Jerusalem: Waiting for the bulldozers

8 March 2009

For original article from Ma’an News Agency, click here

Mousa Muhammad Ahmad Ouda’s new name is “Number 59.”

Ouda’s house is marked 59 of a total of 88 houses in one East Jerusalem neighborhood that are slated for demolition by the Israeli-controlled Municipality of Jerusalem. The Municipality says it plans to turn the area into a park.

The houses are marked in red on an official map drawn up by the Israeli authorities. On the satellite map the neighborhood, Bustan, is a sliver marked with a thick red boundary, an outline oddly similar to the outline of Mandate Palestine.

The Municipality says the houses were built without construction permits, but the residents say that the demolition orders are a calculated attempt to remove them from the land their families have inhabited for centuries.

“This house is more important to me than the Al-Aqsa Mosque. If I lose this house, I lose everything,” Ouda said during an interview in his one-story home, which lies a few hundred meters from the iconic mosque itself.

Land claims

Residents say that the demolition orders threaten the homes of 1,500 people just in the Bustan area, an enclave in the Silwan neighborhood, a densely-packed Palestinian area tucked in a valley adjacent to Jerusalem’s Old City.

The status of the houses has, in one sense, been in question since Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967. Unlike the rest of the occupied West Bank, Israel annexed Jerusalem, declaring the city, east and west, its “eternal undivided capital.” Palestinians

Through urban planning Israel has sought to limit the Palestinian presence in the city while maximizing the Jewish population. According to locals, Israel began demolishing houses in the area in1985.

The specter of mass demolitions was raised again in February, when the Municipality and the Israeli ministry of the interior rejected a community proposal to rezone the area for residential use. On 22 February, a team of Israeli surveyors visited the area, a move the residents suspect was a prelude to the destruction of homes.

“They call me number 59,” said Ouda, a round, bearded man, with bright eyes and a soft voice. “They used to number the Jews, and now look at the situation we’re in,” he said.

Ouda’s modest living room is decorated with family photographs. On a table is a portrait taken when he was released from prison in 1985.

As proof of his family’s claim to his land, he produces a yellowed paper, a Jordanian government document from 1950, signed by his grandfather. Three stamps – grey, blue, and red – are affixed to the paper, and on top of those, his grandfather’s thumb print in blue ink. The document states that the Ouda family owns the plot, and nams the owners of the adjacent plots, north, south, east, and west.

Asked why he built his home without a building permit, Ouda explains that it was only after the house was finished that the municipal authorities told him that he had not obtained the necessary permissions. He also produced receipts showing that he pays property, electricity, and water taxes to the Municipality.

Waiting for the bulldozers

Israeli authorities at the moment say they have no plans to raze the neighborhood. In the meantime, the inhabitants of Bustan wait for the bulldozers. On Monday two more houses were destroyed. Their owners said that they received no warning.

Mazen Abu Diab, a member of a local committee set up to protest the demolitions, described the sense of anxiety that the pending demolition orders creates: “Yesterday I saw a little boy walking home from school, and he was carrying a backpack that was much too large for him, and when I asked him why, I found that he had put his most treasured possessions in the bag, his family photos – he was afraid that his house would be destroyed while he was not there.”

The Bustan Committee has erected a tent in the neighborhood in an act of peaceful protest against the demolitions. The tent serves as a staging ground for visiting dignitaries (a Knesset member, Palestinian Authority officials, and Islamic authorities from the Al-Aqsa Mosque all visited on Tuesday) and journalists, as well as a meeting place where members of the community sit, and drink coffee and commiserate over their common struggles.

Another visitor to the committee tent on Tuesday was Eric Ascherman of the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights, which has been working to support Jerusalem families facing demolitions.

“I’ve had families tell me that worse than the demolition itself is waiting for the bulldozers,” Ascherman said, describing scenes of Palestinian families “sitting on their suitcases,” waiting for the demolition squad.

A cursory drive through the neighborhood reveals that this is true. One family, part of the Abbasi clan, has emptied their entire house, moving furniture and possessions to safer locations. They’ve even removed the doors of their three-story home, leaving it a hollow monolith. A few blocks away lies a recently-demolished home, a heap of concrete rubble and twisted iron.

A park

Pressed about the issue, officials at the Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem refer reporters to a statement Mayor Nir Barkat issued about the demolitions.

