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The impossible choice faced by East Jerusalem Palestinians

Palestinians in East Jerusalem live in an ongoing state of limbo: either stay where they are and risk having any additions they make to their homes demolished, or move away and lose their residency status.

By Suleiman Maswadeh

A Palestinian man demolishes his own home in Jerusalem after receiving a demolition order related to a lack of proper permits. (File photo Sliman Khader/Flash90)

A Palestinian man demolishes his own home in Jerusalem after receiving a demolition order related to a lack of a building permits. (File photo Sliman Khader/Flash90)

It was a day I’ll never forget. I was 14, and my father invited me to “visit a friend” with him. I initially refused, but he insisted it was urgent — his best friend needed help, and we had to assist him.

I left our house in East Jerusalem feeling curious and peeved at the same time. As we made our way through the alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City, I realized where we were going, and when we arrived at our destination I saw that the building we’d come to had been partially demolished. Several people were crying and wailing, while others helped my father’s friend to clear out what remained among the destruction.

At first I thought a bomb had hit the area, or that a section of the house had caught fire and caused part of the building to collapse. But my father told me that the Jerusalem municipality had issued a demolition order against a new floor of the home that had been recently built, which left me with a pile of questions: Why was it forbidden to build? And if it’s forbidden, why did my father’s friend decide to build? And why on earth did he demolish his own house, rather than the municipality doing it?

There were no answers to these questions. I didn’t want to bug my father so I decided to help the family with what was left in the house. Yes, at the age of 14 I helped someone destroy their dream — a beautiful house into which he’d poured money, time and effort. I saw the owner of the house, his brother and a friend breaking up and removing what was left of the walls, with tears streaming from their eyes. I saw how agitated they were and so didn’t dare ask why they were doing it and not the municipality.

Many hours passed and the demolition was finally finished. Tiredness was etched on the faces of my father and the others, although not on mine. At the end of the day we consoled the owner of the house and went home. During the journey, I showered my father with all the questions I’d been bottling up during the demolition.

Israeli police oversee the demolition of a Palestinian home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Settler organizations Elad and others have worked to take over and demolish Palestinian homes in order to move Jewish families in. (File photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Israeli police oversee the demolition of a Palestinian home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Settler organizations Elad and others have worked to take over and demolish Palestinian homes in order to move Jewish families in. (File photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

I started with the question that most concerned me: “If the municipality decided to demolish the house, why did [the home owner] demolish it himself?” My father answered that the municipality would have charged him a fortune — thousands of shekels — had they come to tear down the house themselves.

Then I asked why they’d had to demolish it in the first place, and why he had built the extra floor despite knowing that it’d eventually be destroyed. My father, smiling at my naivety, answered sadly: “He’s been trying to get a building permit for 10 years. He paid tens of thousands of shekels to lawyers, and tens of thousands in fines to the Jerusalem municipality. In the end, he decided to ignore everything and made a mistake.”

Unable to stay, and unable to leave

Today, I understand why the Israeli establishment behaves as it does. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are banned from building or adding floors to their homes, but Jews are allowed to steal land and build entire neighborhoods on it — which the government then rubber-stamps and declares legal.

The building of the apartheid wall created a bizarre situation in which two places within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries were nonetheless left “outside” it: Shuafat Refugee Camp and Kafr Aqab. Illegal construction goes on in both these places; the cramped conditions and the fact that no building inspections are carried out has led to dangerous structures, overcrowded and too high. Although they’re thought of as part of Jerusalem, both places are effectively abandoned territory.

There are no recreational areas in Shuafat Refugee Camp or Kafr Aqab, no community centers, football pitches or fitting schools. Residents pave the roads themselves and out of their own pockets, crime is spreading like a cancer and drugs are sold like chocolate. The streets are overflowing with trash and sewage, and children play among the dirt and pollution. But we’re talking about Palestinians, so who cares?

