Raze Illegal Buildings — Unless They Are Jewish

SILWAN, East Jerusalem — Backed by armed security men, the municipal inspectors race their jeeps through the narrow alleyways and up a hillside crowded with buildings.

Some of the homes are well-faced with stone; the naked concrete of others gives off something of a temporary air.

One block of flats stands out for its unusual seven-story height in an area of the city where two or three storied buildings are the norm. And then there is the giant, blue-and-white Israeli national flag draped demonstratively over the front of the building, from the roof down to the ground.

This is the so-called "Beit Yehonatan," the House of Yehonatan, where religious Jews have put down a nationalist marker in the heart of this Palestinian neighborhood, part of a major effort to change the face of Arab East Jerusalem that has been under Israeli occupation since 1967.

The inspectors’ mission is to deliver demolition orders to owners of illegally-built homes, almost all of them Palestinians.

Beit Yehonatan is also exceptional in this respect. In July 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered that it too was built "illegally" by the settlers and should be evacuated and sealed off.

When, for the umpteenth time, the inspectors arrive at the settlers’ building they find it shuttered. They are unable to gain access. It is not clear whether anybody is at home. Shrugging their shoulders the inspectors move on to deliver demolition orders on more accessible targets — Palestinian families.

Anyway, they know that there are powerful forces determined to ensure that this display of equal application of the law to Jews and Arabs remains precisely that — a demonstration.

The seven-story structure was built in Silwan by the religious nationalist association Ateret Cohanim in 2004 without the necessary permits. Several Jewish families from Ateret Cohanim — a lynchpin group in the Jewish colonization endeavor in East Jerusalem — are known to live there.

Last week, Jerusalem’s Israeli mayor Nir Barkat launched a new legal maneuver in a bid to stave off implementation of the High Court order that the settlers be evacuated.

This, despite the fact that the municipality’s own legal advisor, Yosi Havilio, ruled that the court order issued two years ago be implemented immediately. Havilio said that the Mayor’s last-ditch attempt to bypass the court by appealing for an additional ruling from "an external legal authority" was "unacceptable".

Faced by international opprobrium over the repeated cases of settlers moving more and more into Palestinian neighborhoods, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu says blandly "it is a purely municipal matter".

That has enabled the mayor to stand his ground. In a letter to Israel’s State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, Barkat insisted that he has police backing too. "The police believe there is serious concern that the day after Beit Yehonatan would be sealed off it would be invaded by Jews and/or Arabs and that could create an unnecessary point of friction," he warned.

The mayor is also trying to push an alternative gambit to having the "illegal building" closed down. He is proposing to issue a new municipal by-law specifically for Silwan which will allow the construction of buildings there up to four stories high.

The motive is clear: Such a by-law would "whitewash" many of the illegal buildings in the area, including Beit Yehonatan.

Given the mayor’s record, however, this seems unlikely to ease the plight of the Palestinians of East Jerusalem whose homes are regularly pulled down on the grounds that they have not acquired the necessary building permits.

In other parts of East Jerusalem the mayor has indeed approved construction tenders for new Jewish building projects; he has yet, though, to extend such tenders to Palestinian applicants in spite of repeated pledges to do so on the grounds that all residents of Jerusalem, Jews and Arabs alike, be treated "equally" in respect of building applications. In the nearby Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Israeli and international demonstrators have been gathering weekly to protest the eviction of Palestinian families and their replacement by Jewish settlers.

At last Friday’s protest, a leftwing member of the Israeli parliament, Ilan Gilon, poured cold water on the settler claim of ownership over the houses they take over on the grounds that they rely on property titles held by Jews from early in the 20th century.

"If settlers can prove ownership of 28 buildings, Palestinians can prove ownership of 28,000," he said.

"There are times when one cannot afford to sit quietly by," the internationally-renowned Israeli novelist, David Grossman, told the gathering. "The settlers and the Right — with tremendous help from the government, the Israeli legal system and important business interests — continue to abuse Palestinian rights in a thousand ways.

"They are complicating the situation to such an extent as to make any peace agreement impossible. Basically, they are destroying our future — of Israelis and Palestinians alike," Grossman warned.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.