The statement reads, “The area … is one of the most important areas with regards to the history of Jerusalem, with holy sites important to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Because its significant importance to the more than 3 billion people of faith around the world, it is also a tourist destination.”

Moreover, “It is important to the future of Jerusalem that this area be treated with the utmost strategic importance. Emek HaMelech [Silwan] is not intended for residential development but rather it is intended to be an open public space.”

The statement is referring to an archaeological site and tourist attraction called the City of David. The Israeli government argues that the ruins found on the site are the home of the Biblical David. Currently tourists can pay to take a tour of the underground site which runs underneath the streets of Silwan.

Religious certainty

The mayor’s assertion, that value of the artifacts found on the site is grounds to raze a neighborhood, is disputed. Rabbi Ascherman argues that the value of the site should not be used as pretext for a violation of the rights of people who currently live on the land.

“As a religious Jew, as a Rabbi, I feel this is part of my history, part of my roots,” he said, referring to the archaeological site.

Ascherman also argues that in the Jewish tradition the significance of the site is too ambiguous to support the government’s policy: “It’s very difficult, in Judaism, to say ‘Judaism says.’ Our tradition is too multi-layered. It’s too ancient. It’s too based on debate, to say that about almost anything.”

“The closest thing you say ‘Judaism says,’ about it is about the value of human life and the holiness of the human being,” he said, “So, as important as my history is here, as important as my roots are here, human beings are more important. … So if I have to choose, with all the pain involved, human beings are more important than archaeology. They’re more important than stones.”

Some religious figures take a harder line against the Israeli claims about the site. Ekrima Sabri, the orator of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the chief of the Islamic Supreme Committee, also visited Bustan on Tuesday.

Sabri said, “There are no legal documents to prove that Prophet David lived here, as all the ancient remnants in Al-Aqsa Mosque and Silwan are pure Islamic. All the lands here belong to the Islamic endowment. Let them prove that Prophet David lived here.”

US pressure

As Sabri spoke, the new US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was meeting with Israeli officials, including Jerusalem Mayor Barkat, across town. Clinton said the next day that the demolition orders were “unhelpful” to peace efforts, and that she would raise the issue with Israel, including “at the municipal level” in Jerusalem.

It was not immediately clear however if the topic came up during Clinton’s meeting with Barkat on Tuesday. Asked about this, a spokesperson for the mayor, Stephan Miller, said it did not come up “to my knowledge.”

“It wasn’t a sit-down, maps-on-the-table working meeting,” said Miller.

Mousa Ouda, Homeowner Number 59, was not even aware that Clinton was in town. “Since the demolitions began again I haven’t had time to pay attention to outside things,” he said.

However, Ouda speculated that the US should theoretically be able to intervene and prevent Israel from bulldozing the area for a park.

“If she [Clinton] came here it’s because America is the father of the world [Abu Al-Alam],” he said.

Sheikh Sabri, the Muslim cleric, was highly pessimistic about Clinton’s visit: “We hope she could make change, however, I recall that her predecessor Condoleezza Rice failed to remove one single Israeli military checkpoint. Thus, I don’t expect Israel to listen to Clinton. Besides, Israel receives utter support from the US, and no pressure at all is exerting on Israel.”

“My expectation is that nothing positive will emerge from this visit,” he said.

Specter of Intifada

If Clinton fails in her efforts, Palestinians predict the situation will take an ominous turn. This is to say that if the international community fails to stop the demolitions, Israel could face more serious protests than men sipping coffee in a tent.

Interviewed by Ma’an about the Silwan issue last week, the Palestinian governor of Jerusalem, Adnan Husseini predicted the onset of a new intifada, or uprising, against Israeli rule.

“I’m sure that it will create a new intifada if they continue with this,” he warned. “No doubt.”

Last Saturday the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared a general strike in the West Bank and Gaza in protest of the demolition orders.

Asked about this, Bustan residents declined to rule out the possibility of another uprising. According to one member of the Bustan Committee, “Maybe there will be another intifada. If your house is destroyed, and your brother’s house is destroyed, and your cousin’s house is destroyed, eventually it’s hard to take.”

Sheikh Sabri also refused to rule out the possibility of a renewed uprising.

“Everything is possible,” he said, “If Israel wants peace, they have to avoid confiscating and demolishing people’s properties and let them live in peace.”

“As for a new uprising, I say again, everything is possible.”