Everyday life of a Palestinian in Jerusalem consists of years spent in fighting for their right to obtain a license: first, for land, then for a house and then for the repair works for the house.
And if you have no house – you lose the right to live in Jerusalem.
For an average reader, the situation may seem to be about the progressive government running a project to get rid of rundown property harboring nests of terrorists which does seem like a sensible and legitimate thing to do. But this is not what it is – this is a stage in the policy of de-Palestinization of Jerusalem. Let’s see how this cleanup really works through the example of ordinary Palestinian citizens.
Hit by the Ceiling
This robust old building in the Harat-bab-Hotta quarter, located in the vicinity of the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem looks just like any other here.
The owner of the building is Khalid Arafat Shueiki. He had six families living in his building, and now two of them have no other way out than to move. Samer Shaker, head of a family of 11 used to occupy the room whose floor collapsed hitting those who lived one floor below, the family of Ahmad Shueiki, father of eight children.
All the structural frames of the building gave in and collapsed recently, as a result of wear and tear, many years of rain and damp. It was pure luck no one was hurt. This looks like a regular, if a bit large, household chore. But there is a crowd of people outside, and reporters arrived at the scene.
The landlord invites us to enter. For safety reasons, we have to stick to the walls as the floor in the middle is not to be trusted. The city hall officials who came in the morning marked the building with a ribbon which bans anyone from entering –that’s the only help they provided to the people living here.
“When I wanted to repair the house, the authorities refused to issue him the required permission,” says Khalid.
He goes on to explain that if anyone living in the house tried to fix it without a permit they will be fined by the authorities.
“They forbid us to fix our houses. This used to be a good solid building. But everything comes to peril over the years, solid as it may be,” he says. “They” refers to the city authorities.
“This isn’t personal. It’s the same throughout the entire city, especially in the Al Aqsa area,” adds Khalid.
These families were in luck – after the house collapsed, they were moved to a hotel, and their stay is covered by the Palestinian Authority, even though it has no representation in Jerusalem whatsoever, it is banned from here.The city is governed (or occupied – the choice of term is determined by who speaks, a Palestinian or an Israeli) by Israel.
The situation is not completely hopeless as the UN does acknowledge the occupied state of a part of Jerusalem. That is, it is not completely hopeless if you are quite optimistic. But that’s what all Palestinians are like.
“The house repairs will be taken care by the UN – the UN will request the city authorities for the permit. It’ll take months to come through…” Khalid is thinking it over. “Who knows how long it’ll take. But I hope it’ll be a matter of months. Once we get it, we’ll fix the house quickly.The permit is the main thing. If the same thing happened to a Jewish family, they’d be given new housing in the Old City the very next day, and their old house would be fixed in a month’s time.”
Residents believe that houses collapse not only because of the natural wear and tear caused by time, rain and snow. They think that the excavation works run by the authorities by the Al Aqsa for many years are a contributing factor as the works unsettle the foundations of the houses which have seen no proper maintenance for decades thanks to the regulations.
The Israeli authorities respond to that by saying that Palestinians themselves dig up the area.
This way or another, Palestinians are losing their houses in Jerusalem, while doing their best to fight and keep them.But they don’t have that many opportunities.
Keeping the High Ground
If you take a walk in the area of the old Al Hanin market in the Old City, you’ll see that the view of its beautiful narrow and winding streets is now marred by numerous rusty poles propping the old cracked walls.
In a corner, there is a rundown steep staircase that takes us up to the Al Irami quarter.
Loai Soblabann opens the door. This 22-year old Palestinian is the only bread-winner for his parents and six siblings. The youngest is only six.
“Father is sick, he had a stroke, and I am the eldest one. I work for a Jewish restaurant, Arabs have no jobs to offer,” says he. All Arab businesses are doing so poorly that they can’t hire anyone.
The Soblabanns are occupying the rooms overlooking the market. On the ground level, there are only two more Palestinian families left, all the rest is taken by settlers.
“This started before I was born. All the Arabs who lived next door to us lost their jobs and therefore couldn’t pay the taxes, they debts were growing, and they left to seek jobs elsewhere to pay the debts, but when they returned their homes were taken over by strangers,” says Loai. “We had reporters here this morning. Our ceiling came crashing down, and the authorities are denying the permit to fix it,” he continues.
The settlers living next door have no problem fixing their homes. They live comfortably, they have a school. It’s Saturday. Loai invites us to join him on the rooftop. Immediately, an armed settler appears out of nowhere to keep an eye on us.
