The Israeli collective is politically empowered, and the Palestinian collective is politically disempowered. That is the basic fact of life. – Daniel Seidemann
Our homes are where we watch our children take their first steps. Where we ready our kids for their first day of school. Where we come together for family dinners and celebrations.
Now imagine soldiers showing up one day to tell your family they will demolish your home in hours, leaving you with nothing — nowhere to go and nothing to do about it. They go through the house throwing your belongings into the yard.
Bulldozers rev. Walls crumble. To top it off, they hand you an invoice for the demolition crew’s services.
This is the threat faced by Palestinian families in the neighborhood of al-Walaja in East Jerusalem. Israeli government policies in East Jerusalem weaponize building permits, zoning requirements, historical land title records, demolitions orders and new construction projects in order to push Palestinian families out and cement Israeli control.
East Jerusalem has been under Israeli control since 1967, and was annexed in 1980 – which was internationally condemned as an illegal occupation. Ever since then, the right-wing settlement-movement who seek a “unified Israeli capital” has been seeking to push Palestinians out of East Jerusalem and move Israelis in
“I prefer the Arabs to leave this area voluntarily, I try hard not to force the police to evict anyone,” then Jerusalem councilor and current Deputy Mayor Aryeh King told The Jerusalem Post in 2015. “But, if need be, I have no problem doing what needs to be done.”
Daniel Seidemann, a leading Israeli expert on the geopolitics of contemporary Jerusalem, says the ongoing efforts to expel Palestinian families has become far too normalized in the city.
A thriving village before 1948, decades of war, settlement, and annexation have left the Palestinian residents of al-Walaja with less than thirty percent of the land it once held, and an uncertain future. The winding roads and once scenic views of Jerusalem are now obstructed by a barbed-wire fence at the edge of the village. The majority of Palestinian families have been cut off from their original town and forced to relocate.
Omar Hajajla, an al-Walaja resident who was cut off from his village by a barrier built by Israel told Reuters, “Prison may be better than this, because even though I am at home, it feels like prison.”
Israelis and Palestinians may live side by side in East Jerusalem, but Israeli authorities treat the two groups very differently. “The Israeli collective is politically empowered, and the Palestinian collective is politically disempowered,” Seidmann says. “That is the basic fact of life.”
Since virtually none of these families have been granted Israeli citizenship, the Israeli government does not grant them equal rights.
Authorities devote everything to maintaining the demographic advantage of Israelis in Jerusalem, Seidmann says, noting two significant ways the government seeks to achieve this.
Since 1967, the Israeli government has approved the building of over 56,000 homes for Israelis in East Jerusalem, and only 600 for Palestinians — the last of which were built in the 1970s.
Israel often uses the control of planning permits to greenlight Jewish/Israeli construction and block Palestinian construction.
According to Haaretz, only seven percent of the building permits issued in Jerusalem over the past few years have gone to Palestinian neighborhoods where 40 percent of the city’s population lives. The specific numbers paint an even grimmer picture, pointing to a sharp drop in the already small number of permits issued to Palestinians in recent years. Jamal Majid Alyan, a resident of Issawiya, a neighborhood that has struggled for decades to receive building approval said, “We are under occupation and the occupation won’t give you anything. There is no intention [to allow the expansion of Issawiya].”
There is rarely a legitimate reason given for a permit request rejection. Meanwhile, these discriminatory building policies enable settlement expansion to continue.
The zoning and housing permit permit system serves an even darker purpose than preventing Palestinian construction and enabling Israeli construction — it’s also used to legally justify the demolition of homes which Palestinians have lived in for generations.
Similarly to how arbitrary permit approval is, there is rarely a reason for your home getting chosen for demolition. As Seidemann put it, “Having your home demolished is the equivalent of getting struck by lightning. There is no rhyme or reason.”
Eyad al-Ghouch, a West Bank resident, told Haaretz, “my 3-year-old son tells me he wants to sleep outside because he’s afraid they’ll demolish the house on top of us.” The trauma and fear that faces Palestinian families are only worsened once demolitions occur. “I have nightmares about the bulldozers ripping away every stone in our house, and the sounds of the explosions still haunt me,” a fifteen-year-old told Middle East Eye.
Just days before the Israeli Supreme Court was slated to hear Al-Walaja residents’ appeal to stay in their homes, fifty US lawmakers urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to prevent Israel from moving forward with the planned displacement. They wrote, “The destruction and displacement of this community would run counter to the values shared by the U.S. and Israel, while further undermining long-term Israeli security, Palestinian dignity, and prospects for peace.”
On March 30th, the day before the ruling was set to occur, the proceedings were deferred to November.
“It is not impossible to secure international engagement that will elicit a significant reduction in home demolition. If you engage properly, there is potential to do something consequential,” says Seidemann.
J Street fights for justice and an end to the occupation, settlements, and demolitions that hinder our vision for a two-state solution. Learn more from our partner organizations about how you can help the residents of al-Walaja.