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Palestinians face Jerusalem home demolitions as Israeli tourist project pushes ahead

Israel routinely demolishes Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem. [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 May, 2019

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Palestinians living in an east Jerusalem neighbourhood face the mass demolition of their homes as Israel pushes ahead with a new tourist project in the contested city.
Palestinians living in an east Jerusalem neighbourhood face the mass demolition of their homes as Israel pushes ahead with a new tourist project in the contested city.

For many years, Izz Burqan has lived along with his wife and six children in a pastoral meadow that rolls through a Palestinian neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.

The conflict started in a recent spring morning, as bulldozers of Israeli occupation arrived to demolish his house and storage facility.

Some 60 houses built in the grassy quarter, known to its 500 residents as Wad Yasul, are now facing the prospect of being demolished by Israeli authorities.

Earlier in May, the Supreme Court refused to hear the residents' appeal against demolition orders, saying that the houses were built without permission.

Some 60 houses built in the grassy quarter, known to its 500 residents as Wad Yasul, are now facing the prospect of being demolished by Israeli authorities

"I was destroyed. I felt difficult feelings. I was in tears. Why is this happening to me? Why? What's the reason?" Nasser Burqan, a longtime resident, told The Associated Press.

"I didn't do anything for this to happen."

Peace Forest

The demolition of unauthorized Palestinian-owned structures in east Jerusalem is widespread.

Israel claims it is taking these measures to crack down on zoning violations, restricting Palestinians' ability to build on land they want for the capital of their future state.

The demolitions of Peace Forest, a coveted pasture which lies in the crosshairs of the dispute, have drawn particular attention because of accelerating construction by a nationalist Jewish organization in the same park.

The City of David Foundation, with the support of Israel's tourism ministry, has established lodging structures, operates a Segway tour through the woodland and is introducing plans for several tourist attractions, including a visitor center and what it bills as country's largest zip line.

The organisation said it has leased 4 percent of the park's total area from the government.

City regulations forbid construction of any kind in designated parks. However, the municipality confirmed it was working, defiantly, to alter park zoning restrictions and retroactively authorise City of David's construction and facilitate its expansion.

Activists and Palestinian residents say the case of the Peace Forest highlights discriminatory Israeli policies that have propelled a housing crisis in overcrowded east Jerusalem.

"The area was declared as a forest exactly in order to prevent Palestinians from getting building permits. And so all their attempts for the last decade or two decades, to legalise the buildings, they tried to make a master plan, that was rejected by the municipality, and it didn't work," said Aviv Tatarsky from Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates equality in Jerusalem.

Mass demolitions

The Supreme Court's dismissal of the case brought an end to the residents' costly decade-long legal battle to get their houses, in many cases built on inherited family land, authorized by Israel.

Structures belonging to two local families were destroyed immediately following the decision, and another two were demolished on Tuesday.

Pending demolition orders for the rest of the area's homes can go into effect at any time, said Zyad Kawar, lawyer for the Palestinian residents.

Many residents view the park zoning as a government trick to force Palestinians out of east Jerusalem, which Israel considers an indivisible part of its capital.

The Peace Forest sits in the larger Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, long a focal point of Jewish settlement for its proximity to some of the world's most sensitive religious sites in the limestone-walled Old City.

The City of David Foundation, which runs popular archaeological and touristic sites in and around Silwan, said "we are not eager to evict Palestinian residents in a brutal way, but we have a green light from the highest court."

The organisation has drawn sharp criticism for helping to settle Jewish families in Palestinian neighbourhoods, fuelling suspicions that its tourism projects mask efforts to erase the line between east and west Jerusalem, and with it, hope for an independent Palestinian state.

"They're using tourist activities to change the character of Silwan, to bring more Israelis there and take over more and more of the neighbourhood," said Tatarsky.

Perpetual occupation

The two-state dream seems more unlikely than ever after the re-election of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who vowed to annex West Bank settlements and is preparing to form a governing coalition with right-wing parties that reject Palestinian sovereignty.

With the Trump administration providing unprecedented support for Israel's control over occupied territories, there are fears in Jerusalem that the government could step up its pressure on Palestinian residents.

Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War and annexed it, a move not internationally recognized.

Since then, Israel has boosted the Jewish presence there, building neighbourhoods where over 200,000 Jews now live.

"I bought a tent and I will live in it now," said Burqan, standing amid the ruins of his two-storey home. "Where shall I go? I will stay here."

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