The Jerusalem Post

House demolition threatens Mount of Olives family unable to pay court fine

April 20, 2022

by Gil Zohar

JERUSALEM - NGOs like the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, Bimkon – Planners for Planning Rights, and Rabbis for Human Rights routinely decry the difficulties Palestinians have in obtaining building permits. According to ICAHD, since 1967, more than 2,000 homes have been demolished in east Jerusalem while the number of outstanding administrative and punitive demolition orders is estimated at up to 20,000. The most egregious case is that of Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh in Anata (Area C) adjoining Jerusalem to the northeast whose home was demolished January 23rd for the fifth time, along with a number of other structures in the Bedouin compound.

 

But the reality of demolitions is more nuanced. Witness the case of the State of Israel vs. Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa, which has been making its way through the Jerusalem Municipal Court for more than three years and is scheduled to resume April 24.

 

The government’s case against Abu el-Hawa, 69, a well-known member of Jerusalem Peacemakers, a group he co-founded with fellow Jerusalemites Eliyahu McLean and the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, and a prominent member of the 3,000-strong clan of the same name that lives in the a-Tur neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, doesn’t fit the stereotype for several reasons.

Haj Ibrahim

First off, Haj Ibrahim, as he is universally known, is not a refugee but a stateless person who still owns the house in which he was born and raised. A retiree who collects a pension from the Bezek telephone company for which he worked for decades as a technician, and from the National Insurance Institute, he has an Israeli Identity Card but no passport or nationality. Having declined to take out Israeli citizenship, he must carry an Israeli laissez-passer – a document that some countries don’t recognize - in order to travel overseas to visit his two adult children living in the United States. Those children in Louisiana and North Carolina have lost their Jerusalem residence permits because they didn’t return annually to renew their status.

 

Unlike many parts of east Jerusalem and the areas controlled by Israel’s Civil Administration as the military rule is euphemistically referred to, zoning is in place on the one-dunam parcel which Haj Ibrahim inherited. The plot has been in his family’s control for hundreds of years he says, adding his clan traces its roots back to the Islamic conquest of the Middle East nearly 14 centuries ago. And unlike many streets in east Jerusalem, Abu el-Hawa’s road even has an official name – Salman al-Farsi St. - allowing for mail delivery and the provision of other government services.

On May 11, 2022 Abu el-Hawa paid for and obtained a building permit for a 600 sq meter multi-generational family home. The permit was expensive, he recalls vaguely. Hiring day laborers and utilizing his extended family, he immediately began excavating the foundation and then erecting the building, which is located on a steep hillside looking out over the Judean Desert toward Ma’aleh Adumim.

 

The reinforced concrete stone-clad structure went up in spurts whenever money was available. In 2000 Haj Ibrahim's son Umar, today the father of six who drives a taxi for a living, moved into his unit on the ground floor. Five years later he was followed by Muhammad, a plumber and the father of three, who shares the garden level. Later in 2005 a third son Hamid moved into the floor above. Like Umar, Hamid is also a taxi driver. He has four children.

 

While everything was still within the letter of the law, Abu el-Hawa decided that he would like to move out of his crowded ancestral home closer to the ridge of the Mount of Olives in order to live alongside his children and grandchildren. He then illegally added a two-floor frame atop the legal building. The lower level of the addition has never been completed while the upper floor was intended for Haj Ibrahim and his wife Naima, today 68. The four-floor building lacks an elevator but a staircase from the road offers easy access to the spacious upper level.

 

The couple moved in in 2009. But a year earlier a municipal inspector noted the illegal addition. The municipality sent licensed real estate appraiser Mordechai Alemelech to examine the unlicensed construction. Alemelech passed his photos and documentation on to Amir Hofshi, another professional appraiser, who determined the two new floors measuring 480 sq meters were worth NIS 720,000. The case began snaking its way through the Russian Compound courtroom of Madame Justice Ruth Zokhobetsky. On August 3, 2021 Abu el-Hawa was convicted under Article 219 of the Building and Planning Code of building an addition without a requisite permit.

 

While prosecutor Hodiah Ben Noam has asked for a fine of double the assessment, and while Justice Zokhobetsky proposed reducing that to NIS 720,000 to be paid in 30 equal monthly installments of NIS 24,000, sentencing has been repeatedly postponed.

 

The hearing last July 4 was adjourned when Abu el-Hawa fainted in the courtroom. The pensioner, who walks with difficulty and sometimes uses a cane or a wheelchair, explains he suffers from poor circulation in his legs stemming from a work accident in 1986. As well, he has gout and diabetes, and has repeatedly been hospitalized in recent months, his condition exacerbated by the stress of the threat of demolition.

 

For Abu el-Hawa and his three adult children living in the building, the fine is an impossible sum to raise. He shows his most recent monthly pension from Bezek – NIS 3,767. Both he and his wife Naima receive some NIS 1,800 monthly from National Insurance.

 

Banks refuse to provide mortgages in east Jerusalem, el-Hawa continues. Nor would he consider selling one of the units in his family building to pay the fine, thus legalizing the entire structure.

 

“There’s not enough income [to pay the fine],” he explains matter-of-factly. “Each one [of my sons] has three, four or six children.”

 

“Why do Jews have the right to build settlements but I don’t have the right to build [a home] for my children?,” he asks.

 

More pointedly, Abu el-Hawa expresses disappointment that his many friends and colleagues in peace circles haven’t shown support. “I sent an e-mail to everyone. But I didn’t see them in court. Where are the friends (from peace circles)? Where is the help?,” he laments.

 

“There has to be some human understanding of a gentleman who has worked with Bezek for 17 years. Housing is essential for families,” observes Ruth Cohn, an art history professor at Haifa University who has come to court twice on el-Hawa’s behalf.

 

Abu el-Hawa offers his own judgment. “I’d like to give the [unfinished] third floor to an orphanage or something, say for 10 years,” he suggests.

 

“There’s no way I can pay [the fine],” he shrugs. In a worst case scenario, the court could rule that the illegal construction be demolished, and that the defendant be forced to pay for the demolition of his own home.

 

“I’ll never let them do it,” Abu el-Hawa threatens. “We’ll call for friends to demolish the two upper floors cinder block by cinder block. I don’t have money for bulldozers.”