In the early hours of the morning on July 22, hundreds of Israeli military and police personnel descended into the Wadi Hummus area of the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sur Baher. After the forceful removal of four Palestinian families — complete with the use of pepper spray and a few arrests — the Israeli authorities proceeded to destroy 12 buildings made up of roughly 70 residential homes.
“That day was a black day. A really black day,” Ismail Obeidah, 48, told The Indypendent. He and his family of eight had lived in one of the now-destroyed apartments for two and a half years. “Everything I did for our future was destroyed this day,” Obeidah said with a lump in his throat. “Everything we owned was in that house and everything is gone.”
The home demolitions in Wadi Hummus received ample media coverage for their ferocity. But the fact of the matter is that forceful evictions of Palestinian families is a systematic policy on the part of Israel — and one that is on the rise. According to a recent United Nation’s report, the first four months of 2019 already saw more Palestinians displaced by home demolitions than in all of 2018, 193 compared to 178.
“It has to do with displacing an entire people, with taking their lands,” Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions, explained. “Through house demolitions, we’re able to show how the occupation works. What the intentions are and, of course, the costs, the human costs of occupation and oppression.” According to Halper, 65,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed since 1967, the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
Impunity in pulling the ‘security card’
After the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the West Bank was partitioned into three areas. Eighteen percent is Area A and is meant to be under full control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Twenty-two percent is Area B and is under PA civil jurisdiction and Israeli military jurisdiction. Most of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, 2.8 million people, live in Areas A and B. The remaining 60 percent are under complete Israeli military control, in a region that is also home to almost 450,000 Jewish Israeli settlers.
Sections of Wadi Hummus are in Area A, others in Area B, but the neighborhood is surrounded by an Israeli separation barrier. This detail is significant, as the strategic weaving of the barrier includes areas Israel wishes to annex and excludes existing Jerusalem neighborhoods that have high Palestinian populations.
“When we look at these policies and put them in the bigger picture,” Rania Muhareb, a legal researcher at the Palestinian think tank Al-Haq, explained, “this is part of a systematic plan to change and to alter the status of Jerusalem, to alter the demographic composition.”
In the West Bank, in Gaza, in East Jersualem and inside the borders of Israel itself, Palestinian homes are being demolished almost constantly. For stickier areas, like Wadi Hummus, “Israel pulls the security card,” Halper said. “They made a rule after the houses [in Wadi Hummus] were being built, a military order, saying you can’t build within 250 meters of the wall.”
“There is no military necessity that justifies the demolition of residential homes of civilians,” Muhareb said. The demolitions are illegal under international law, as is the wall itself, she added, noting that since 2004, the International Court of Justice has called on Israel to destroy the separation barrier, citing it as a political, not a security, measure.
Two weeks after the Wadi Hummus demolition, Israeli activist organization PeaceNow reported that 194 units would be added to the neighboring Ganei Modiin settlement and would run exactly along the perimeter of the wall, well within the claimed 250-meter limit.
“We know that all these protocols and the excuse of safety is just to remove all Palestinians from their land,” said Mohammed Abu Tair, an owner of one of the buildings destroyed in Wadi Hummus.
Meanwhile, the United States blocked a U.N. draft resolution condemning the home demolitions shortly after the incident in Wadi Hummus.
“It’s completely illegal, by almost every article of the Fourth Geneva Convention, what Israel is doing,” said Halper. However, “you cannot enforce international law, only the Security Council can enforce it and obviously the U.S. has veto power. Israel knows it will never be sanctioned.”
“It’s gotten worse since Trump became president,” Obeidah said. “Day after day we become more sure that America is a partner with Israel.”
A legal veneer
Though Israel cited security reasons in carrying out the operation in Wadi Hummus, most demolitions of Palestinian homes are carried out under civil law because they were built without Israeli-issued building permits.
“[Israel] uses zoning, planning law and administration mechanisms of control,” explained Halper. It has zoned almost 70 percent of the West Bank as “agricultural land” and most of East Jerusalem as “open green space,” both of which are set “for future urban development, which always means Jewish-Israeli” development.
In Jerusalem, Palestinians make up 40 percent of the population, yet have access to only 8 percent of municipal land. Of that 8 percent, only 1 or 2 percent is empty and available for construction. Through Israel’s zoning laws, it is nearly impossible for Palestinians to acquire a building permit. Meanwhile, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are deemed legal by Israel because those areas were rezoned to be residential — just not for Palestinians.
Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens and are unable to vote in national Israeli elections. They are not members of the Jerusalem City Council nor of any city planning committee. Yet they must play the game within the Israeli legal system.
“Israel wants to appear democratic [so] everything is done legally,” Halper said. “It’s true, Palestinians can get lawyers, go to the court, but they can never win.” In almost 30 years of activism, Halper does not recall a single Palestinian legal victory involving house demolitions.
“We have to pay taxes as much as a [Jewish-Israeli person] pays and we get zero rights, we get nothing,” Abu Tair said. “There is only one way: go to the Israeli government even though we know we are not going to win. It’s the only place we can go. If you are Jewish, you have more rights than us as Arabs. The only demand we have for the Israeli government is to leave us alone.”