost of the permit itself. The cost of a building permit for a 100 square meter apartment is $40,000 on average. One can only imagine how expensive this is for residents, given that 78% of Jerusalemite families fall under the poverty line, according to official Israeli statistics. The problem does not stop at this either. When someone puts in an application for a permit, the municipality also demands they bring a deed or proof of registry for the piece of land on which the house is to be built. The fact is, the land registry has always historically constituted a huge problem for Jerusalemites dating back to Ottoman rule and then the British Mandate, followed by Jordanian rule and finally the Israeli occupation. In the past, land registry in the owners’ names was never an easy task because the land was registered as collective property. Since 1967 and over the 53 years of occupation, the Israelis have never opened the door to land registry in Jerusalem, which made it very difficult to obtain building permits. Add to this Israel’s law of absentee properties and the people are left with no real options. They found themselves forced to build without a license, which, according to Israeli law, put their homes at risk of being demolished. In terms of statistics and numbers, there are currently 22,000 homes threatened with demolition in Jerusalem for lack of a building permit.
**Are there any accurate statistics on the demolition process and its acceleration over the past three years, particularly home demolitions?
It is important here to mention the considerable uptick in Israel’s demolition policy of Jerusalemite homes in the past three years, especially this year and last. According to available statistics, at the beginning of this year until August 20, a total of 121 structures were demolished, 80 of which were homes and 57 of which were torn down by the owners themselves. Unfortunately, self-demolitions have become more and more common; the families are forced to demolish their homes because if they do not, according to Israeli law, they would be forced to pay the demolition fees, including the bulldozers that raze the homes, the police and army expenses – they provide security for the demolition teams and close off the site – fees which reach between NIS80-90,000. That is why many people chose to do it themselves, which costs them at most, NIS3,000.
The statistics also show that the year with the highest recorded number of demolitions was 2019 including the highest number of self-demolitions. A total of 238 structures were torn down last year, including 189 homes, of which 58 were demolished by their owners. As of August 2020, there have been 120 homes razed to the ground.
What’s more, between 2004 and 2019, approximately 1,000 homes were demolished and 3,167 people displaced, including 1,704 children. Women and children are the primary victims of these home demolitions and therefore of the displacement policy, all of which leaves psychological scars on the entire family. One example of this is the Abu Sbeih family in Silwan, which was forced to demolish their own home just over a week ago. The owner’s young son looked at his father and said: “You are demolishing our house and not the Israelis?” This child stood and watched his father and uncle tear down their apartment so they would not be left with the demolition fees.
It is my opinion that Israel’s demolition policy is part and parcel of its displacement and “silent transfer” policy, which has been ongoing since 1948. Back then, they applied it to our people inside [the ’48 borders] and today they are applying it to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Ultimately ,the goal is to completely change the demographic and geographic makeup of Palestine and of Jerusalem in particular in order to create a Jewish majority and a Palestinian-Arab minority.
**How do self-demolitions serve Israel’s purpose and paint a prettier picture of its occupation? Do they exempt Israel from its legal responsibility as an occupier?
The truth is, self-demolitions have more than one psychosocial impact on the family, women and children in particular, and on the entire neighborhood in general. The demolitions save the occupation the effort of demolishing Palestinian homes. But even beyond this, these demolitions give the impression that the person demolishing their own home has done something wrong because they built it without a permit and was therefore forced to tear it down. This serves Israel in that it gets the same result but at the same time gives the impression that the occupation is not the culprit. Still, in international law, this does not exempt the occupation from its legal responsibilities because it does not grant Jerusalemites permits, nor does it allow them to build and then it makes them pay the costs of the demolition.
**How much is the demolition policy, both self-demolitions and those carried out by Israeli authorities, linked to other plans such as annexation, settlement and land usurpation?
I think the demolition of homes, restrictions on building permits and the displacement of residents are all parts of a one policy of “transfer”. The confiscation of land and settlement building is one goal occupation authorities work towards nonstop. This racist planning policy is in the service of Israeli Jews, not Palestinians and does not reflect the needs of Jerusalemites or even take them into consideration. There is also the revocation of residency rights from Jerusalemites, the closure of the city and restrictions on movement. Moreover, a decision by the Israeli interior ministry in 2002 effectively froze all family reunification requests, which also falls within Israel’s strategic approaches. Statistics indicate there are approximately 8,000 Jerusalemite children who have no legal status in the city, which effectively denies these children of social, economic and health rights. They are not residents or even registered in the family records at the Israeli interior ministry, rendering them basically nonexistent in the eyes of the occupation. Imagine the social, economic and psychological impact this has on the victims of this policy. Then there is the Jerusalem ID revocation policy, which denies Jerusalemites the right to live in their own city. Since 1967 to today, around 14,650 ID cards have been revoked as part of an ongoing and systematic policy.
