July 17, 2022

Beit Arabiya symbolizes the 22,000 home demolition orders hang over Jerusalem

by Gil Zohar

JERUSALEM –

Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh and their seven children symbolize the Kafka-esque reality of life for many of the 245,000 Arabs dwelling in Israel’s capital: squeezed between restrictive zoning laws that make getting a building permit difficult and the policy of demolishing illegally built homes in east Jerusalem, the family is facing having its property bulldozed - for the fifth time.

On June 7, after a delay of more than two years, Justices Eliezer Rivlin, Ayala Procaccia and David Cheshin of Israel’s Supreme Court rejected the Shawamreh family’s appeal to rescind the demolition order on their home – a 110 sq. m. bungalow in the neighborhood of Anata, where the prophet Jeremiah lived and railed against corruption some 2,600 years ago.

The three judges rejected out of hand the argument of Shawamreh’s lawyer Labib Habib and human rights activist Leah Tsemel that the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids an occupying power from extending its law and administration into an occupied territory.

Habib then argued that the legal basis accepted by Israel for demolishing their home and thousands of others in the West Bank – RJ-5, a 1942 British Mandate-era plan that designated the entire southern portion of the West Bank as “agricultural land” – was itself illegal since it has never been revised over the past 67 years despite significant changes in demography and land use. Besides using the plan to deny the Shawamrehs their fundamental right to housing, RJ-5, Habib argued, was also used in a discriminatory manner, since the Israeli authorities set it aside when approving dozens of Israeli settlements on the same land denied to Palestinians for building. This argument, too, was rejected by the Court.

Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh outside their home -
pending demolition for the 5th time (photo: Gil Zohar)

No date has been given for the Civil Administration – the Orwell-worthy name by which the military occupation rule is officially known – to execute the court order. Border Police and regular police, armed with a demolition order and guns, usually arrive unannounced, explains Jeff Halper, director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD). After breaking down the front door, the house contents are quickly removed and the building flattened, he explains.

ICAHD's Jeff Halper showing the West Bank separation wall (photo: Gil Zohar)

“The Shawamreh house is the flagship of house demolitions,” he notes. “It represents thousands of Palestinian houses.”

Currently there are demolition orders against more than 22,000 homes in east Jerusalem, representing one third of the housing stock in the Arab sector there, adds ICAHD’s Angela Godfrey-Goldstein.

Further complicating the Shawamreh case, the family does not currently live in the house which they originally built in 1994 – and which was demolished and rebuilt twice in 1998, and again in 2001 and 2003. Situated on the east side of the anti-terror wall, the Shawamrehs prefer to rent a house in Jerusalem’s northern suburb of Kafr Aqab rather than risk losing their residency rights in the city. The wall gerrymanders across Jerusalem’s post-1967 municipal boundaries, excluding the Shuafat Refugee Camp and the older section of Anata that nominally belongs to Jerusalem. The Shawamreh homestead, which Salim named Beit Arabiya in honor of his wife, lies on the far side of that municipal line in what is known as Area B under the 1994 Oslo Accords.

The Shawamreh’s modern stone building, equipped with a kitchen, refrigerator and all the modern conveniences, has been used every summer in recent years as a “peace camp” where volunteers from abroad stay for two weeks while rebuilding demolished Palestinian homes. This year’s contingent of 65 youth from Spain, Britain, the U.S., Norway and France will be working August 2-17 to rebuild two 100 sq. m. homes nearby in Anata, explains Halper. The Spanish government has provided €100,000 for the effort, he adds. In a gesture to Muslim modesty, women sleep inside the house while men stay in tents in the stony garden. The building stands in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Bedouin shanties, and piles of construction debris from previously demolished houses.

“It’s illegal to rebuild demolished houses,” Halper adds laconically. ICAHD has rebuilt 160 houses in Jerusalem and the West Bank since 1998, he notes. The Shawamreh home was the first one. The organization has received funding from the European Union, and from donors and church organization in the U.S. One American donor, a Holocaust survivor who wishes to remain anonymous, has given $1-million. “’I don’t want Israel to demolish houses in my name,’ is how he put it,” says Halper.

