East Jerusalem – Fakhri Abu Diab, 59, may soon have to decide whether to hire a team to demolish his family’s building.
Diab is a community activist and one of many Palestinian residents of Al-Bustan neighborhood in Silwan, occupied East Jerusalem, received demolition orders from the Israeli-run Jerusalem Municipality in December.
He has built his property – in which 13 family members live in three units – without permission, having been denied permission four times since his first application in 1987.
If the municipality executes the demolition order, served on December 9, the cost could be $ 30,000.
Diab says if he loses his house, “I have no other alternative at the moment than to pitch a tent”.
He says 21 demolition orders were issued to Al-Bustan in December alone.
Homeowners and observers fear that the municipality, with the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is preparing to raze a significant number of Palestinian homes in the city in the coming weeks.
New Israeli parliamentary elections scheduled for March and the final days of outgoing US President Donald Trump in the White House could accelerate such a move.
“There is a lot of pressure from the far right both in the city and nationally to take advantage of the remaining time,” Laura Wharton, Jerusalem city councilor for the left-wing Israeli Meretz party, told Al Jazeera.
Wharton estimates that the number of standing demolition orders in East Jerusalem stands at 30,000. However, she does not expect all to be at imminent risk.
In 2020 alone, the United Nations recorded 170 demolitions in East Jerusalem alone and 644 in Area C of the occupied West Bank.
Figures indicate that this is the second highest number of demolitions after 2016 since the UN began recording demolitions in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2009.
A freeze on the demolition of inhabited homes in East Jerusalem went into effect on October 1 to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the Jerusalem municipality abruptly ended the freeze on November 11.
When Al Jazeera contacted the Jerusalem Municipality for its response to the new demolition orders, it did not address the issue but said in a statement: “Jerusalem is one of the main cities in the world responding to needs of its people, all of its inhabitants, especially during this difficult time.
Silwan, which sits south of the Old City Walls, has long been the target of ultra-nationalist religious settlers who often wield influence over the Jerusalem Municipality, Wharton said.
“It’s a problem when you have extremists both within the municipality and at the national level, a PM who is trying to prove himself,” Wharton told Al Jazeera.
Fight for Silwan
About 30,000 Palestinians live in Silwan, many of them in substandard homes with poor infrastructure.
About 500 Jewish settlers live in settlements scattered across Silwan.
The City of David Foundation, an Israeli NGO commonly known as El-Ad (the Hebrew acronym for “To the City of David”), was founded in 1986 primarily to advance land claims through archeology and settler housing in Silwan.
In the mid-1990s, he was contracted out to manage the City of David Park, which he intends to expand from Wadi Hilweh near Al-Bustan.
The plan calls for the demolition of nearly 90 Palestinian homes to make way for a national park and new residential development for settlers.
The Jerusalem Municipality officially changed the name of Al-Bustan to Gan Hamelekh (King’s Garden) on the grounds that it was a garden for Israelite kings thousands of years ago.
Palestinian residents of Al-Bustan have consistently had building permit applications rejected by the municipality because it is considered “an open landscape area” under a program called the King’s Valley.
‘My house is destroyed’
“I have been hurt in so many ways; my house is destroyed… my wife and children are now living apart from me, ”Kazem Abu Shafe’a, 28, told Al Jazeera.
Abu Shafe’a needed a home for his family of four. But, as a caregiver for the elderly with a modest income, he could not afford to leave Silwan.
So in August, he decided to build a house for his family above his mother’s house – also facing a demolition order – without asking for permission.
They moved into the extended property in early November, but on November 17, city officials handed Abu Shafe’a a demolition order.
He consulted a lawyer, but told him he could not reverse the order.
Abu Shafe’a started collecting furniture, the woman took the children and went to live with her parents until they found accommodation to rent. Abu Shafe’a stayed with his mother.
On December 22, the demolition team, made up of police and municipal workers, arrived.
“It was around noon, there had been no prior announcement,” Abu Shafe’a said.
“About thirty police officers dispersed in the neighborhood and the destruction was done,” he said.
Prevent a Palestinian capital
Al-Bustan is not the only neighborhood in Silwan to come under pressure from the Israeli authorities.
Residents of Baten el-Hawa, in the heart of Silwan, face eviction orders after settler organizations have successfully asserted their property rights in Israeli courts.
Peace Now, an Israeli settlement watchdog, says settler lawsuits will uproot an entire community in East Jerusalem on the basis of the exercise of the “right of return” law, which Israel grants only to its Jewish citizens.
Thanks to al-Bustan, the settlers will establish the contiguity of three localities. City of David Park on the edge of Wadi Hilweh and Baten el-Hawa to the east.
“The vision is to connect the dots between all the settlements in the Palestinian neighborhoods,” Hagit Ofran, researcher and spokesperson for Peace Now, told Al Jazeera. “Surround the old city to prevent a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.”
In stark contrast to the Jerusalem Municipality’s demolition policy towards Palestinians, stands a six-story building in Batn el-Hawa, inhabited by Jewish settlers since 2004.
“Yonatan House,” named after Jonathan Pollard, a US intelligence analyst who spied for Israel, was built without a license two decades ago, but the municipality ignored a court order to evacuate and seal the building and left the house intact.
Meanwhile, Zuheir Rajabi, 50, and his family of six live in Batn el-Hawa a few meters from Yonatan House.
An Israeli court ruled that the family must leave their home after the pro-settler group Ateret Cohanim, through the Israeli custodian of the absentee’s property, established ownership of land owned in the name of a trust intended to benefit to poor Yemeni Jewish immigrants for over a century. since.
Today, there are 87 deportation orders against Palestinian residents of Batn el-Hawa due to Ateret Cohanim’s prosecution.
Rajabi told Al Jazeera that residents would react strongly if they started to carry out the demolitions.
“If all families are united in this policy, then we can stop the execution of orders,” Rajabi said.