Housing demolitions

Housing demolitions are sadly a regular part of life to be contended with in East Jerusalem. But recently there have been some disturbing developments in an already disturbing field.

This week at least 10 buildings (some reports say as many as 16) were demolished in in the Wadi Hummus area of Sur Baher, just to the south-east of Jerusalem. What was once a Palestinian village now straddles the Jerusalem municipality boundary as well as Areas A, B and C under the Oslo Accords, a combination which makes it fairly unusual. The buildings which were demolished were a mixture of lived-in homes and unfinished structures which would have held 70 apartments once completed. Among those that were finished, approximately 500 Palestinians have lost their homes.

The bill for the demolition will be sent to the Palestinian owners, who mostly say they had the required building permissions and had already paid significant amounts for land and construction. Mahmood Abbas has said that the Palestinan Authority will compensate those affected.

Al Jazeera called it "the biggest demolition act in occupied Jerusalem since 1967". But apart from their scale, what is unusual about these demolitions is that they are the first Israeli demolitions in territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Under the peace agreements signed in the 1990s, building permission in territory which was designated as Areas A and B was supposed to be granted only by the Palestinian Authority. The French foreign ministry say,

"These demolitions have taken place for the first time in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords. They represent a dangerous precedent, which poses a direct threat to the two-state solution."

Israel refutes this by citing an IDF military ruling from 2011, which prohibits building homes less than 300 metres from the 'security fence'. They claim the buildings, which are undeniably close to the barrier, are therefore illegal and the appropriate notice of two years was given to the inhabitants. However there are literally thousands of buildings in Jerusalem and surrounding neighbourhoods which are built right next to the barrier. Why the decision to move against these ones now?

As is so often the case, it may have been an arbitrary decision taken by the Netanyahu government aimed at boosting support among conservatives in the lead up to the general (re)election in a few months time. They certainly got some dramatic footage which will sit well with a large part of the domestic audience.

Meanwhile, just a few kilometres away and less than a month earlier, a new "Pilgrimage Road" was inaugurated deep underground beneath the controversial archeological site in Silwan, known as the City of David. The site, developed since 1920, begins under the walls of the Old City and stretches underneath the Palestinian neighbourhood of Wadi Hilweh. There have been bronze age discoveries there, thought to date to the Canaanite period, but most focus has been around iron age discoveries which relate roughly to the period described in the Bible. The most recent discovery is of an objectively impressive tunnel which is claimed to have taken pilgrims from a ritual bathing pool directly to the Jewish Temple.

Doron Spielman, the vice president of the City of David Foundation, wrote an op-ed in the Times of Israel discussing the opening on June 30, in which he makes a number of very concerning claims. Some are unnecessarily specific, and unprovable, like claiming that a picture of a menorah in the rock "was carved by a child after seeing it at the Temple" or that a tiny golden bell had "accidentally broken loose from the tunic of the high priest on his way up to the Temple". But these stretches of the imagination just set the scene for more troubling assumptions.

Dignitaries including the American ambassador and
Israeli first lady at the opening of the 'Pilgrimage Road'

Unique in the history of Israel, the City of David National Park is run entirely by a private, political, settler organisation. Eldad (an acronym of Ir David, its Hebrew name) not only runs the archeological dig and the tourist site, but also buys property in the area from Palestinians for rent to Jewish tenants. Other more controversial techniques for evicting people have also been used. Their scientific process has also been heavily criticised, for example by Emek Shaveh, an organisation of archeologists which seeks to keep protect ancient sites as public assets. Of the latest finding the say;

"The use of archaeology by Israel and the settlers as a political tool is a part of a strategy to shape the historic city and unilaterally entrench Israeli sovereignty over ancient Jerusalem. It is a process which is likely to produce devastating results for both Israel and the Palestinians."

The standard practice in archaeology is to start at the top and dig down. It is a logical approach which allows experts to place anything they find in the correct historic period. This excavation run by Eldad, however, was done entirely beneath the ground, using a tunnel which goes underneath the homes of many Palestinians living in Silwan. Several homes have been damaged or even collapsed  during this process. Furthermore, by working this way the diggers were never going to find anything that disproved their theory, because they simply were not looking.

Coins were found with the Hebrew words “For the Freedom of Zion” written on them, which Spielman claims were "minted by the last surviving Jews of Jerusalem as the city burnt around them, perhaps as a message to future generations that although Jerusalem had been lost, it would not be lost forever." He then uses this to make a political point, that somehow the ancient Jewish Kingdom and the modern USA both shared a love of justice and freedom.

US Ambassador David Friedman said at the event that "this is yet another example – and a great one – of the recognition of the Judeo-Christian values upon which both nations were founded.” Combine this with Spielman's claim that now "the City of David has returned as an anchor of Western Civilization", and you start to see a dangerous, almost messianic, us-versus-them, east-versus-west mentality. Samuel Huntington, who predicted an epic showdown between the West and the Islamic world in his 1996 book Clash of Civilizations, would be proud. The rest of us should be very, very concerned.

Find out more about this issue on our Silwan-City of David tour every Wednesday.


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