Issue to watch: East Jerusalem Home Demolitions

In recent days there has been a lot of chatter online and on Twitter about a possible coming wave of East Jerusalem home demolitions. These reports are in part baseless rumor, and in part reflect a very concrete, perhaps imminent threat. The real story behind this chatter is as follows:

A large number of demolition orders have been issued previously for homes in East Jerusalem, in particular in Silwan. The area which has been most seriously targeted for demolitions is the Bustan section of Silwan. The large-scale demolition of many of the Palestinian houses this area is geared to allow for the creation of a new Israeli National Park, to be known as the “Kings’ Garden,” which will enhance the settler enclave in Silwan/the City of David. This scheme is also the “pet project” of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, if not his obsession.

The previous Jerusalem Municipal administration encouraged the Bustan residents to initiate a town plan that would leave their homes intact. Upon becoming mayor, Barkat reversed this policy and has made clear his aspiration to demolish at least half of the 88 targeted homes. In light of this shift in policy, the Israeli Courts issued a stay regarding a number of demolition orders, to allow the Palestinians to exhaust the possibilities to legalize the construction in question. However, in the face of Barkat’s aspiration to create the King’s Garden Park, the Palestinians’ plans to legalize their homes, which had been previously treated favorably by the Jerusalem planning department, were rejected. As a result, the Court ruled that in these cases, the stay will expire this month, on September 30, in principle paving the way for the homes to be demolished.

The blogosphere is full of reports that massive demolitions should be expected as early as October 1. The Jerusalem Municipality contributed to the rumor mill by handing out notices to 5 homeowners in Silwan at the end of August, warning that administrative demolition orders would be issued shortly. Since there is no legal basis for issuing administrative demolition orders for homes already occupied by their owners, the residents of Silwan have come to view this move as part of Barkat’s psychological warfare, and we concur.

In order to assess the perils of the upcoming period in this regard, it is important to understand both the general context and the impending threats. Over the last year and a half, there have been virtually no home demolitions in East Jerusalem; with one or two exceptions, those structures demolished were mostly tool sheds and animal pens. Given Barkat’s aspiration to be a [New York Mayor Rudy] Guliani-style sheriff with a penchant for demolitions, the fact that there have been virtually no demolitions requires explanation. That explanation is provided in the minutes of internal deliberations in the Ministry of Interior. They reveal that Prime Minister Netanyahu has refused to allocate Border Patrol details to secure the demolitions, because of the political sensitivities involved.

A few observations:

(a) Thus far, the demolitions in Bustan have been blocked both by a legal obstacle (Court order) and by the general policies of the Prime Minister;

(b) The legal obstacle to resumption of demolitions will expire at the end of this month, after which only the policy of the Prime Minister will prevent their resumption; and

(c) Should demolitions resume, the numbers of homes at risk may be significant (Barkat is targeting the same 44 homes he targeted in the past, and maybe more), and of course, for the individual homeowner, any demolition is devastating. That said, based on our experience, and recognizing both legal and operational constraints involved in carrying out demolitions, we believe it is unlikely that Barkat has the ability to demolish large numbers of homes in a short span of time. It needs to be understood that Israeli law provides no such thing as a “collective demolition order” – each house will be dealt with on its own. That is of course bad enough, but it is important to be accurate. Claims that thousands of Palestinians are facing imminent threat of displacement are not accurate.

That analysis was bolstered this week, when a Knesset committee, chaired by Uri Ariel, a right-wing Knesset member and longtime leader in the settlement movement, met to discuss massive demolitions in the Bustan. This was clearly part of a concerted effort by the ideological right, the Silwan settlers and the Jerusalem Municipality to expedite the demolitions. During that meeting Mayor Barkat and the Municipal Legal Adviser openly complained that these demolitions are being stymied by Netanyahu, for reasons of political sensitivities in the international arena. The transparent goal of the hearing was to force Netanyahu’s hand and allow the resumption of demolitions.

Our conclusion is that Netanyahu is under increasing pressure from the Mayor and the settlers to give the green light for a major wave of demolitions in East Jerusalem. This pressure is increasingly becoming public, with the obvious goal of forcing Netanyahu to either cave to their demands or pay a heavy political price. This issue must be monitored closely. Friends of Israel would do well to make clear to Netanyahu and other Israeli government interlocutors that provocative Israeli actions in Jerusalem – and a wave of home demolitions, particularly in the shadow of al Aqsa Mosque, would indeed by highly provocative – will not be tolerated at this time.