A small tower overlooking the market is the home of the Soblabanns. “We have the highest ground here; from here you can see everything. That’s why they want to take away our home. The settlers beat my mother and the children. They keep provoking us all the time. They write threats on the walls,” says Loai.
On the roof the settlers set up a children’s playground, which Arab children are forbidden to enter. The little mosque was fenced off, one of the two entrances closed. The settlers’ bicycles are stored in the air vents to prevent them from being exposed to snow and rain. It’s forbidden by the safety regulations, but it seems that the regulations don’t apply to settlers.
Loai thinks that it’s pointless to go to the police about this. “There are so many of them here, they’re everywhere, they even made homes underground. They are allowed to build anything. They expanded their buildings, even though it’s forbidden. They closed off the street for the Arab family living below us”, he shows us a narrow staircase that their neighbors have to use to get down to their floor from the roof.
“My family has been living in this house since my grandfather’s time. The settlers came from all over the world and are taking our houses”, he laments, saying that many charities have been raising money, but it still doesn’t work – this issue can’t be solved with Palestinian money.
When the settlers want your land
On the beautiful Jabal al Makaber hill in a Jerusalem suburb a Palestinian house stands surrounded by trees. Next to it, a multi-storey building for the settlers is being constructed. Looking around, one would see that all the hills nearby have a similar view to offer.
The house owner, 51-year-old Khalid Rabaia, is an AC repairman. He has six kids. A total of 24 people are living in the house with him: his father with his family and his uncle with his kids. All of them were born in this house, on this land. They have a British permit dated 1943 for the oldest part of the house (Palestine was under British mandate until 1948). The land belongs to this Palestinian family. Fifteen years ago they built additions to their house so that the growing family had enough space to live in,
In 1970s their neighbors uphill sold their land to the settlers. Five years ago the construction of the multi-storey buildings began, triggering Palestinian protests. A year ago the construction resumed. Construction workers blocked the road, dumping construction waste there, and mapped out where they were going to put the fence, taking some more of the Palestinian land.
The construction causes a multitude of problems, from broken trees and a wrecked road to stones falling on children’s heads.
“In March 2014 we were ordered to demolish our house, all the new additions. The reason was that we had no permit for them. We paid a fine of 80,000 shekels and asked a lawyer to get us a permit, but part of our house got demolished instead. The old part could stay, they said, but the additions we built on our own land we had to demolish. Eight people that used to live there now have to share two rooms. And we only have one kitchen and one bathroom,” Khalid says.
The family paid an additional 20,000 shekels for the demolition. What remained of the walls they covered in plastic film.
“The water is flooding the house. The authorities made pictures of our house so now we can’t fix the roof,” Khalid’s wife says.
“We can only pray to God. We won’t leave; we will live here even if we all have to share one room. If we leave, the Jews will seize this land and we won’t be able to live here at all,” Khalid says. By ‘here’ he means Palestine.
“They tried to give us money, buy us. Both the settlers and people from the town council came and offered us money. Now they’re making us suffer and hope we leave,” the head of the family sighs.
The family has been trying to solve this problem through lawful means for years. But the authorities refused to approve their application for a building permit. “They didn’t give us the permit, saying they wanted to build everything on their own, but that’s all talk. What they really believe is that Palestinians have no right to be here at all,” Khalid says. The authorities wanted the Palestinians to pay for the construction work that they would handle on their own. “They wanted us to pay a million shekels to build all the infrastructure here. What they want is an entire bank full of money!”
Khalid says that at first the settlers wanted to build four houses on this small piece of land, but they ran out of money.
“The settlers have plans for our land, so the authorities won’t give us the permit,” Khalid says.
It’s right to stay on your land
The Beit Hanina neighborhood is located in Jerusalem and governed by Israeli authorities. The place where in February 2013 bulldozers demolished a house four families lived in is covered in construction waste. In cleared-out spot fridges and whatever furniture could be salvaged are standing, exposed to rain and snow. Three families that used to live here are currently renting living space, while one remained here.
Mohammad Saleh is 55, he used to be a freight dispatcher. He hasn’t been working since 2004 due to health problems with his legs and back. His two oldest sons earn the money for the family to get by. Mohammad has eight kids in total.
He doesn’t know why it was his house that got demolished.
