Displacing Palestinian families amid COVID-19

“There’s nowhere else to go”

Oct 21, 2020
Displacing Palestinian families amid COVID-19
A Palestinian boy watches as an excavator hired by his family demolishes their family home in the Al-Tur neighborhood of East Jerusalem on July 2, 2020. (Photo: AFP / Ahmad Gharabli)

Ramallah, October 19, 2020—Wael Tahan, a 47-year-old Palestinian truck driver, built his home in 1992 on his own land in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. In mid-August, he watched Israeli bulldozers demolish that home. “My children always ask me why the house was demolished, what we are going to do, and how long this will go on, and I honestly do not have any answer.” 

Despite the growing number of cases of COVID-19 in Israel and the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, Israeli authorities have accelerated the demolition of Palestinian homes in 2020. Tahan’s family is among the 278 people, including 141 children, displaced by Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem this year, according to B’Tselem. 

Tahan, who has 11 children including seven under 18 years old, first received a letter instructing him to visit the Jerusalem municipality offices seven months after he built the two-story, 220-square-meter (2,348-square-foot) home. Israeli authorities accused Wael of building the home without a permit and on land where construction was restricted. The municipality referred the case to the courts, where fines were issued and demolitions ordered and postponed over the 27 years that followed.

“I was told to fix the legal status of the house with the municipality, and I really tried to do that through lawyers and engineers,” Tahan told Defense for Children International - Palestine. “The municipality refused using the pretext that the land was not classified for construction and it was confiscated by the municipality to establish public facilities.” 

Tahan’s experience is not unique. During 2020, DCIP documented 17 home demolitions in East Jerusalem mandated by Israeli authorities that displaced 108 Palestinians, including 65 children. In each case, Israeli authorities cited the reason for the home demolition as the lack of building permits. 

East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood sits south of the Old City. (Photo: DCIP / Faiz Abu Rmeleh)

Nine of the home demolitions took place in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem characterized by overcrowding due, largely, to the Jerusalem municipality’s prevailing policy of rejecting applications for building permits by Palestinian applicants. 

Israel authorities employ discriminatory zoning policies, making Palestinian residential construction permissible in only a tiny fraction of East Jerusalem and demolishing structures built without permits, according to research by DCIP. 

For Palestinians, applying for building permits with Israeli authorities can be a lengthy process that is prohibitively expensive and highly unlikely to result in actually obtaining a building permit. 

While East Jerusalem is considered part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory under international law, Israel considers it part of its own territory, since militarily seizing the area in 1967. International bodies never recognized the annexation.

The UN Security Council reaffirmed in 1968 that the “acquisition of territory by military conquest is inadmissible.” Resolution 252 also called any attempt to change the status of the city “invalid.”

Israel nonetheless began occupying and administering East Jerusalem with a stated goal of maintaining a Jewish demographic majority in Jerusalem.

Consequently, Palestinians are forced to build homes without permits, a criminal offense under Israel’s Planning and Building Law 1965, leaving homes at constant risk of demolition and homeowners at risk of fines and arrest.

For decades, Tahan faced significant fines and the persistent threat of demolition. An Israeli court imposed a 280,000 Israeli new shekel ($81,000) fine in 1992 or 1993, according to Tahan, and he paid it in full in 2010. However, in December 2019, an Israeli court issued another 100,000ILS fine ($29,000) and ordered the demolition of the home. Six months later, the municipality ordered Tahan and his family to evacuate their home.

“I refused the idea of ​​evacuating the house because I honestly did not know what to do or where to go,” said Tahan. 

Around 7 a.m. on August 11, 2020, Tahan’s son called to tell him the house was surrounded by Israeli police forces and two bulldozers. 

“I rushed back to the house and tried to talk to the officer in charge in order to allow me to evacuate some of our belongings,” Tahan told DCIP. “At first, he refused. I insisted and argued with him, and he eventually allowed us to remove some of the contents.”

At 9 a.m. two Israeli bulldozers began to tear down the house. “It was a painful scene,” he recalled. “The house was turned into large rubble. It broke me.” 

In total, Tahan estimates financial losses at approximately 2.3 million ILS ($665,003) between construction costs, fines, and legal fees.

The demolished building contained four apartments and was home to his wife, children, and grandchildren. “Now we live in separate houses away from each other,” laments Tahan. “I do not know what I can do or what might happen.”

Between January 1 and August 31, 2020, Israeli authorities carried out 89 home demolitions in East Jerusalem, according to B’Tselem. Palestinian property owners demolished their own homes in 59 of the cases to avoid paying thousands of dollars in fees to Israeli authorities to carry out the demolition.

According to a home demolition database maintained by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), the rate of demolitions in East Jerusalem greatly increased in June when Israeli authorities demolished 27 structures, compared to 15 in the previous month. August, too, saw a particularly high number of demolitions, when Israeli authorities demolished 24 structures, compared to 17 the previous month.

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