For now Jerusalemites prefer to rent a home in Beit Hanina or Shuafat (the neighborhood, not the refugee camp). They know that if they decide to live in a quieter area with fewer home demolitions but that are not considered part of Jerusalem, such as A-Ram or Anata, the government and the national insurance agency will pursue them and revoke their Jerusalem residency status. With that, they will lose all the benefits that come with residency — budgetary allowances for their kids, medical services that are better than what’s on offer in the West Bank, etc. And so, Palestinians are faced with two choices: lose their residency or have their homes demolished.

Ultimately, the government and the municipality want to reduce the presence of Arabs in the city and turn its populace into a majority Jewish one. At the same time, Jerusalem’s Arab residents live in daily fear of losing their means of support and status as residents. They cannot display any opposition because they know all too well that the municipality and the government have got them in a vise. And so, existence becomes impossible.

Suleiman Maswadeh is an activist who studies political science and communications. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here. Translated by Natasha Roth.

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    1. Baladi Akka 1948

      For God sake, when are you Israeli guys writing or translating going to learn some basic Arabic ? It’s NOT a-Ram but either al-Ram (direct translitteration) or ar-Ram (phonetical translitteration). This really pisses me off, and it’s all the time, I was like, “my God this writer is going through a process of Judaization just like his native East Jerusalem”, till I realized the article has been translated. So a native Palestinian writes in Hebrew, but the Israeli translator knows absoultely no Arabic: that’s how colonial settler States work, notice.

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @Baladi

        When words get borrowed they often carry with them the grammar of their former language, becoming irregular. Over time the grammar regularizes to the grammar of the borrowing language. There is nothing settler colonial about it. That’s how human language works, irregular words become regular reinforcing the rules of the language. Asian countries borrow American words and then apply Asian grammar to them. Koreans and Japanese aren’t conquering America.

        Reply to Comment
        • Baladi Akka 1948

          You clearly don’t know any Arabic either, and you have no clue what I’m talking about! This is about the difference between sun & moon-letters in Arabic after the definite article ‘al’, you know like al-jazeera ….
          Only Israelis (and people reading Palestine through Israeli media) writes a-Ram, a-Tur etc. I’m not writing this out of the blue, I read in various languages, never come across this basic mistake elsewhere. And yes, it’s sign of colonialism, you live in the middle of the Arab world, and you know absolutely no Arabic (this topic is studied within the first or second week in an Arabic course for beginners, just after learning the letters). But I guess you pronounce KHamas, and MuKHammad too …

          Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            Dear Baladi,
            We Jews are absolutely not interested in the Arab language. I was born in Egypt. We were obliged to abandon our properties and to leave. I do not want my grand-children to learn Arabic even if our army needs Arabic peaking spies.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Itshak Gordin Halevy

            FWIW I think Israelis lack of Arabic is a mistake. Israel is on the Arabian peninsula. Hopefully in a generation an Israeli college student can be taking the train from Tel Aviv to Beirut for a lunch date with his girlfriend, reading the Arabic menu and ordering in Arabic.

            I think and hope Palestinians need to forget lots of Arabic because its a native language, tied to a national identity that holds them back. But for Jews the language is a pure plus.

            Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            I am afraid you are setting up the Arab girl for a family honor killing. You wouldn’t wish that on anyone, would you?

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            For that remark and many others you and your zionist cohorts should be banned from this site you stinking pile of pig shit.

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            “I think and hope Palestinians need to forget lots of Arabic because its a native language, tied to a national identity that holds them back. But for Jews the language is a pure plus.”

            You ‘think and hope’, huh? Don’t hurt yourself. First Nations peoples have kept their language intact because it’s their culture. Hebrew is so important to us jews, why don’t we speak it? Amharic is more authentic than modern hebrew and spoken by ethiopians, but white jews wouldn’t want to speak a language, no matter how more authentic than modern hebrew, if it’s spoken by ‘cushim’.

            Done.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            JeffB, these latest posts of yours are masterpieces of breezy pedantic bullshit, carrying on about Arabic and linguistics and things you know nothing about, all in the service of a kind of weaselly colonial overlordism. You are such a weasel. But for this utterly asinine, presumptuous, ethnosupremacist statement–

            “I think and hope Palestinians need to forget lots of Arabic because its a native language, tied to a national identity that holds them back. But for Jews the language is a pure plus”

            –you deserve contempt. You are SUCH a jerk.

            Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            I don’t care what racist pieces of s*** like you think about Arabic ! I’m talking about standard English translitteration of الرّام, and nobody rang your doorbell anyway ! And you don’t represent “the Jews”, only your own little miserable person.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Baladi

            I don’t know Arabic. But I do know that “al” is the definite article in Arabic. But mostly if you read what I wrote, the rules of the lending language (Arabic) is not the point. Once the word is borrowed it starts transforming in accordance with the borrowing language. It should start violating the rules of Arabic.

            Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            @ Jeff
            Al-Ram is the name of a town, it’s NOT a borrowed word, I know perfectly well how words of Arabic origin are transformed when integrated into European languages (in French ‘truchement’, ‘amalgame’, ‘aubergine’ are hardly recognizable if you don’t know their voyage through other languages, often Spanish or Italian)I’m not contesting ‘sugar’ or ‘cofee’ either , that’s NOT the point here. I also know that ‘al’ is often translitterated ‘el’ (particularly in French translitteration) or written without the ‘-‘ as Ennahdha instead of al-nahdha etc etc.
            That’s not the point here, and contrary to what you might think it’s not a detail, when you start to read a-ram or a-tur in articles by European journalists, you know where they get their informations about Palestine (just as journalists pronouncing KHamaa, or FataKH).
            (In Arabic it’s written al-ram but pronounced ar-ram: approx. half of the Arabic consonants elide with the defintite article and are doubled, the other half is pronounced ‘al’ like al-jazeera, al-quds).
            And this is of course not a detail in the context of Judaization of Arab neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
            Discussion closed as far as I’m concerned.

            Reply to Comment
        • carmen

          FFS would you just stop? You don’t speak hebrew or arabic; what could you possibly have to say on this topic. STFU already.

          Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        You want to talk about “colonialist-settlers”? The Arabs were the biggest colonialist-settler imperialists of all time. They swept out of the Arabian peninsula and by coercion or outright force imposed their religion, language and culture on millions of people and sometimes carried out genocidal policies on the conquered peoples, particularly in India. They destroyed numerous ancient cultures and have been causing turmoil on their frontiers with their neighbors since them. The European colonialists had minimal influence on their areas they conquered as compared to the Arab/Muslim imperialist aggression.

        Reply to Comment
    2. JeffB

      The situation is crazy. Joint racism run rampant to no one’s benefit. Palestinians and Jews need to stop having any notion of Jewish land or Palestinian land. All Jerusalem is Israeli land. Israel needs to govern building and permitting in a way towards everyone’s benefit.

      The best way to start is jointly owned construction companies which apply for these permits.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Joint racism”? From what planet are you writing? “The best way to start is jointly owned construction companies which apply for these permits.” Again, what planet? Honestly, do you have any idea what really goes on in Israel? You write as if completely clueless. Are you really this naive? It’s hard to believe. No, the best way to start is for Israel to stop being a determinedly ethnosupremacist state.

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Ben

          Reforming systems are possible. I live in a country which had profound racism and through a a few passes at incremental changes, involving mutual compromises addressed most of those problems at the legal, social and individual levels. A similar process has played out with other groups.

          A similar process for women has played out all over the planet. In the UK class was addressed the same way.

          The way to fix things is to start fixing them. Not to scream about impossible objectives which don’t take the situation on the ground into account.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            No one is screaming, and no one is screaming about impossible objectives. Again, your writing is strikingly naive. The United States, before it dealt with its civil rights problem, was not occupying a nation of black people and savaging their inhabitants; and the United States had in place a legal framework and institutions that were not apartheid; the United States had in place a Constitution and a Bill of Rights and a long tradition of enforcement of these by a genuine Supreme Court that functions to stringently safeguard full racial and ethnic equality for all and explicitly forbids special privileges for one ethnic or religious group or the tyranny of a majority over a minority. It is upon this scaffolding and with this machinery that the still very hard civil rights struggle was born, fought and succeeded. It is astonishing that you trivialize this struggle, reducing it to “a few passes at incremental changes, involving mutual compromises addressed most of those problems at the legal, social and individual levels.” When you talk like you do, you show a striking unawareness about basic things.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Ben

            The United States, before it dealt with its civil rights problem, was not occupying a nation of black people and savaging their inhabitants

            I was including prior to abolition of slavery. You can occupy a state, not a nation. As for savaging the inhabitants, ah yes it was Forced breeding, 4 year life expectancies for males clearing land in the West (Kentucky), tremendous brutality. After slavery wage restrictions… Israel doesn’t hold a candle to what America did.

