Israel’s home demolitions a ‘war on nerves’ for Palestinians

East Jerusalem residents know that suspended demolition orders remain in force and may be executed at any moment.

Palestinian children play on the remains of their home after it was demolished by Israeli forces
Palestinians in East Jerusalem have long complained that they face discriminatory housing policies that favour Jews [File: Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Silwan, occupied East Jerusalem – Sabah Bader, 57, spent her life savings from working as a chef on an apartment she could finally call her own, hoping for some sense of security for herself and her son.

But since she moved into a 13-unit building in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, south of the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem, eight years ago, the single mother’s life has been far from secure.

Bader and the nearly 100 other Palestinians living i­­n the same building have had the threat of demolition and forced displacement by Israeli authorities constantly hanging over them.

Residents of the 13-unit building – at least half of whom are minors – received a final Israeli demolition order on February 5, under the pretext that their building “lacks a permit”.

Days later, following international pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the demolition would be indefinitely postponed.

While the building’s removal was put off, the demolition order remains in force and may be executed at any moment.

“Even if they demolish this building, I will put up a tent and stay here. I am not better than any of the people living in refugee camps – I will become exactly like them,” Bader told Al Jazeera from her home.

Under the new right-wing Israeli government sworn in late last year, Israeli officials have been fast-tracking the demolition of Israeli-designated “illegal” Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem, including in the neighbourhoods of Silwan, Jabal al-Mukaber and Hizma.

These Israeli policies mean that at least one-third of all Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem lack an Israeli-issued building permit, with more than 100,000 residents at risk of forced displacement, according to United Nations (UN) figures.

Close to 1,000 other Palestinians are facing forced eviction from their homes in cases filed against them by Israeli settler groups, many with support from the Israeli government.

Recent escalation

On Monday, Israeli forces demolished two homes belonging to a father and his son from the Basheer family in Jabal al-Mukaber, unleashing widespread confrontations with residents, during which at least 30 Palestinians – including an Al Jazeera cameraman – were shot and injured with rubber-coated bullets.

Raed Basheer, the lawyer for the families of the neighbourhood, said there were also at least two people injured with live ammunition, who are currently hospitalised.

“This was the first time in years that such a confrontation happens in Jabal al-Mukaber,” Basheer told Al Jazeera.

“What is happening is purely political – it is a policy of collective punishment and pressure, to forcibly displace Palestinian Jerusalemites and intensify Judaization of the city,” he added.

Since the start of this year, Israeli forces have demolished at least 47 Palestinian-built structures in occupied East Jerusalem, including inhabited and uninhabited homes, stores, and other structures. By February 7, at least 60 Palestinians were made homeless due to the demolitions, according to the UN.

Bader, the retired chef in Silwan, says it is “impossible” for her to leave yet another house after struggling with high rent in the city for years.

“They want us to leave Jerusalem and to leave the country by demolishing our homes. I – the mother of Ameen Bader – say that there is no way that I will leave this house. They can demolish it on top of our heads – at least we will die as martyrs fighting for our homes and lands”.

Local and international NGOs and rights groups have long pointed to a range of Israeli practices and policies in Jerusalem aimed at altering the demographic ratio in favour of Jews.

Israel militarily occupied and illegally annexed the eastern half of the city in 1967. Only 13 percent is zoned for Palestinian development and residential construction, most of which is already built up, with the remainder under Israeli state and settler control.

Forcible displacement and transfer of a militarily-occupied population is a violation of international law and a war crime.

Approximately 200,000 Israelis live in illegal settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, many built on private Palestinian land. They also live in Palestinian homes taken over by settlers with the help of the state.

On January 11, the Palestinian Authority (PA) said the home demolitions in Jerusalem and in ‘Area C’ of the occupied West Bank are among the “worst forms of ethnic cleansing committed by the Israeli government”.

The PA said it “regards very seriously the policy of the Israeli government to intensify and escalate the demolition of Palestinian homes and facilities, in an attempt to eliminate the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem and all areas classified as Area C” in order to allocate these areas for illegal settlements.

Between 1967 and 1995, more than 88 percent of housing construction in occupied East Jerusalem took place in illegal Israeli settlements supported by governmental subsidies.

General shots of the building in Wadi Qaddum, Silwan
Since the start of 2023, Israeli forces have demolished at least 47 Palestinian-built structures in occupied East Jerusalem [File: Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Al Jazeera]

‘Their entire presence is without a licence’

Due to the very high cost of housing and restrictive Israeli policies, Bader – like thousands of other Palestinians – resorted to purchasing an apartment in an “unlicenced” – therefore cheaper – building.

While an apartment in an Israeli-licenced building in occupied East Jerusalem costs approximately 1-1.5 million Israeli shekels ($284,000-$425,000), those without permits range from 350-400,000 shekels ($99,000-$113,000).

“Where am I going to get this kind of money to buy an apartment in a licenced building? I studied to be a chef and I worked for 15 years,” said Bader.

“I put all my savings into this house, and now it’s going to go for nothing. And for what? Because of Israel? And because it’s a building without a licence? All of their construction is without a licence! Their entire presence here is without a licence!” she added.

Many of those who build homes without permits, or purchase in “unlicenced” buildings do so with the hope and the impression that their homes may eventually become “licenced” by the Israeli Jerusalem municipality.

Resident of the building in Silwan, Arafat al-Nabi, 57, told Al Jazeera he believes Israel wants Palestinians in Jerusalem “to give up and move to the West Bank.” [File: Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Al Jazeera]
Resident of the building in Silwan, Arafat al-Nabi, 57, told Al Jazeera he believes Israel wants Palestinians in Jerusalem “to give up and move to the West Bank.” [File: Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Al Jazeera]

Residents in many areas take it upon themselves to develop their own land planning schemes, which they present to the municipality in order to challenge their demolition orders, in the hope of getting their structures added to the current boundaries of each neighbourhood, many of which have not been updated since the 1967 occupation.

They end up paying millions in monthly fines to the Israeli municipality as violations for living in an “unlicenced building,” and to lawyers and engineers to develop alternative plans, only to have their homes demolished in the end.

Those in the Silwan building, for example, were told by the municipality that they could get the building licenced if they managed to purchase an adjacent plot of land to be allocated for “public use” for the neighbourhood. They were given a week to do so in December.

The lands around the building are all privately owned and are worth over 1 million shekels ($284,000), which the residents of the building have to pay for out of their own pockets.

“We applied for a licence – we have an engineer and a lawyer – and we submitted an organisational plan for the area, yet we have been suffering for seven years,” Arafat al-Nabi, a 57-year-old resident of the building, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a war on our nerves. We don’t sleep, we don’t eat, we don’t leave the building,” he continued.

To al-Nabi and the rest of the residents, the motive of Israeli demolitions is clear.

“It is forced displacement. They want us to give up and move to the West Bank. The more they empty Jerusalem of its Palestinian residents, the more settlers they can bring in,” said al-Nabi.

Still, he believes Palestinians “will always have hope” of remaining in their homes. “We have knocked on every door to try and get this resolved,” he said. “They cannot kill our hope.”

Source: Al Jazeera