JERUSALEM, 19 January 2011 (IRIN) – Evictions and house demolitions are a growing humanitarian concern for Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, says the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The consequences for families can be devastating: In addition to losing their homes, their main source of physical and economic security, families are faced with high legal bills, fines and charges, including the cost of their own eviction, OCHA says.
Jerusalem Municipality says it has the right to demolish illegal structures of any kind under local Israeli municipal law to ensure residents live in safe, legal homes.
Jerusalem Municipality authorities and the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority demolished 15 structures in the At-Tur neighbourhood of East Jerusalem on 29 December, OCHA said, including four residential structures, a private garage and water and sewage networks. Around 20 hectares of land were levelled and about 200 trees uprooted. Around 60 tons of iron was also reportedly confiscated.
Three of the eight families affected were registered refugees.
According to the municipality, inspectors in cooperation with Israeli police removed 11 structures and makeshift fences from the At-Tur area which had been built without permission on public land designated a national park.
“Signs and notices were posted requesting that the illegal structures be removed, and only once those requests had gone unheeded, the municipality decided to act,” according to a statement by the municipality seen by IRIN.
Nayeem Sbatan, 55, told IRIN his commercial garage, housing 40 vehicles in At-Tur, was demolished without warning by police and municipal authorities on 29 December, incurring about US$57,000 worth of damage.
Nayeem, a registered refugee and Jerusalem ID-card holder, lost his family business on the property he has owned for 18 years. “The natural resources sector of the municipality said they wanted to clear the area,” he said.
Under the Jerusalem Municipality planning regime, 13 percent of the land in East Jerusalem is currently zoned for Palestinian construction, while 35 percent is allocated to Israeli settlements, according to the European Union (EU). Only within this small area (13 percent) can Palestinians apply for an Israeli issued permit to build or repair homes and other livelihood-related structures, which has created a housing shortage and overcrowding in dilapidated homes.
Seventy-five percent of adults and 83 percent of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line, says the EU.
Sayed Abdullah, 60, his wife Muluk, 52, and their 10 children have been living next to what used to be Nayeem’s business for eight years. The 29 December demolition destroyed part of the Abdullah family home, a sanitation network and several water tanks. The family, registered refugees and Jerusalem ID-card holders, is receiving assistance from UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
“Authorities from the municipality came on 28 December and gave me an order to vacate my property in one month, and then demolished my neighbour’s property the next day,” said Sayed.
The UN and its partners are offering temporary shelter to the displaced. The International Committee of the Red Cross provides tents. UNRWA provides cash assistance and rent allowances for 3-6 months to registered refugees.
Seven international and local NGOs are providing support to the displaced and those at risk such as the Norwegian Refugee Council which facilitates legal representation for families.
Intensified settler activity
Settler activity in the Palestinian neighbourhoods, which in some cases has been directly supported by the Israeli government, has intensified in recent years and is often accompanied by attempts to have the Palestinian residents forcibly evicted, said OCHA. Likewise, house demolitions often clear the way for Israeli settlement construction.
Between 2001 and 2009, 37 percent of all settlement housing units in the occupied Palestinian territory were located in East Jerusalem, reports the EU.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reiterated last week that “the EU does not recognize” the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel, meaning structural changes to the territory are illegal under international law.
The municipality has introduced a re-zoning plan for the Silwan area of East Jerusalem, Elie Isaacson, spokesperson for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barakat’s office, told IRIN. It will allow the municipality to register illegal structures and collect overdue taxes.
“The re-zoning plan (which would legalize 75 percent of structures in the area) is pending approval by the Interior Ministry – the question is when,” said Isaacson. He hopes the plan will eventually cover all of East Jerusalem, including At-Tur. Meanwhile, Barakat’s office has asked the courts to place a demolition freeze on the Silwan area.
There are 20,000 illegal structures, mostly unsafe and lacking adequate water and sanitation networks in East Jerusalem. Of the 60,000 structures in all, 40,000 are registered with the municipality, according to Isaacson.
Structures lacking required permits place 88,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem at risk, says OCHA.
House demolitions have grave immediate and longer-term physical, social, economic and emotional effects on Palestinians, according to UK-based international NGO Save the Children, including increased poverty, as well as limited access to basic services, such as water, education and health care.
The impact on children has proved particularly devastating, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and reduced academic achievement after children are often forced to change schools.