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March 11, 2009

Israeli Home Demolitions Threaten Peace Talks


by Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH – Eight-months pregnant Shireen Abu Sbeh, 20, mother of a 2-year-old, lives with eight other people in a two-bedroom apartment that is on a list of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem to be demolished by the Israeli authorities.

"I am struggling to sleep at night. I have nightmares that we are on the streets and I am homeless with my newborn baby and my toddler," says Shireen. Israel plans to demolish 88 homes in the Bustan neighborhood of Palestinian East Jerusalem to make way for a new Israeli archaeological theme park.

"We don't have any family to take us in, as they live in Bustan, too, and will also lose their homes. I'm afraid the stress of being homeless is affecting my unborn child," Shireen told IPS.

Anaya Abu Sbeh, 44, Shireen's mother-in-law, said Shireen often breaks down crying. "I don't know where we will go or what we can do, we are hoping that international pressure will force Israel to abandon the mass demolitions," she told IPS.

The planned demolitions will leave approximately 1,500 Palestinians homeless. They inherited the homes from their parents and grandparents, and most have nowhere to go.

Jerusalem authorities say the houses were built illegally, without zoning and construction permits. Palestinians and human rights organizations argue that Israel makes it almost impossible for Palestinians to get the requisite permits, as a part of a deliberate policy to Judaize the eastern part of the city.

Under international law, including UN Security Council resolutions, East Jerusalem belongs to Palestinians and is occupied by Israel illegally.

The EU released a confidential report in December that accused Israel of "actively pursuing the illegal annexation" of East Jerusalem, according to the British newspaper the Guardian.

The EU heads of mission report on East Jerusalem reportedly stated that Israel was using settlement expansion, the security barrier in the West Bank, Palestinian house demolitions, and discriminatory housing policies to gain control over East Jerusalem.

The EU report further accused Israel of accelerating its plans for East Jerusalem and undermining the credibility of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and thereby weakening the peace process.

"Israel's actions in and around Jerusalem constitute one of the most acute challenges to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking," the report was quoted as saying.

According to the Guardian, the EU expressed particular concern about the Old City, where Israel plan to build 35 new housing units in the Muslim quarter, as well as expansion plans for Silwan area in East Jerusalem.

Israel's continued policy of house demolitions and the withholding of building permits has led to a chronic shortage of housing for Palestinians. Jeff Halper from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) said there is currently a housing shortage of more than 25,000 units in East Jerusalem, and fewer homes means higher prices.

"Despite the housing shortage, Jerusalem municipality grants Palestinians only around 150 to 350 building permits a year, yet demolishes 150 or more existing homes at the same time," said Halper.

Israeli rights organization B'Tselem said that both Israelis and Palestinians build illegally, but that the response of the authorities is not equal. Palestinians account for about 20 percent of illegal construction, yet more than 75 percent of the demolitions are carried out on Palestinian homes.

B'Tselem said more than 400 Palestinian homes have been demolished in East Jerusalem since 2004.

The Jerusalem municipality has simultaneously encouraged extremist right-wing Israeli settlers to move into East Jerusalem to change the demographic facts on the ground in favor of the desired Jewish majority.

This has sparked numerous clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli settlers, who are supported by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Silwan is considered an especially sensitive area because it lies just outside the Old City and is the Arab neighborhood closest to the al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest shrines.

Palestinian residents of Silwan have decided to fight back in a nonviolent manner. The Committee of Bustan has set up a huge, black mourning tent by a popular tourist road to draw attention to the forthcoming demolitions.

Committee member Abed Shahoude says they have spent more than $200,000 over the last four years engaging legal and engineering advice to meet municipality requirements and thereby render the homes legal.

"We eventually reached an agreement with the Jerusalem municipality that the homes would not be destroyed, but this was never put in writing, and we trusted them," Shahoude told IPS. "Then we were told that the demolitions were going ahead and that the matter had been handed over to the Israeli Interior Ministry."

Meanwhile, Israeli human rights organization Peace Now has reported that the Israeli government is building an additional 73,300 illegal housing units in the West Bank. The report says this would double the number of Israeli settlers in the area.

The report says 5,722 of the planned housing units are in East Jerusalem, and some 9,000 units have already been built.

PA negotiating officials have threatened to break off peace talks with Israel if the settlement expansions and home demolitions continue. PA governor for Jerusalem Adnan Husseini has warned that Israel's continued policy of home demolitions could spark a third Intifada (uprising).

U.S. Secretary of State of State Hillary Clinton criticized the home demolitions and settlement expansion plans as "unhelpful" during her recent visit to Israel.

The new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has sent four complaints to the Israeli authorities during the last month over various issues related to the West Bank settlements.

(Inter Press Service)

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Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.

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