            United States had in place a legal framework and institutions that were not apartheid; the United States had in place a Constitution and a Bill of Rights and a long tradition of enforcement of these by a genuine Supreme Court that functions to stringently safeguard full racial and ethnic equality for all

            Nonsense. Until the 13th and 14th Amendments the Constitution did the exact opposite. It explicitly permitted racial slavery.

            It is astonishing that you trivialize this struggle, reducing it to “a few passes at incremental changes, involving mutual compromises addressed most of those problems at the legal, social and individual levels.” When you talk like you do, you show a striking unawareness about basic things.

            That’s not trivializing. What is however doing is discussing the mechanism for the struggle. The struggle was accomplished by incremental change not revolutionary change.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            JeffB, you just changed the subject. From the 20th century civil rights struggle to slavery in the American South and the 1860s. (And in the process reduced the entire Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th and 14th Amendments following that gargantuan bloody struggle to “a few passes at incremental changes, involving mutual compromises addressed most of those problems at the legal, social and individual levels.” Wow.) Whether out of your tendency to confuse things or in an effort to distract, I can’t say. The long tradition I speak of is the platform upon which Martin Luther King could base his civil rights struggle in the 1960s. That platform was a sine qua non. Israel simply doesn’t have anything like these systems (US style Constitution and Bill of Rights, and content of same, and US style Supreme Court defending that Constitution). Israel’s ethnotheocracy is flatly unconstitutional by US standards.

            Everything I said on April 22 remains true.

            BTW, you have all these meaningless pedantic “rules”: “You can occupy a state, not a nation.” Ok. Whatever.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Ben

            I didn’t change the subject. You may have missed the original point, “ I live in a country which had profound racism and through a a few passes at incremental changes…“. You are absolutely right that the legal situation in America of the 1950s is different than in Israel of 2017. The Palestinians are still in the process that blacks went through in the 1850s-1870s (especially right after slavery) where there were serious doubts whether blacks were American or a foreign people who lived in America. Many of the abolitionists (including: Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, and James Monroe) wanted to repatriate blacks to Africa not emancipate them in America. (See for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Colonization_Society ). Palestinians in their own heads have to decide if they want to be Israelis or not. American blacks made their choice quite definitely after and the back to Africa movement after emancipation (1st Klan) and in the 1920s (2nd Klan) both never found meaningful support. That hasn’t happened yet for Palestinians.

            Israel’s ethnotheocracy is flatly unconstitutional by US standards.

            I don’t think Israel is an ethnotheocracy. But that’s a distraction. Mainly I agree with your point.
            America doesn’t have any concept of an American people as an ethnic group. Consider:

            Trump — child of a 1st generation immigrant
            Obama — child of a 1st generation immigrant
            Bus-43 — aristocratic family here for many generations
            Clinton — family tree is almost all poor, though here for many generations
            Reagan — 2 English Grandparents,

            You see that in Israel too, but of course the “ethnicity” you are talking about is Jewish which IMHO became a nation as a result of zionism so I think the analogy holds up. And certainly religiously America is quite diverse. Israel, while not a theocracy, does have a state church. Israel likely aims for a richer common culture than America. But there are plenty of places with rich common culture that have absorbed immigrants.

            BTW, you have all these meaningless pedantic “rules”: “You can occupy a state, not a nation.” Ok. Whatever.

            That’s not a whatever. A nation is a group of people. A state is a political entity. Again if there is no formal sovereign there is no occupation. You actually used the definition you are now disagreeing with when arguing with Grandpa Frost.

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            “After slavery wage restrictions… Israel doesn’t hold a candle to what America did.”

            After slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation and after all that, #blacklivesmatter is more relevant than ever so america hasn’t even begun to come to grips with its past or its present.

