Changing the demography of Occupied East Jerusalem

 “All measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and that Israel’s policies and practices of settling parts of it population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention….and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

United Nations Security Council Resolution 465 (Adopted 1 March 1980)

Wadi Al Joz is a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem about 10 minutes walk away from the flat where I lived when I was an Ecumenical Accompanier in East Jerusalem in last Autumn. It lies downhill just outside the walls of the Old City on an untarmacked road regularly taken by Israeli settlers en route to the Western Wall to pray. It joins up with an area identified as the Kidron Valley. There are 10 Palestinian houses along this part of the road built on land variously owned by a Wacf (a Muslim trust) or private Palestinian owners.

Areef with his family outside his house 2015

Areef with his family outside his house 2015

Areef Totanji had been living in Wadi al-Joz for 18 years as a tenant of a private landlord along with 15 members of his extended family including five children.  Areef is a quiet slightly nervy man. He is known locally as a healer. People who cannot afford conventional medicine come to him for advice.  He uses natural teas and other plants for illnesses: maramia (sage) and nana (mint) for stomach ailments; jowafa (guava) for coughs. He also believes he can cure people by passing his hands above the affected parts of peoples’ bodies without touching, to draw away the tension and pain.  He believes it is a gift and does not charge for his services.

We first visited him in early October. We had heard that his son, Mahmoud[1], had had his house demolished a couple of months earlier. We sat outside with Areef and drank the usual sweet tea while he told us the story. The tiny garden was neatly laid out with bright flowers and herbs. Several children hung around along with a number of well-fed cats.

Mahmoud’s house had only just been completed and he and his pregnant wife had not yet properly moved in.  It was only a four minute walk away from Areef’s house and Areef had actually been sleeping there with Mahmoud when the bulldozers arrived and reduced the house to rubble. Mahmoud was so distressed that he was hospitalised with a nervous condition.

 

Mahmoud's house demolished 18 August 2015

Mahmoud’s house demolished 18 August 2015

He had used all of his savings over several years to build the house and now it was all gone. He had been discharged but was still very upset and depressed.  He appeared briefly but then went indoors and did not join us. Instead his wife came out to show us their two month old baby daughter and passed her round to each of us for a cuddle.

 

When I went to say goodbye to Areef before I left Jerusalem last year he was very agitated. He had just received a court order to produce planning permission for his house within three months or the house would be demolished. There was no planning permission. The owners had not applied for any. It takes months, it is expensive and statistics show that nearly all planning applications from Palestinians in Jerusalem are rejected. He looked distraught. His last words to me in his meagre broken English were: ‘I don’t want to kill the Jew, but I don’t want the Jew to kill me.’

On 9th May 2016, Areef’s house was demolished.

Areef's house demolished 9 May 2016

Areef’s house demolished 9 May 2016

An EA, Johanna, serving in Jerusalem at the time wrote movingly about it at the time: she described that when she arrived Areef was beside himself, shouting. Soldiers prevented both them and the family approaching the house. They stood with Areef as the bulldozers destroyed his home. He told them soldiers had woken them at 4.00 a.m. As usual in such cases the family were told to dress and leave. Soldiers then removed the furniture. One of the soldiers said: “I don’t like doing this. I don’t like destroying people’s homes.” Areef pointed out that he was still in his slippers. He had not had time to find his shoes. Johanna described the mother cat, calling for her kittens, now buried under the rubble.

I tried to find Areef when I was in Jerusalem in October this year. I went to see the ruins of his house and enquired after the family but could not find anyone who knew where they had gone.  Someone told me that the family had been split up and were living with friends and relations somewhere near the Old City. Someone else told me that Areef himself was living in Mount Scopus, near the big Israeli Hadassah hospital but he could not give me a contact number.

I walked on down the track and called on another family living nearby. Nureddin Amro had had part of his house demolished in 2014. I wrote about the Amro family last year in my blog “Living under threat of demolition” which you can see here.  The Amros reported that they have not had any further notification of demolition but the police and army constantly patrol the area and linger outside their house. They find this very intimidating and are constantly on edge.

From August 2004 up to the end of August 2016, 641 houses have been destroyed in East Jerusalem leaving 2,358 people homeless, 1,297 of them minorsThe reason given in most cases is that the buildings have been built without planning permission.  Planning permission is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain and the process long and expensive. Most Palestinians build without. A recent report featured by the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz reveals that only 7% of Jerusalem building permits go to Palestinian neighbourhoods.

The Israeli government’s position is that this whole area has been designated for a park and that these buildings will all be razed. It is part of a plan for Jerusalem to improve it and make it more beautiful. Virtually all of (mainly Palestinian) East Jerusalem has been zoned as “open green space,” meaning a Palestinian can own land but cannot build on it, the land being reserved for future urban development. All of Wadi Al Joz is in occupied East Jerusalem captured during the Six-Day War in 1967 and annexed by Israel in 1980. Annexation of conquered territory is illegal under international law. East Jerusalem remains occupied Palestinian territory and thus comes under the Fourth Geneva Convention which explicitly forbids destruction of property unless for reasons of military necessity.

The Jerusalem municipality reports that it would be necessary to build 1,500 new housing units per year to accommodate the natural growth of the Palestinian population in the city, but between 1967 and 2015 only 14,000 permits were approved, averaging 291 each year. According to the Israeli organisation, Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, the official policy of the Israeli government is to maintain a 72%-28% majority of Jews over Arabs in Jerusalem (the actual ratio today is about 64%-36%).  Palestinians in Jerusalem do not have Israeli citizenship even if their families have lived there for generations. They only have permanent residency that can be revoked.

Several Israelis have spoken to me about the ‘demographic threat’[2]. Other than ultra-Orthodox families, Jewish families tend to be smaller than Palestinian ones. They are very frightened of being outnumbered by Palestinians. This deep seated fear drives a whole raft of discriminatory laws and practices.

On 9 November the Israeli administration destroyed a petrol station in Wadi al-Joz.  The destruction of Palestinian owned properties along this valley rolls inexorably on. Palestinians are slowly and steadily being driven out.

1] Areef’s name is in the public domain. I have changed his son’s name because it is not.

[2] An article in Haaretz in January 2013 forecast that by end of 2016 Arabs and Jews in the whole of Israel-Palestine will total around 6.5 million each. By 2020 Arabs will exceed that of Jews: 7.2 million Arabs compared to 6.9 million Jews.

I am no longer an Ecumenical Accompanier and the views expressed in this article are entirely my own.

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2 Responses to Changing the demography of Occupied East Jerusalem

  1. This shows such a personal tragedy for the family but also how these policies are affecting lives in Jerusalem and I guess other places too in Israel.

  2. Thanks, Georgina. I fear it is a very common story.

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