Salim Shawamreh was born in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1956 when it was under Jordanian rule. When he was nine, his family was relocated to the Shuafat refugee camp near Anata. Shawamreh made his money working for a decade as a construction engineer in Saudi Arabia. He bought his 1.5 dunam (1,500 sq. m.) parcel of land in 1989 for $35,000, he says. He has applied three times to get a building permit from the Jerusalem municipality. The applications, costing $5,000 each, were turned down for various technical reasons. Once he was informed the land was zoned for agriculture, and another time that the hillside site is too steep for construction.

Major Guy Inbar, the Civil Administration’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, commented: “The Shawamreh family deliberately broke the law numerous times and illegally built its house without the required permits again and again, and thus the Civil Administration in its authority as the body responsible for controlling illegal construction in Judea and Samaria.”

In a further arbitrary and bizarre twist, a Civil Administration spokesman told the Ha’aretz newspaper that the Shawamrehs would be granted a permit if they provided what the Civil Administration claimed were two missing signatures on their deed of ownership – yet it would not reveal what signatures were required despite repeated queries, finally saying they had lost the Shawamreh file altogether.

“It’s a quiet transfer policy,” says Shawamreh. “It’s a hidden message to get out of here.”

Godfrey-Goldstein, who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, is blunter. “It’s demographic warfare.”

Notwithstanding that in 2005 the Israel Defense Force ceased blowing up the homes of terrorists, recognizing that collective punishment was counter-productive, house demolitions continue on a weekly basis, she says. Often an owner will self-demolish his home rather than pay the punitive costs imposed by the court. Shawamreh was assessed $7,000 in court costs in his most recent unsuccessful appeal, he notes.

Since the zoning of almost all open land in Palestinian East Jerusalem by the Israeli Government as “open green space” after the 1967 war (and since Palestinians would not be allowed to live in Jewish West Jerusalem), there is little space at all for the Palestinians, says ICAHD.

The reasons are political, not urban. Amir Cheshin, former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek’s Advisor on Arab Affairs and one of the architects of the post-1967 policy, describes the intention in detail in his book Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 31-32):

"[In 1967], Israel’s leaders adopted two basic principles in their rule of East Jerusalem. The first was to rapidly increase the Jewish population in East Jerusalem. The second was to hinder the growth of the Arab population and to force Arab residents to make their homes elsewhere. It is a policy that has translated into a miserable life for the majority of East Jerusalem Arabs…. Israel turned urban planning into a tool of the government, to be used to help prevent the expansion of the city’s non-Jewish population. It was a ruthless policy, if only for the fact that the needs (to say nothing of the rights) of Palestinian residents were ignored. Israel saw the adoption of strict zoning plans as a way of limiting the number of new homes built in Arab neighborhoods, and thereby ensuring that the Arab percentage of the city’s population – 28.8% in 1967 – did not grow beyond this level. Allowing “too many” new homes in Arab neighborhoods would means mean “too many” Arab residents in the city. The idea was to move as many Jews as possible into East Jerusalem, and move as many Arabs as possible out of the city entirely. Israeli housing policy in East Jerusalem was all about this number game."

“When drawing the zoning boundaries for the Arab neighborhoods, planners with the city engineer’s office limited them to already built-up areas. Adjoining open areas were either zoned “green,” to signify they were off-limits to development, or left unzoned until they were needed for the construction of Jewish housing projects. The 1970 Kollek plan contains the principles upon which Israeli housing policy is based to this day – expropriation of Arab-owned land, development of large Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, and limitations on development in Arab neighborhoods."

Destroying Palestinian homes and communities has become an obsession with Israel; proceeding without pause, says ICAHD. These actions contravene not only the spirit, but also the letter of the moribund Road Map, which demands in Phase 1 already that, “the Government of Israel ends actions undermining trust, including attacks in civilian areas and confiscation / demolition of Palestinian homes / property…as a punitive measure or to facilitate Israeli construction.”