The Israel Defense Forces on Monday morning demolished several Jerusalem area buildings constructed near the security barrier and deemed illegal, in a move slammed as a “grave escalation” by the Palestinian Authority.
According to Channel 12 news, hundreds of police, border police officers and soldiers arrived on the scene in the area known as Wadi al-Hummus at around 4 a.m. to begin the operation, which was completed within hours.
Demolition of unauthorized Palestinian-owned structures in East Jerusalem is not unusual. However, the demolished homes, some of which had still been under construction, are located in the Palestinian Authority-controlled Area A of the West Bank.
Israel says the 10 structures in the Sur Baher neighborhood are in an area where construction is barred because of its proximity to the security barrier. The Kan public broadcaster reported those structures contained 72 residential units.
Palestinians have charged that the security concerns are a pretext to push them out of the Jerusalem area, and say it is nearly impossible to receive construction permits from Israeli authorities, resulting in a housing shortage in Arab neighborhoods in the city.
A High Court of Justice ruling last month dismissed a petition by Palestinian residents requesting the cancellation of a military order prohibiting construction in the area.
Earthmover starts taking down building in Sur Baher pic.twitter.com/KsQokqIPc7
— Mike Smith (@mikejsmith504) July 22, 2019
The move was decried by Palestinians, with the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas saying in a statement that it “places the responsibility for this grave escalation on Israel.”
“This is part of the ‘deal of the century’ which aims to put an end to the Palestinian issue,” it added, referring to the peace plan pushed by US President Donald Trump’s administration, which is yet to be unveiled. The PA accuses Trump of being biased toward Israel and has already rejected the plan.
Abbas called on the international community to react quickly to the demolition.
“What is painfully happening here is the biggest and most dangerous demolition operation outside of war operations,” Walid Asaf, the PA minister in charge of monitoring Israeli settlements, said in a video from the site.
“This operation aims to cut off Jerusalem from Bethlehem (in the southern West Bank),” he added.
But Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan dismissed the accusations.
“The demolition of the illegal and mostly uninhabited buildings which takes place today at Wadi Al Hummus in the village of Sur Baher, Jerusalem, was approved by the Israeli High Court of Justice, which ruled that the illegal construction constitutes a severe security threat and can provide cover to suicide bombers and other terrorists hiding among civilian population and endanger the lives of civilians and security forces alike,” Erdan said in a statement. “The court also ruled unequivocally that those who built houses in the area of the security fence knew that building in that area was prohibited, and took the law into their own hands.”
The court’s dismissal of the case brought an end to the residents’ seven-year legal battle against a military order that halted work on the apartment buildings. Though the permits for the buildings were issued by the PA’s planning ministry nearly 10 years ago, Israel in 2012 ordered a halt to construction work, citing its close proximity to the security barrier.
On June 18, Palestinian residents received a 30-day notice from Israeli authorities informing them of their intent to demolish the homes. The notice period ended on Thursday.
Activists from the All That’s Left: Anti-Occupation Collective group said Israeli soldiers entered the neighborhood ahead of the demolitions.
“The army has began arranging equipment to begin demolition, including cutting the separation barrier to approach a house with residents that is scheduled for demolition. People on the scene report heavy military presence as well as large construction equipment,” the group said in a statement.
“Residents are staying in their homes resisting the demolition along with 40 international and Israeli activists who are present to witness and provide solidarity,” the statement added.
Around 6 a.m., the group said hundreds of Israeli troops were evicting the Palestinian residents and removing activists from the buildings.
Earlier, the army dispersed several dozen Palestinians protesting the planned demolitions.
Residents fear another 100 buildings in the area in a similar situation could be at risk in the near future.
Last week, Palestinian Authority officials took diplomats from some 20 mostly European countries on a tour of the area and urged them to pressure Israel not to carry out the demolitions.
“When the house is demolished, we will be in the streets,” Ismail Abadiyeh, 42, who lives in one of the buildings under threat with his family, including four children, told the diplomats during the visit.
Pierre Cochard, the French consul general for Jerusalem, told journalists he did not think the security explanation provided by Israel was sufficient to move ahead with the demolitions.
“I think it’s important to underline that we cannot deny their right,” Cochard said, referring to the families living in the homes. “They are here in Palestinian territory.”
The PA’s Governor of Jerusalem, Adnan Gheith, told the envoys, “We are looking for serious actions from your governments to stop these continuous crimes.”
The United Nations joined the chorus of condemnation of the planned razing of the structures last week.
“Demolitions and forced evictions are some of the multiple pressures generating a risk of forcible transfer for many Palestinians in the West Bank,” the UN statement said. “Residents of East Jerusalem and adjacent areas have been particularly affected, with a significant rise in demolitions there in 2019.”
The letter warned that “displacement, particularly for the most vulnerable, is traumatic and has lasting consequences. We join others in the international community in calling on Israel to halt plans to demolish these and other structures and to implement fair planning policies that allow Palestinian residents of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the ability to meet their housing and development needs, in line with its obligations as an occupying power.”
Residents say Wadi al-Hummus is the only direction Sur Baher is able to expand as the barrier and increased Israeli building in the capital have hemmed in the neighborhood from other directions.
The majority of Sur Baher is in Israel, but the Wadi al-Hummus part of the neighborhood lies beyond Jerusalem municipal boundaries, making it part of the West Bank. Though Wadi al-Hummus is on the Israeli side of the security fence, the PA takes responsibility for the residents there.
Israel gained control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War. It later annexed East Jerusalem in a move never recognized by the international community. Israel says the security barrier is needed to prevent Palestinian terrorists entering the country from the West Bank to carry out attacks.