Let us not forget how Palestinian education is targeted in Jerusalem. There is a systematic policy in place since the first days of the Intifada, which has only escalated in a bid to take control of the entire educational process. In 2011, Israeli authorities began to change and distort the Palestinian curriculum, which only increased throughout the years, culminating in 2015 with a move to implement the Israeli curriculum on Jerusalem schools. They are fully aware that education is one of the most important tools used to promote Palestinian nationalism, which is exactly why their efforts are nonstop to take over the entire system and “Israelize“ the curriculum. This is what can be called the ‘occupation of the minds” of Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Israel also targets Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem. Since 2000 to today, 47 Jerusalemite institutions have been completely shut down while hundreds of activities have been banned in the city, including culture and art activities. Most recently, at the end of August, the Yabous Cultural Center and the Edward Said Music Conservatory were raided by Israeli security forces and computers and files confiscated. All of these measures are part of one policy, which targets Palestinian existence in Jerusalem.
**What happens when people’s applications for building permits are denied by the municipality? What measures do Israeli authorities take against them? And what happens to the families that lose their homes?
Many applications for building permits when the homes are built without them, take years in courts before they are rejected. By that time, exorbitant expenses and fines are meted out to the home owners. Our statistics indicate that the average number of permits issued to Palestinian Jerusalemites in East Jerusalem is just 100 a year in spite of the high population growth and density in the city, which has multiplied over the years of the occupation. The population of Jerusalem on the eve of its 1967 occupation was 67,000 while today there are more than 375,000 people and currently comprise around 40% of the population within the so-called Jerusalem municipal borders. The only thing they offer to these residents is demolition, displacement of families and deprivation of residency rights. In addition to this, there is no support for these families from official Palestinian parties in spite of their harsh conditions after their homes are demolished. All of their savings are usually depleted in order to obtain a building permit. As for self-demolitions, since these residents are not given ample support, they have begun to take on a new approach: to refuse to tear down their own homes on the premise that this is a criminal policy carried out by occupation authorities and for which they are responsible. This is in spite of the economic pressures that come with occupation authorities carrying out the demolition, which can cost between NIS80,000-90,000. It’s true there are some official initiatives and efforts by the PA, whether from the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs or the Jerusalem Governorate, but still these efforts are not sufficient for supporting these families. In this regard, official parties have clearly fallen short in supporting Jerusalem and its people’ steadfastness.
**What is the role of local and international human rights organizations and institutions? What role can they take in terms of legal aid or lobbying to halt the demolition policy?
There are several legal and rights institutions that follow up on these violations, especially house demolitions, by raising awareness among residents of these measures and offering legal support for the affected. However, the problem is with the process itself whereby legal support is within an Israeli context. That is, the courts are Israeli, the laws are Israeli and the prosecutor is Israeli. It should be noted that there have been discussions about resorting to these courts during the first days of the occupation and whether this was right or even useful, especially the Israeli High Court. The fact is, the only thing these legal and rights institutions can offer is to buy time by postponing demolitions, confiscations or evictions. So, instead of their home being demolished within a year or two, it gets postponed for five or even 10 years. One example is the Sheikh Jarrah case, which has been in the courts for 40 years even though 13 families have been evicted so far. A similar case is the Bustan case whereby legal aid was able to prevent the eviction of the families. So there are legal services but few accomplishments because the judicial system and Israeli law are not objective but slanted to serve Israel’s own political end goals.
The other thing these institutions do is to lobby and advocate with international parties, the UN and human rights organizations. It shares their reports and participates in conferences to speak about home demolitions. They also work with the EU, with various diplomatic missions and international organizations working in Palestine and Jerusalem because they realize the importance of international legal pressure. In the end, our problems are political and their solution is political as well, which is an end to the occupation. However, in spite of everything going on, the international community - -whether the EU or other countries – have not shouldered their responsibilities. The international community has fallen short as a result of Israeli pressure and policies.
**How has Israel’s nation-state law impacted the steady increase in the number of demolished homes? Likewise, did the US administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel also have an impact?
Both the nation-state law and the current US administration’s policies since 2017 have had a clear impact in this regard. The nation-state law says that a united Jerusalem with a Jewish majority is the capital of Israel and the capital of the Jewish state. Hence, the law confirmed the Israeli policy of annexation and control and also granted the right and self-determination for the Jewish people while not recognizing the right of the Palestinian people to their self-determination, in addition to considering settlements as having moral value. All of these provisions of the law reinforced Israel’s policy of control, annexation and settlement building, which is linked to demolitions of course. In addition to this, the US embassy moved from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem, halted its support for UNRWA and funding to Jerusalem hospitals, closed its consulate in Jerusalem – which was historically America’s recognition that Jerusalem is occupied – thus giving the green light to the Israeli government to escalate its measures, increase home demolitions and build more settlement units.
**How did the separation wall contribute to the accelerated pace of forced expulsion of Jerusalemites and to the escalated demographic conflict?
