Palestinians in Jerusalem's Old City face evacuation fears

Jerusalem Municipality orders evacuation of 22 homes in occupied East Jerusalem due to 'dangerous' damage sustained.

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    Hanan Slaima says the large cracks her home has sustained due to underground renovations by an Israeli company has made life difficult [Dareen Jubeh/Al Jazeera]
    Hanan Slaima says the large cracks her home has sustained due to underground renovations by an Israeli company has made life difficult [Dareen Jubeh/Al Jazeera]

    Since an Israeli water company working for the Jerusalem Municipality started conducting underground work in her neighbourhood about a month ago, Hanan Slaima says large cracks have formed on the walls and ceilings of rooms in the home located in the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem.

    Doors can no longer close fully as the surface of the floor has become uneven, while plastic basins are placed on the floor to catch water leaking from the ceiling. Elsewhere, water has seeped in through cracks in the walls, which has destroyed the electricity unit in her daughters' bedroom.

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    "The house was renovated only a year ago," Slaima told Al Jazeera. "All the neighbours told them to stop [the work] because we began to see cracks [in our homes] and over time the cracks grew larger," she said, adding that the water pipelines underground had burst at least four or five times during the month that the company was working underground.

    "They begin [work underground] late in the night and continue until the morning every day. We heard the digging and we felt the floor shake many times," the 62-year-old said.

    Residents in the same neighbourhood close to the Old City's Chain Gate, located a short walk away from the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque, also reported damage to their homes. 

    Seventy-year-old Ayda Abdeen told Al Jazeera that a part of the yard outside her home collapsed in the past month due to flooding when the pipelines burst.

    Water excavations Jerusalem 3 [Dareen Jubeh/Al Jazeera]
    Cracks in the wall are seen by the circuit breaker in Hanan Slaima's home [Dareen Jubeh/Al Jazeera]

    The residents blame the work carried out by the water company Gihon, which supplies water to Jerusalem and was working for the municipality to repair underground water and sewage infrastructure, for causing the damage.

    "I was born here and my family has lived here for hundreds of years and we never faced this situation; we never saw these cracks; we never saw a stone fall," Slaima said. 

    She said that when Gihon began work in the area and water began to seep into their homes, the neighbourhood residents brought professionals to check the foundation underneath their homes.

    "They told us that it seems there is a lake of water under the houses," Slaima said.

    Ahmad Sub Laban, a field researcher from the Israeli NGO Ir Amim told Al Jazeera that the buildings have been deemed dangerous due to water leaking from the main water network below the foundations which caused the cracks in the buildings.

    "It has happened before in Silwan and the Old City. Most of these buildings are considered dangerous due to water leaking under the foundation of buildings. Sometimes it's because of the digging in tunnels under their homes, like in Silwan, Wadi Hilweh [neighbourhood just outside the Old City]," Sub Laban said.

    There have been numerous reports in recent years by Palestinian residents, warning of the damage their homes have sustained, reportedly due to Israeli excavation work under and around the Old City.

    Water excavations Jerusalem 2 [Dareen Jubeh/Al Jazeera]
    Large cracks have appeared on the walls and ceilings of Hanan Slaima's home in the past month [Dareen Jubeh/Al Jazeera]

    Evacuation notice

    To make matters worse, Slaima received a notice from the Jerusalem Municipality's Dangerous Buildings Department, dated January 19, warning that the family must leave their home immediately and conduct the appropriate renovations to the building, as it was no longer safe to live in.

    If renovations were not made before the expiration of a 30-day deadline and the family did not leave, they would have to pay a fine of 3,600 Israeli New Shekels ($1,042) and then 160 Israeli New Shekels ($46) each day, Slaima said.

    The Slaima family was one of 22 households in the neighbourhood to receive such notices from the municipality, according to the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA.

    Abdeen said her family also received an evacuation notice but said the family would not leave and instead would live together in the room which had sustained the least damage. She said the family feared that there was no guarantee that they would be able to return home if they leave.

    "My main concern is why they want me to leave my house, when I could sit in the other room and renovate the house," Abdeen said.

    "Maybe they want to take it; the settlers are living on the other side from the street. They don't want to fund renovations for us, so why they are asking us to leave?"

    Residents in the area say they do not want to evacuate their homes as they feared they may not be allowed to return to them.

    The Jerusalem Municipality did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

    Israel occupied the eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967 and regards the entire city as its capital. According to a 2016 report by Ir Amim, settler organisations supported by the state have seized control of properties in Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem with the aim of boosting Israeli control in the city.

    Approximately 200,000 Israelis live in settlements in East Jerusalem. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state and say that settlements undermine that goal and the two-state solution. 

    Slaima said the 10-member family could not afford to pay for further renovations out of their own pocket as only one family member, her 22-year-old nephew, was currently employed.

    "I didn't sleep the whole night, thinking - what will we do? Where to go? Why are they asking us to leave instead of fixing all the damages [themselves] as it happened after they made the excavations?" Slaima said. "What I am sure of is that I'll never leave this house."

    Additional reporting by Dareen Jubeh in occupied East Jerusalem.

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