“Not all our neighbors have proper permits, but we were the ones whose house got demolished. The authorities wanted me to suspect that my neighbors were the ones who tattled on us. But we know our house was just one of the 25,000 they destroyed in Jerusalem,” Mohammad says.
Mohammad doesn’t believe he will be able to get a permit. “I’m working on it,” he jokes, explaining that the permit cost is calculated at 1,200 shekels per square meter.
He was slapped with a 20,000 shekel fine, but he couldn’t afford it. “How on earth can I afford the license?” he exclaims.
He thinks the authorities deliberately procrastinated with the development plan to deny licenses to Palestinians. Now, the plan is ready.
“My children were arrested twice after the demolition. They took part in the protests over the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir (a teen who was allegedly burned by settlers in the summer of 2014),” he says. His younger children were under house arrest for protests – one spent eight months, the other 14 months.
“It’s so difficult to live here right now. They ignore any circumstances people might be in. I refused to leave Jerusalem and move beyond the wall. Those who live on the other side of the wall are no longer residents of Jerusalem. People are afraid to change their life so drastically,” says Mohammad.
“The Israeli plan is to throw Palestinians out of Jerusalem,” he concludes.
That’s what happened to his parents, two brothers and one of his sons – they were kicked out Jerusalem, and now they live in Ramallah’s suburb of Semiramis. “But it’s not even Israel or the occupied bank. There’re no services, nothing at all, they don’t collect garbage. They could be told one day: “Hey, you are beyond the wall, you are the West Bank, get the hell out of here,” he says.
“I am a Palestinian, I have the right to live in any part of Palestine, but the Israeli government wants to push to the Palestinian authority as many Palestinians as possible. I can sell the land – it’s pretty expensive – and move wherever I want. But I’m staying here. Just pay 150,000 shekels to the authorities on the West Bank and build whatever you want. But I don’t want to leave Jerusalem, I don’t want Jerusalem to be without Palestinians,” laments Mohammad.
When he was young, Mohammad was close to Fatah. In 1978, he was arrested for two months, but no charges were made.
“I do what’s right. Right now it’s staying on my land,” he says defiantly.
I ask his children to get together for a family photo. Water is dripping from the ceiling, the furniture and clothes are getting wet as we speak.
The makeshift home he’s now staying in are regarded as illegal by Israel. “They can demolish it any time. But we are going to rebuild it. We are not going anywhere. Period.”
“I have to pay for power or they are going to cut us off. It’s the first month that we’ve got electricity. We had to live a year without any power.” They don’t have water and have to get it from their neighbors.
Until 2003, the family didn’t have a permanent home and had to rent an apartment. It was quite expensive, and finally in 2003 three families came together to build a home. They spent 10 years, and once it was ready, the house was demolished.
They will never forget the day their house was torn down.
«They were dozens of soldiers all around. It took them less than a day to destroy it. The children were in school, my wife was out in Jerusalem, I was on some business. There were only three women, including my daughter. The soldiers didn’t show any papers or warrant, they didn’t even want to talk to us. They came at 8.30 am and at 3 pm it was all over. They didn’t give the women a minute to pack their belongings, they didn’t let anyone in. They just threw the things out. Actually, we’ve seen any papers. There was a court hearing but we couldn’t do anything – they issued a fine for the demolition of our home. We went to the court several times – but all in vain,” says Mohammad.
When they started construction, they thought they would be able to pay for the license once the development plan is ready. But never got an opportunity. It’s neither negligent nor illegal – it’s just the way it is.
A grandchild woke up and started crying. Mohammad tells me the baby’s parents are in Mecca, and the baby is staying with them. Mohammad once visited Mecca with his father in 1979, but not as a pilgrim. He dreams of doing the hajj and even had an invitation from the president but the authorities didn’t let us go because of the unpaid fines.
He is not allowed to drive a car – for the same reason.
“If I get a job, they would deduct the fine from my pay,” he says. He adds all he can earn is 5,000 shekels a month, or 60,000 a year.
The cost of the license is the same for Israelis, he says, but they get help from funds. Also, they come together and build as a community. Some houses stand empty, he adds.
Mohammad says the demolition policy has always been on the agenda of the authorities but they have really stepped it up since 2012. They tore down 80 homes in 2012, and promised to destroy another 20. About 13 other homes were demolished in the same month as Mohammad’s home.
“Two months after the demolition my daughter got married. I insisted that she came out of the ruins with the groom in her wedding dress,” Mohammad shows me his family albums.