            However, you brought up a specific period in history and chattel slavery in the u.s. (1619-1864). Colonialism was all the rage. White folks were sure than the brown folks didn’t know what to do with their treasures, their own flesh or their mineral wealth and land. Remember the Congo (King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild) and British rule in India.

            Isn’t it horribly ironic that the British ended colonial rule of India around the same time the zionists began theirs – all in the mid 20th century too.

            Mansplain/ziosplain/jeffsplain away cuz https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1tE6rmE8gY

            Reply to Comment
    3. Phesojewol

      Your report is a distortion of the facts: Why dont you report on there is an accelerated building boom going on right now in Anata and at-Ram, by Palestinians with building permits. You are disseminating one sided and therefore false information, and therefore criminally calpable of playing your part in perpetuating the conflict and the suffering of our peoples

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        The anti-Israel “progressives” couldn’t care less about the Palestinians nor do they care about human rights. That is why they won’t condemn Assad and why they defended Saddam Hussein. They don’t care what they do to their own people. All that matters is that they hate Israel. Period. This also applies to the US and “capitalism” as well.
        One of the directors of Amnesty International was asked why decades ago they were concerned with the issue of political prisoners, but today they don’t emphasize this. The answer was something to the effect “there is so much poverty and injustice in the world today, there is no point in worrying about individuals. We have to overthrow capitalism in order to bring ‘social justice’. Once we have that there won’t be any more political prisoners.

        Same here. They simply want to bash Israel and keeping the conflict going is much more important than the lives of the Palestinians and Israelis, because this is what makes them feel good.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Sarah Kaminker, a city planner in Jerusalem for more than thirty years, describes a decades-long regime of the rankest discrimination in land use, planning, development, draconian bureaucratic measures, and what amounts to a whole bag of dirty tricks:
        http://faculty.history.umd.edu/BCooperman/NewCity/Arabsonly.html

        “…There are literally a hundred other discriminatory practices that ruthlessly prevent Palestinians from building homes in Jerusalem. There are unjustiably huge charges for building licenses that are imposed only on Arabs…
…The Israeli government claims that it has no choice but to punish the “scofflaws” in East Jerusalem who build illegally. If only they would ask for a license, the municipality would issue one. The government says it gets about 150 requests from Arabs each year and dutifully supplies them with building licenses. What the municipality does not tell us is that over one thousand Arabs each year ask a special team of Arab civil servants in the city engineer’s office for information about the planning regulations that apply to their land. About 150 of them have land where housing construction is permitted. These lucky few apply for and gain building licenses. The others, having been told informally that their land is not zoned for housing, never get into the data bank, allowing the municipality to continue to claim that it issues licenses to all applicants….”

        B’Tselem likewise documents an indisputably distantly second class status for Arabs versus Jews under Israeli administration of Jerusalem. For decades and with no end in sight.

        Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      Many Israeli Arabs do not speak or write Hebrew very well, so you had better make sure none of them express any opinions on Israel or Jews which they are unqualified to do, according to your dictates.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mira Brown

      There is not a place in the western world where you can build without a permit so why is this writer’s expectation different in Israel?

      Reply to Comment
      • carmen

        Ya think possibly because of the history since 1948? The fact that permits are not issued to Palestinian residents for no reason other than the occupation? To force Palestinians to leave their homes (they won’t, would you?) or break the law (which is unjust by even israeli’s standards, which are below the curb when it comes to Palestinian citizens. Oh I get it, you didn’t have a question, you were just practicing throwing shit against the wall to see if it sticks. Got ya. ;^D

        Reply to Comment
      • Baladi Akka 1948

        East Jerusalem is NOT Israel in case you ignore the realities of this world !

        Reply to Comment
    6. Ben

      You all should read Gideon Levy’s heartfelt apology. You have no excuse not to, it’s free, behind no paywall.

      A Heartfelt Apology to Haaretz Readers
      To all offended readers, I apologize for the one-sidedness. How could I not maintain a balance between the murderer and the murdered; the thief and his victim; and the occupier and the occupied?
      Gideon Levy
      http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.784352

      Reply to Comment
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