Israel razes houses built illegally

JERUSALEM – The one-story house Amer Abu Diab built on a steep east Jerusalem hillside last year had a low fence, two bedrooms, a living room and an asphalt driveway, so the paraplegic 40-year-old could easily drive up to the door. The house had everything he needed — except a building permit.

It was knocked down two weeks ago, joining a long list of Palestinian homes demolished in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods. Israeli authorities say they are enforcing building laws. Critics say those laws are so restrictive that Palestinians have little choice but to build without permits.

On the lot where Abu Diab’s house used to stand, his wife, Ezziyeh, 37, searched for possessions among chunks of concrete and mangled steel poles. Their son Ahmad, a toddler, picked up pieces of broken tiles and put them in a red plastic wheelbarrow.

The demolition of Abu Diab’s home, and others like it in the past, are part of  Israel‘s effort to consolidate its control of the city, said Moshe Amirav, a Jerusalem expert from Haifa University.

In the nearly 40 years since the city was united under Israeli rule, Israeli authorities have purposely never completed detailed master plans for many Arab neighborhoods, making it difficult to get a building permit, he said.

“The government’s planning policy is not a secret: The goal is to decrease Arab construction in east Jerusalem,” Amirav said.

Palestinians have built 20,000 housing units illegally in east Jerusalem over the past 20 years and build between 400 and 500 more annually, with about 100 being knocked down, Amirav said.

Amer and Ezziyeh built their home because Amer found it difficult to get up the 60 steps to his parents’ home in another east Jerusalem neighborhood, and because there was no longer enough room there for them and their six children.

Abu Diab, whose legs have been paralyzed since birth, doesn’t work, getting by on a $760 monthly welfare stipend from the Israeli government. His right arm is also partially paralyzed.

With his father’s help, he bought a small parcel of land in the Jabel Mukaber neighborhood and built a house in 2005, without a permit. The city knocked it down. He built another house in 2006. This one also was illegal, but Abu Diab hoped that because it had an aluminum roof it would be considered a temporary structure and left alone.

The city immediately began demolition proceedings.

According to Jerusalem City Hall spokesman Gidi Schmerling, Abu Diab’s house was built illegally on land where construction is prohibited. Abu Diab was given time to contest the demolition, but his court appeal was rejected, Schmerling said.

On January 23, Ezziyeh Abu Diab said, police arrived, told the family to leave, and demolished the house.

“When they left, we sat here, and I rescued what I could,” she said. Abu Diab and his family received a tent and some basic supplies from the International Committee of the Red Cross, but are now back where they started: living with Amer’s parents.

Nine Palestinian homes were knocked down in east Jerusalem in January, according to Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, a group that fights home demolitions. Statistics from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem show that 245 houses were demolished in east Jerusalem between 2004 and 2006.

No one disputes that those homes were built against the law. The argument is over whether the law is fair.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War and annexed it. Palestinians now make up about one-third of the city’s 700,000 residents.

Though officially united, the city is still divided into two very different parts: the relatively orderly streets and apartment buildings of the Jewish areas and the haphazard neighborhoods of multistory family homes that sprawl over the hills of the city’s Arab neighborhoods.

Because the permit policy in east Jerusalem is seen as political, houses have become political weapons for Palestinians in their fight against Israel’s control of the city, Amirav said. Israel Kimhi, a Jerusalem city planner from the 1960s to the 1980s, said the problems were due mainly to a cultural disconnect between the city’s government and the semi-rural Arab villages Israel folded into Jerusalem after 1967. One of those villages was Jabel Mukaber, where Abu Diab built his home.

In Jabel Mukaber, many property boundaries were never delineated and property claims never registered, he said, making it difficult for City Hall to plan roads or sewage lines — or to grant building permits.

The city has not done enough, Kimhi said, to make it easier for Palestinians to negotiate the bureaucracy and build homes.

“In this situation, people feel they have no choice but to go ahead and build, and risk demolition,” he said.


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