Demolitions Continue in East Jerusalem

OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM – "Make sure your father gets this," the municipal inspector tells a 10-year-old boy at the gate of the concrete house in an alleyway in the al-Bustan quarter of Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood right under the shadow of the walled Old City.

"This" is a court-approved demolition notice, "No. 59." It’s for a house under imminent threat of being torn down by the Israeli authorities because it does not have the requisite building permit.

The demolition notice is headed: "To Unknown Addressee."

"Now they refer to me as ‘Unknown.’ But they know my name very well – they address payment orders for all municipal and other taxes to me by name," says Moussa Oudeh.

Moussa, father of five, is one of 78 householders in al-Bustan whose homes are slated for demolition. Since the election of a new Israeli mayor exactly a year ago, 10 other houses in al-Bustan have been bulldozed.

A handful of armed Israeli police and border police bar access to the narrow alleyway.

A small crowd of residents gathers.

An argument breaks out in Hebrew between Sgt. Fares and Moussa, who is flanked by Fakhri Abu Diab, the elected coordinator of the Silwan Committee Against House Demolitions.

"This is the state of Israel, this is the Land of Israel," says the sergeant.

"What are you talking about?" counters Moussa. "My father, my grandfather, my grandfather’s grandfather were all born here. We’re from Silwan, you’re the occupiers."

"It may be your land, but it’s our land too," answers Sgt. Fares.

A balding officer in sunglasses throws his arm around his sergeant’s shoulder and escorts him a few meters off. "Cool it," he whispers. "Don’t get drawn into a political argument, please."

"What I don’t understand," chimes in Fakhri, "is why the provocation. Why come here with your helmets and battledress and rifles and jeeps – to intimidate us? To push us to violence so that you think you can justify what you’re doing? If you’re going to deliver demolition warrants, why not simply send them in the post, like you do with our taxes?"

"How many demolition notices are you serving today, all 78?" we ask the two baseball-capped city officials.

"None of your business," replies the one in the red cap. "You’re in our way. Clear off!"

"Their policy is to do it in dribs and drabs," explains Mohammad Nakhal, a community coordinator in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. "If they did it all at once, the whole world would come down hard on them."

Mohammad has been caught up accidentally: he’d come to Silwan to talk to Fakhri about future tactics for strengthening the peaceful community resistance to active Israeli takeover policies in East Jerusalem.

If for Palestinians the timing of any demolition procedures is always ill-timed, this time it may be ill-timed for Israel as well.

It’s the eve of another meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama; the Israeli leader reportedly hopes the U.S. will side with Israel and fault the Palestinians for failing to resume peace talks.

On the eve of Monday’s planned Washington meeting, Palestinians were encouraged by reports that the Obama administration intends to harden its stance on Israeli policies in occupied East Jerusalem.

The U.S. is apparently trying to appease beleaguered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who last week declared that he will step down soon because of the impasse in peacemaking.

"We’re growing disappointed. Obama has yet to translate his verbal promises into deeds," says Mazen Abu Khulbein, another Silwan activist. "Still, we haven’t given up hope on him yet. His position on East Jerusalem will really test his intentions."

The two police Land Rovers and two Toyota vans, all with iron grills protecting their windscreens against stone-throwing, speed off to their next destination, out of Wadi a-Nar and up the hill. Just 200 meters away, the silver-blackened dome of the al-Aqsa mosque inside the Haram al-Sharif, Noble Sanctuary compound (a site also holy to Jews as their Temple Mount), looms over the imposing 16th-century Old City walls.

The vans park near a new seven-story block of flats. A blue-and-white Israeli banner, with a large Star of David, has been unfurled from the roof down to the alley beneath.

It’s one of several buildings in Silwan where nationalist religious Israelis have settled in recent years in a bid to boost the Jewish presence in the Arab neighborhood.

For some time, it’s been an open secret that the settlers also don’t have the requisite permit for their building.

According to Israeli press reports, after the recent demolition nearby of a small Palestinian home, human rights groups took the matter to the Israeli courts. A city inspector called to the dock was asked by the magistrate, "How come you didn’t serve a demolition notification on the seven-story building as well?"

"I simply didn’t notice it," replied the inspector.

The court has yet to take action on the petition against the settlers for their infraction.

Down the road, outside the al-Maleek pizza parlor, some of the policemen have been on standby in case of trouble. Suddenly, the calm is threatened. From a couple of alleys back, a small shower of stones comes over the roofs. The policemen move quickly into battle position.

Sgt. Fares holds up his hand, staying any response.

Fakhri steps in as well, calming the clump of Palestinian onlookers. "We don’t want any additional trouble. Our main purpose is to get these orders rescinded, and violence won’t serve us at all," he says, addressing both the policemen and the crowd.

"Mr. Unknown" Moussa is still seething. As the vans prepare to drive off, he flings his demolition notice into the face of the blue-capped city inspector. It’s flung contemptuously back.

Fakhri sums up the low-keyed, but potentially explosive, incident: "We’re still waiting to see light at the end of the tunnel. We have to keep clinging to our hopes. Unfortunately, for the moment, if there’s any light at all coming into the tunnel, I fear it’s no peace train, only the usual oncoming train that’ll just run us down blindly once again."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.