Occupied East Jerusalem – For the past two months, Hamzah Abu Terr has slept on the floor of his home. He gave his bed to his three small children whose room he was forced to destroy earlier this year, to avoid large demolition fines issued by the Israeli municipality.
“I had no choice,” said Hamzah, sitting on the couch at his home in East Jerusalem next to his eldest daughter. “It was either my hands or their bulldozers.”
The single father received a demolition order in 2001, after the extension – a kitchen and bedroom – to his one-room house was deemed illegal by the Jerusalem municipality. He spent the next 12 years fighting the order in Israeli courts, paying more than 100,000 shekels ($28,775) in fees and fines. He even had to sell his now ex-wife’s jewellery.
“I could not fight it anymore. I had to destroy it myself,” Hamzah told Al Jazeera. “The kids can’t understand this: Their father destroyed their room. They were angry, sad… confused.”
This pattern of illegal construction and demolition is common throughout East Jerusalem. According to the United Nations, a set of discriminatory laws, polices and practices applied to Palestinian residents makes building “legally” next to impossible.
The Israeli Committee against House Demolitions reported that not one new Palestinian community has been built in East Jerusalem since 1967, even as the population has more than quadrupled from 66,000 to more than 300,000. Today, only nine percent of East Jerusalem’s land is zoned for Palestinian construction. The result is that one-third of the houses are illegal under Israeli law, which is applied to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem in contradiction of international law.
“Palestinian communities are denied basic services from the municipality as severe restrictions on growth and development are imposed on them,” Sarit Micheaeli, director of the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, told Al Jazeera. “Meanwhile, Israeli communities – or settlements in East Jerusalem – get full support from the government.”
Israel maintains an official policy to ensure a Jewish majority in Jerusalem, which took on a large Palestinian population when East Jerusalem was occupied and illegally annexed by Israel in 1967. Today, a number of laws, policies and practices promote the expansion of East Jerusalem’s Jewish population and the reduction of its Palestinian residents. To many observers, self-demolitions are one part of a larger process of Judaisation that has been underway for decades in the occupied territories.
“It’s a philosophy of transfer – a kind of institutionalised racism openly promoted by public officials and codified in law, planning and practice in East Jerusalem,” said Jamal Isa, a Jerusalem native who now studies in the US. “Self-demolitions seem to be the new go-to tactic as Palestinians are forced into this impossible choice.”
It's disingenuous to say it's a law enforcement issue when you don't allow people the option to build legally.
Iyad al-Shaer recently destroyed the house he built for his brother and fiance. “I have two choices,” Iyad told Al Jazeera from his home in Shu’fat. “I destroy it [the home] myself or they will come, demolish my home, then charge me for it. The second choice, I go to court, pay fines, pay the engineer, pay the lawyer – at the end I know I will lose. Palestinians – we always lose.”
Already this year, at least five families in East Jerusalem have destroyed their own homes to avoid the large demolition costs and fines charged by the municipality.
As East Jerusalem activist Imad Khoury said: “It is both sinister and purposeful. Families fight for years, pay 100,000 shekels ($28,775) in fines, and inevitably are compelled to destroy their own homes. For Israel it’s a PR miracle. No wailing women, soldiers, or bulldozers, and often no media coverage – all the while done under the guise of bureaucratic legality.”
Some in Israel maintain that the government is simply enforcing bylaws. But Sarit from B’Tselem said this misses the broader issue. “It’s disingenuous to say it’s a law enforcement issue when you don’t allow people the option to build legally. You are pushing them into building illegally and then, of course, washing your hands of the whole affair… Self-demolitions are just one of the many tricks used by Israel to maintain demographic majority in Jerusalem throughout its occupation.”
The Jerusalem Minister of Construction and Housing was unavailable for comment.
‘It eats my heart’
In the Shu’fat neighborhood of East Jerusalem, the exterior of a modest concrete structure remains intact, the walls shielding the gutted interior. Mounds of concrete rubble are framed eerily by newly painted walls.
Standing amid the debris of the recently destroyed house, Iyad Shaer points to the room he built for his brother and fiance. “You can see the soft colors and the hearts on the walls. He prepared the inside for his wife.”
Days after building was complete, the municipality issued a demolition order for the illegally constructed home. Unable to afford a protracted legal battle, the family had no other option but to destroy the house. “These self-demolitions – I think there is nothing like this anywhere in the world,” Shaer said.
A few kilometres north, the nine-member Rabaya family mills around the cement slab where their living room used to be, the outlines of the destroyed rooms evident by the marks in the foundation. “I did this with my own hands last Saturday,” said Naem Rabaya. Supporting his wife and seven children on a taxi driver’s salary, Naem built the extra three rooms on his property in 2000 to accommodate his growing family.
A year later the family received a demolition order from the municipality. He fought it for over a decade, paying 80,000 shekels ($23,000) in fines to the Jerusalem municipality, and tens of thousands more for engineers and lawyers. His son dropped out of school to help his father with money.
In the end it was too much, and Naem was compelled to destroy the building himself on March 9. Now the family of nine lives in one and a half rooms.
Meanwhile, a Jewish settlement is under construction just behind what remains of the family home. “Everything is allowed for them,” said Naem’s wife, speaking over the sounds of hammers and power tools coming from the rising apartment complex. “We have to [construct illegal buildings] just to feed our kids. But they can steal and build anywhere they want here.”