East Jerusalem – Fakhri Abu Diab, 59, may soon have to decide whether he should contract a crew to demolish his family’s building.
Diab is a community activist and one of several Palestinian residents of the Al-Bustan neighbourhood in Silwan, occupied East Jerusalem, served with demolition orders by Jerusalem’s Israeli-run municipality in December.
He built his property – in which 13 family members live across three units – without permission, having been denied permission four times since he first applied in 1987.
If the municipality carries out the demolition order, served on December 9, the cost could be $30,000.
Diab says that, if he loses his home, “I have no alternative at the moment but to put up a tent”.
He says 21 demolition orders were issued in Al-Bustan in December alone.
Homeowners and observers fear that the municipality, with the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is preparing to raze a significant number of Palestinian homes in the city over the coming weeks.
New Israeli parliamentary elections set in March and outgoing US President Donald Trump’s last days in the White House could hasten such a move.
“There’s a lot of pressure from the extreme right both within the city and on the national level to take advantage of the remaining time,” Laura Wharton, a Jerusalem municipal councillor with the Israeli left-wing party Meretz, told Al Jazeera.
Wharton estimates the number of standing demolition orders in East Jerusalem is as high as 30,000. However, she does not foresee all of them to be at imminent risk.
In 2020 alone, the United Nations recorded 170 demolitions in East Jerusalem alone and 644 in Area C of the occupied West Bank.
The figures indicate that this is the second-highest number of demolitions after 2016 since the UN began recording demolitions in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2009.
A freeze on the demolition of inhabited homes in East Jerusalem came in effect on October 1 to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the Jerusalem municipality abruptly ended the freeze on November 11.
When Al Jazeera contacted Jerusalem Municipality for its response to the new demolition orders, it did not address the issue but said it a statement: “Jerusalem is one of the leading cities in the world in addressing the needs of its residents, all its residents, especially during this difficult period.”
Silwan, which lies south of the Old City’s walls, has long been a target of ultranationalist religious settlers who often exert influence over the Jerusalem municipality, Wharton said.
“It’s a problem when you have extremists both within the municipality and on the national level a PM who’s trying to prove himself,” Wharton told Al Jazeera.
Struggle over Silwan
About 30,000 Palestinians live in Silwan, many in substandard homes with poor infrastructure.
Approximately 500 Jewish settlers live in scattered settlements across Silwan.
The City of David Foundation, an Israeli NGO commonly known as El-Ad (the Hebrew acronym for “To the City of David”), was founded in 1986 primarily to advance territorial claims through archaeology and housing for settlers in Silwan.
In the mid-90s it was sub-contracted to run the City of David Park, which it intends to extend from Wadi Hilweh near Al-Bustan.
The plan entails the demolition of nearly 90 Palestinian homes to make way for a national park and new residential development for settlers.
The Jerusalem Municipality has officially changed Al-Bustan’s name to Gan Hamelekh (King’s Garden) on the premise that it was a garden for Israelite kings thousands of years ago.
Palestinian Al-Bustan residents have consistently had requests for building permits rejected by the municipality because it is considered “an open landscape area” under a scheme called The King’s Valley.
‘My home is destroyed’
“I’ve been harmed in so many ways; my home is destroyed … my wife and kids are now living apart from me,” 28-year-old Kazem Abu Shafe’a told Al Jazeera.
Abu Shafe’a needed a home for his family of four. But, as a care worker for the elderly with a modest income, he could not afford to move out of Silwan.
So in August, he decided to build a home for his family on top of his mother’s house – also facing a demolition order – without applying for permission.
They moved into the extended property in early November, but on November 17, Municipal officers handed a demolition order to Abu Shafe’a.
He consulted a lawyer, but he told him that he could not annul the order.
Abu Shafe’a began salvaging furniture, the wife took the children and went to live with her parents until they could find a place to rent. Abu Shafe’a stayed at his mother’s home.
On December 22, the demolition squad including police and municipal workers came.
“It was around noon, there was no prior announcement,” Abu Shafe’a said.
“About 30 policemen spread out in the neighbourhood and the destruction was done,” he said.
Preventing a Palestinian capital
Al-Bustan is not the only neighbourhood in Silwan that is coming under pressure from the Israeli authorities.
Residents in Baten el-Hawa, in the heart of Silwan, are facing eviction orders after settler organisations successfully established ownership claims at Israeli courts.
Peace Now, an Israeli settlement watch group, says the lawsuits brought by settlers will result in the uprooting of an entire community in East Jerusalem based on exercising the law of “right of return”, which Israel only affords to its Jewish citizens.
Through al-Bustan, the settlers will establish contiguity of three locations. The City of David Park on the edge of Wadi Hilweh and Baten el-Hawa to the east.
“The vision is to connect the dots between all the settlements in Palestinian neighbourhoods,” Hagit Ofran, researcher and spokesperson at Peace Now, told Al Jazeera. “To surround the Old City to prevent a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.”
In stark contrast to the Jerusalem Municipality’s demolition policy towards Palestinians, stands a six-storey building in Batn el-Hawa, inhabited by Jewish settlers, since 2004.
“Yonatan House,” named after Jonathan Pollard, an American intelligence analyst who spied for Israel, was built without a permit two decades ago, yet the municipality ignored a court order to evacuate and seal the building and has left the house intact.
Meanwhile, Zuheir Rajabi, 50, and his family of six live in Batn el-Hawa just a few metres from Yonatan House.
An Israeli court has ruled that the family must leave their home after the pro-settler group Ateret Cohanim, through the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property, established ownership of land owned in the name of a trust intended to benefit poor Jewish Yemenite immigrants over a century ago.
Today, there are 87 eviction orders against the Palestinian inhabitants in Batn el-Hawa due to Ateret Cohanim’s lawsuits.
Rajabi told Al Jazeera there will be a strong reaction from residents if they begin carrying out the demolitions.
“If all the families stand united in the face of this policy then we can stop the execution of the orders,” Rajabi said.