Since the state of Israel was established in 1948, the goal of its demographic politics has been to maintain a Jewish majority and to continue the expulsion of Palestinians through reinforcing and increasing settlements, stripping Palestinians, namely Jerusalemites, of their residency rights and limiting their freedom of movement. Part of the challenges facing Jerusalem and its residents is the so-called Israeli plan for “Greater Jerusalem”, which they have been working on for years and which includes, within it, other plans pertaining to the expansion of the city’s borders so they encompass the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. This bloc alone is comprised of 13 settlements. To the east of this is the settlement of Maaleh Adumim and the EI project to build 3,600 settlement units, hotels, shopping centers and other services. This project is currently underway and is aimed at linking Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem’s center, thereby dividing the northern West Bank from its south. To the north, there are the Givat Zeev and Kochav Yaacov settlements. According to this plan, immediately after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Israeli government closed off Jerusalem by erecting checkpoints at its entrances. Then, in 2005 it began to build the separation wall until Jerusalem became completely encircled with this wall today. Three Palestinian residential areas have now been isolated from the city: Kufr Aqab and Samiramis to the north, Shufat camp, Anata and Dahiyet Barid to the east and Walaja to the south. There are now approximately 140,000 people behind the separation wall in communities that have been neglected for years and have no proper services or infrastructure.
Israel is floating ideas for severing these communities completely from Jerusalem. In 2018, a bill was put to the Knesset that includes two provisions on the percentage of the vote needed to change the status of Jerusalem. According to this law, there would need to be 50% of Knesset members who vote in favor of the law in order to pass it. This has changed, however, to become two-thirds of the vote should there be any negotiations over Jerusalem. The second provision is to change the borders of Jerusalem, which were ratified in 1980 in a bid to change the law so the separation wall would become the so-called municipal borders. This would effectively mean the isolation of the three aforementioned communities. Several discussions were held on the parties that would govern these communities such as local councils or by the Israeli army’s “civil administration” and would ultimately result in their total isolation from Jerusalem’s borders. If this happens, Palestinians will comprise only 20% of the overall population of Jerusalem after being 40%. This is the strategic plan proposed by the Israeli government’s “Givani” committee in the 70s. At the time, the government formed the committee and then asked it to formulate a population strategy for Jerusalem. Their recommendations were that the Palestinians should not be more than 22% to 24% of the population of Jerusalem. This has been their goal for years – to make this change and this is what they are working on now through their tunnel and road systems that link the city center with settlement blocs in order to facilitate movement between them and also link these settlements with the Israeli municipality in Jerusalem.
**In light of the negative impacts of home demolitions, especially on women and children, do you think we will be seeing a rise in the level of domestic violence?
Most definitely. Israel’s policies, especially home demolitions, impact children and women more than others. According to studies, the increased pressure on men due to the occupation commonly leads to increased violence against women and children. This has also resulted in a rise in the divorce rate, especially in young couples. The problem of shortage in housing due to the difficulty in obtaining building permits in addition to the high rents in Jerusalem, which can reach up to $1,000 a month, put economic and psychological pressure on people and prompt couples to live outside the separation wall and therefore outside of the fabricated municipal borders of Jerusalem. In turn, this puts them at risk of losing their residency rights in accordance with the so-called “center of life” law. There are thousands of Jerusalemites who lost their residency rights because they live in neighborhoods on the other side of the wall or in areas in the West Bank such as Ramallah or Bethlehem. This has had an incredible impact on the social fabric and on civic peace in that there are more problems within the family including a sharp uptick in violence, to which Israel gives no attention.
**What repercussions will this have on Jerusalemite youth in particular?
One of the consequences of these conditions is their repercussions on Jerusalem’s youth. For years, it was difficult for Jerusalemites to be accepted in the Hebrew University or to get jobs at their workplaces. However, after the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the subsequent uprisings and unrest in most parts of the city and the rise in the level of resistance following the repeated attacks on the Gaza Strip, Israeli leaders realized that the services they had been offering Jerusalemites over the years had not succeeded in Israelizing them. Hence, they pushed back against these uprisings, which were all led by young people who had suffered from the accumulated measures of the occupation such as restriction on their freedom of movement and lack of job opportunities. Unemployment rates among youth were high, their education was targeted and drugs and other social ills prevailed, which Israeli authorities did not care to contain. In response, Israeli institutions resorted to the use of a strategy for improving the living conditions of Jerusalemites; they allocated budgets to this end, aimed in essence at annexing and controlling the eastern sector of the city and reinforcing so-called Israeli sovereignty over it. They aimed at integrating the youth into Israeli society through various methods, including making it easier for them to enroll in Israeli universities.
This was one of the fundamental challenges facing Jerusalem, the contradiction between attempts by Jerusalemite youths to preserve their Palestinian identity and sense of belonging and their aspirations to live a dignified life. This converged with the absence of any role of national influences, whether at the level of factions and parties, or the role of official Palestinian parties which did not make any serious effort to close this gap by offering programs and projects, job opportunities and even entertainment venues for youths that promote this identity. The result was that many Jerusalemite youths turned to Israeli institutions, which increased their presence in most areas of the city through community centers, working under the guise of education in particular but also for mental health and social counseling for youth and children. At the same time, occupation authorities continue to target local Palestinian institutions and hinder their work or shut them down completely, often opening alternative institutions in their place. This is the biggest danger facing Palestinians in Jerusalem today.