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The Media Line: East Jerusalem Tensions Rise as Israeli Government Advances Measures Against Palestinians

East Jerusalem Tensions Rise as Israeli Government Advances Measures Against Palestinians

House demolitions have always been used by Israel as a way to punish and intimidate, activist says

By Keren Setton/The Media Line

Eyes will be on east Jerusalem in the coming days, where plans to demolish the homes of dozens of Palestinian residents threaten to thrust the city into further turmoil.

It has been a little over a week since seven Israelis were killed outside a Jerusalem synagogue by a Palestinian resident of east Jerusalem and tensions are running high.

Over the weekend, Israeli media outlets reported that the Jerusalem municipality plans to demolish several housing units, home to nearly 100 Palestinians. If carried out, it would be one of the largest demolitions executed by Israeli authorities in recent years.

According to Arieh King, deputy mayor of Jerusalem, the demolitions are planned for Tuesday. King posted a photo of one of the buildings to be destroyed on his Twitter account, claiming its owner built it against the law.

The demolition has been postponed for years due to international pressure, according to reports. Now the new Israeli government, the most right-wing coalition to ever govern the country, has promised a heavy hand against the Palestinians and it appears to be ready to deliver.

Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is in charge of the Israel Police, will be overseeing what is expected to be a massive operation in east Jerusalem, should it take place.

Israeli authorities claim many of the buildings in the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem have been built illegally. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), building permits are “virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain.”

“House demolitions have always been used by the state of Israel as a way to punish and intimidate,” according to Sari Kronish, an architect and the head of the East Jerusalem Department at Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights.

Kronish says the government has been deliberate in making it difficult for Palestinians to build in Jerusalem.

Data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) shows that almost 40% of Jerusalem residents are Arab. While the Jewish population is growing faster than the Arab population in the city, planning and construction in Arab neighborhoods lags significantly behind Jewish areas.

“People need to live in the city, and if the state doesn’t let them, they will find other ways to put a roof over their heads,” Kronish said. “The policy is to restrict and reduce permits instead of enabling. Therefore, people are forced to build without permits and deal with the constant and horrible threat of demolition.”

Imad Abu Mhamad received notice earlier in the week that his house is scheduled to be demolished. With the help of an attorney, all the paperwork the Jerusalem municipality demanded of him has been handed in, he says.

“Why are they doing this to us?” asked Imad Abu Mhamad, a resident of the Wadi Qaddum neighborhood of east Jerusalem. “It is all politics, at the expense of our women and children.”

“Ben-Gvir’s decision is very problematic,” said attorney Suhad Bishara, legal director of Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “This is vengeance, being carried out as collective punishment, in order to serve political interests.”

Bishara points to the speed at which the decisions are being made and implemented.

“The policies of lack of urban planning in east Jerusalem and settling it with Jews are consistent throughout all Israel’s governments; now we are seeing an escalation by this government in order to tighten the control and the oppression against Palestinians,” she explained.

In the past, demolitions have led to increased tension in the city on many occasions.

Jerusalem is no stranger to tension; It is the focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Palestinians, it is the home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site for Muslims. The mosque is situated adjacent to the Western Wall, which is considered by Jews to be their holiest site.

Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. It then annexed the area, receiving no international recognition for the move. While its sovereignty on the western part of the city is more widely accepted, the Israeli insistence that Jerusalem is its “eternal and united” capital is contentious.

Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

UNOCHA data shows Israeli authorities already have demolished 39 structures in Jerusalem since the beginning of 2023, leaving over 50 Palestinians displaced.

Ben-Gvir has threatened to resign in the coming months if his hard-line policies are not implemented. The minister explained in a tweet that home demolitions are “part of a series of important steps for governance and the war on terrorism.”

“The escalation we are seeing now appears to be part of an attempt to raise tensions,” said Kronish. “Demolitions are not the solution, and this is certainly not a new thing, but the way it is now being used – more frequently with more threats being made, together with the criminalization of every Palestinian resident of the city as if they are all potential terrorists – is an extreme and unjust use of this measure.”

For years, there has been a debate in Israel about the effectiveness of house demolitions in deterring terror attacks. In the wake of last weeks’ two separate attacks in Jerusalem, the homes of the assailants were sealed in advance of their expected demolition. Those in favor say it serves as a deterrent for future attackers, while opponents believe the act is counter-effective and only further nurtures anger and humiliation. Israeli authorities differentiate between house demolitions as a punitive measure imposed on families of attackers and demolitions of illegal housing units. The difference often is lost on the Palestinians, especially when they are subsequently displaced.

This constant tension is fuel for the sides which are already on edge.

“There are a lot of crazy people out there and who knows what they will decide to do,” said Abu Mhamad. “Ben-Gvir wants to show he is a hero against the Arabs, but this is just creating more fire and igniting the whole country.”

Abu Mhamad works as a taxi driver in Jerusalem. The 59-year-old father of seven feels like Israelis don’t want Arabs in Jerusalem anymore.

“As long as the Israeli governments does not regularize the land and properly register it, these moves are seen as the usage of a legal justification to insert more Jews into Palestinian neighborhoods,” said Noa Shusterman, a researcher focusing on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. “This then accumulates into unrest,” she added.

In recent weeks, there has been a spike in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Just before the attacks in Jerusalem, an Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin killed nine Palestinians. While the majority of the dead were armed attackers, innocent civilians also lost their lives.

Any added tension in Jerusalem could further engulf the region in flames. On Monday, five Palestinian gunmen were killed in an Israeli military raid in the Jericho area of the West Bank. The raid was targeting terrorists who staged a botched attack against Israelis near the Dead Sea last week.

“For the Palestinians, it is all part of the occupation and the way Israel is trying to Judaize Jerusalem and strip them of their properties,” said Shusterman.

In May 2021, clashes over Israeli movements around al-Aqsa and a conflict surrounding ownership of homes in an east Jerusalem neighborhood led to a war between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

An official from the Jerusalem municipality told The Media Line that there are thousands of homes in east Jerusalem that are candidates for demolition. They are only demolished “after all appeals have been exhausted and there is no horizon for these properties to be legalized.”

The official said demolitions are taking place as scheduled, adding that police presence is a condition for their execution due to the “sensitivities” surrounding such activities.

The potential for escalation appears to be higher with Ben-Gvir and other ultra-nationalists in key government positions.

“There is a feeling that there is a deep desire to implement things that have been avoided thus far, partly because governments understood that some of these moves will lead to unrest but also because the understanding that there is a lack of a real alternative for these people who will be displaced,” said Shusterman.

On Sunday, Ben-Gvir ridiculed Palestinian prisoners on one of his social media accounts. After ordering them barred from baking pita bread in prison, he showed them how he was eating the fresh bread at his office.

“This is just the beginning,” he warned.

As tensions continue to smoulder, the warning goes for both sides.


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