'A dream has been destroyed'

Denied legal building permits, some East Jerusalem families raze their own homes

Owners opt to demolish buildings instead of paying city crews; UN study says construction permits are ‘virtually impossible’ to obtain

Relatives of the Shalalda family watch as an excavator hired by them demolishes their family home in Al-Tur in east Jerusalem on July 2, 2020 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Relatives of the Shalalda family watch as an excavator hired by them demolishes their family home in Al-Tur in east Jerusalem on July 2, 2020 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Alaa Borqan decided to tear down his own house in East Jerusalem after a court ruled that it was constructed illegally and must be demolished.

The 35-year-old Palestinian was given two options: to destroy his four-bedroom home in the Jabel Mukaber neighborhood himself, or to let the city council do it and then send him the bill.

The Israeli authorities regularly raze homes built by Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank if they lack Israeli construction permits.

The catch, according to an UN study, is that such permits are “virtually impossible” to obtain and the result is a chronic housing shortage.

Illustrative — Jerusalem Municipality demolishes five houses belonging to families in the Tur neighborhood and Jabel Mukaber neighborhoods in Jerusalem, May 21 2013 (Sliman Khader/FLASH90)

“I applied to city hall for a building permit, but without success,” Borqan said.

“I spent around 75,000 shekels ($22,000, 18,700 euros) on legal fees and on a ground survey,” he said.

Ben Avrahami, an adviser to the city authorities on East Jerusalem, said that every case is handled strictly according to the law.

“The demolitions are being carried out by order of an Israeli court and are subject to careful legal scrutiny,” he said.

Borqan, a father of four, however said he was dismayed after he hired a bulldozer that tore down his own house in front of his eyes.

He said he had invested all his savings in the building, taking on a debt of NIS 800,000 (approximately $238,000) and putting in four years of work.

The court, which ruled the structure illegal because it was built without a permit, fined him 60,000 shekels for the offense.

He now lives with his family in a house that he rents for NIS 2,800 a month.

Standing in the rubble of his former house, he recounted “how difficult it is to demolish [a home] with one’s own hands.”

‘Psychological effects’

According to city hall, 44 houses have been demolished in East Jerusalem since the start of this year.

Some owners prefer to raze their homes themselves to avoid having to pay sometimes thousands of shekels to the city’s demolition crews.

A relative of the Shalalda family walks on the rubble after an excavator hired by them demolished their family home in Al-Tur in east Jerusalem on July 2, 2020 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted in an April 2019 report that in East Jerusalem “a restrictive planning regime applied by Israel makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits.”

“At least one-third of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem lack an Israeli-issued building permit, potentially placing over 100,000 residents at risk of displacement,” it added.

OCHA says that only 13 percent of East Jerusalem is designated for Palestinian construction, much of which is already built up, while 35 percent has been allocated to Israelis for construction.

Muslim worshipers, some wearing face masks, attend Friday prayers a protest tent, set up by activists against the demolition of houses by Israeli authorities in the mostly Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, on August 28, 2020 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

According to the director of the Jerusalem Centre for Economic and Social Rights, Ziad Hammuri, the self-demolitions are “humiliating” and “have considerable psychological effects” on families, in addition to heavy financial costs.

But many Palestinians still prefer to demolish their property themselves, fearing arrest if they are unable to pay the city’s demolition bill or fines.

Housing shortage

On July 2, the Shalalda family also demolished their home, a two-bedroom apartment in A-Tur.

It is “very difficult, a dream has been destroyed,” lamented Sara Shalalda, a mother of six.

“We were about to move in, we didn’t want to have to pay rent anymore.”

A relative of the Shalalda family watches as an excavator hired by them demolishes their family home in Al-Tur in east Jerusalem on July 2, 2020 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

According to OCHA, 65 children were displaced and 85 others variously affected by self-demolitions in East Jerusalem in the first six months of the year.

Palestinians lack 30,000 to 40,000 housing units, rents are high, and building permits are expensive, said Mahmud Zahaykeh of the Jerusalem Housing Union.

“The average rent is $800 and a building permit for an apartment can cost $50,000,” he added.

“Only 20 percent of residents obtain permits, and the process can take five years.”

Avrahami says the city grants around 250 building permits to Palestinians each year.

Borqan had hoped to be among the lucky ones but his hopes were dashed.

“They don’t want us to stay,” he said, referring to Israel. “But we are not going to move.”

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