It was in early August, as a new wave of coronavirus infections swept Jerusalem, that Silwan resident Wael Tahan finally got the letter he had always feared: his family’s home of nearly 30 years was set to be demolished by Israeli authorities, who said that it had been built illegally.
“We tried everything we could to make it legal. We did everything the municipality said, brought an engineer, worked with lawyers, we went to the courts,” Tahan told The Times of Israel.
On August 8, the bulldozers arrived and carried out their orders, rendering 25 members of Tahan’s extended family suddenly homeless.
“We all lived together in this beautiful home of ours,” Tahan said. “Now everything’s shattered, and everyone’s separated.”
#مباشربلدية الاحتلال تهدم عقار عائلة الطحان (منازل علاء ووائل ونادر) في حي رأس العامود ببلدة #سلوانOccupation municipality demolish the property of Al-Tahan family in the neighborhood of Ras Al-Amoud in Silwan
Posted by Wadi Hilweh Information Center – Silwan مركز معلومات وادي حلوه -سلوان on Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Israeli authorities have significantly accelerated the number of home demolitions in East Jerusalem this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis. Around 89 residential units have been demolished since the beginning of 2020, compared with 109 through all of last year. In the first three weeks of August alone, 24 homes were demolished, according to Ir Amim, a nonprofit that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem.
Ir Amim reported that in 58 of the cases, East Jerusalem residents demolished the buildings themselves. Residents can be charged large fees for the demolition work, leading many to take it upon themselves once the decision is made.
A 2017 law introduced stiffer sanctions against illegal construction – residents can be charged not only for the demolition, but for the construction itself. The law also reduced legal recourse for those whose homes are threatened with demolition.
The Jerusalem municipality has long contended that it demolishes when Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem build illegally and without permits.
“Demolition orders are carried out in an equitable manner and in accordance with court rulings,” the municipality said in response to a query by The Times of Israel.
Rights groups argue that Palestinians seeking to build their homes legally face a discriminatory system which leaves them without any realistic option except illegal construction.
According to Ir Amim, over 21,000 housing units were advanced in detailed outline plans in Jerusalem in 2019, but less than 8 percent were in Palestinian neighborhoods, even though Palestinians make up 38% of the capital’s population. Outline plans are a prerequisite for obtaining permits for legal construction.
“We want to build legally. We want to follow the law. Those who build their homes illegally do so against their will, because they’re given no other choice,” said Silwan resident Daoud Siyam, a local activist.
A brief truce prevailed during the first wave of the pandemic, and, for the first time in years, the municipality temporarily stopped demolishing illegally built Palestinian homes.
At the time, this seemed part of a new attitude by Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon. Leon has indicated that he seeks to forge a new relationship with Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, who have long had a tense relationship with the municipality.
In February, Leon froze home demolitions in Issawiya, after consulting with local leaders. He paid a visit to Malek Issa, a young boy who lost his eye to a rubber bullet fired by Border Police, and Palestinian activists hailed his response to the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
In late May, with the virus seemingly at bay, the municipality resumed demolishing homes. But then the second wave of infections began — one far longer and more widespread than the first. Jerusalem now has 3,386 active coronavirus cases, the highest number in the country for a single location.
Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem face unprecedented rates of infection. A staggering 41% of tests taken among Palestinians in the city last week came back positive, compared to a national average of 7%, according to the Haaretz daily.
Even as the crisis deepens, however, authorities have not returned to the earlier policy of pausing demolitions.
“I think Leon cares about East Jerusalem residents, unlike his predecessors,” Siyam said. He compared Leon to one of Jerusalem’s most revered mayors, Teddy Kollek, saying both sought to build bridges across the Seam Line.
“But I think the matter isn’t fully in his hands. There needs to be a decision from the national government about fixing the neglect in East Jerusalem.”
Ir Amim researcher Aviv Tatarsky said: “The state has already recognized that this is not an appropriate time to demolish people’s homes. As to why they decided on one policy in March and another now, that is a question for the state.”
The Jerusalem municipality declined to comment on whether there had been a change in policy.
East Jerusalem’s economy has also been heavily damaged by the pandemic. Most East Jerusalemites work in tourism or in the service industry, and both sectors have taken serious losses.
“In the middle of an economic crisis, to lose your house is obviously a double blow,” Tatarsky said.
Tahan is a garbage truck driver, a municipal employee, and his work has remained steadier than many others. But he cannot imagine buying a new house, he said. His family has crowded into the homes of various relatives around East Jerusalem.
Tatarsky said that this was a dangerous phenomenon from a public health point of view. More people crowding into fewer units, in an already dense and crowded East Jerusalem, would contribute to the spread of the virus, he argued.
“What people need right now is to stay in their homes, to avoid contact with others so as not to be infected. But they can’t find a new home immediately, so they go live with relatives. So you find units that had five people, and which now house 10 people,” Tatarsky said.
East Jerusalemites without family nearby or savings in the bank can also suddenly find themselves on the street in the midst of a pandemic.
Silwan resident Iyad Abu Sbeih said he had been getting to ready to celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday with his family when he was interrupted by a phone call telling him that his house was due to be demolished. To avoid paying the demolition fee, he began taking apart his house himself the following morning.
“We didn’t celebrate the holiday,” Abu Sbeih recalled. “Instead, the new clothes we’d purchased as gifts for our children were strewn in the street.”
Abu Sbeih, along with his mother, father and six children, are now living in a makeshift tent in what was once the courtyard of their house. A barber with a small salon, he has not worked for months since the beginning of the pandemic, effectively draining his savings.
If he had relatives in the capital, Abu Sbeih said, he would bring his family to stay with them. But his remaining family lives in Hebron in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank. As Jerusalem residents, he worries that if they leave the city, they will lose their health insurance and even their identity cards.
Palestinians in Jerusalem carry “residency cards” rather than Israeli citizenship, which can be revoked if the Israeli government determines that their “center of life” is no longer in Jerusalem.
The solution, according to Tatarsky, is to immediately stop the demolitions and produce outlines that would enable legal construction in the future.
“Fundamentally, this is a question of whether the municipality wishes to allow Palestinians to be able to live and flourish in Jerusalem, just as its Jewish residents do,” Tatarsky said.
But for East Jerusalem residents like Tahan, whose house is already gone, such a long-term view may be no more than cold comfort.
“I’ve already sat among the stones and rubble of our house with my wife and children,” Tahan said.