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From the field

Newsletter April 2020 - Jerusalem, a city of landgrab, demolition orders and child arrests

Jerusalem, a city of landgrab, demolition orders and child arrests
Dear friend,

I’ve known al-’Esawiyah since the 1990s, when I was a journalist with local Jerusalem newspaper Kol HaIr. That was when I first learned about the ongoing neglect. Over the past year, however, I’ve come to know the neighborhood more closely because of the campaign of abuse and collective punishment the Israel Police has been waging in it.

Almost a year ago, on 27 June 2019, I took part in a joint protest organized by activists from the neighborhood and Israeli partners - just two hours later, a police officer killed local resident, Muhammad ‘Abeid, 21, without any justification. Since then, I have joined the protests organized by local residents weekly, attended meetings and watched houses being demolished by the City.

As someone who has experienced several rounds of police brutality in East Jerusalem, I saw the outcome of years of de-humanizing incitement against the city’s Palestinian residents. The police forces that regularly come into the neighborhood - Special Patrol Unit and Border Police troops, armed to the teeth, look more like militias than agents of the law.  Violence for the sake of violence is simply designed to cement their dubious status as rulers and nothing more.

More than 20,000 people live in al-’Esawiyah. They have been dealing with this arbitrary violence every day for more than a year now: Children and toddlers suffer from gas canisters thrown in narrow alleyways late at night, teens are brutally beaten, some of them arrested, and local activists are repeatedly falsely charged by the police. Al-’Esawiyah is a quiet neighborhood - until the police show up, and, in a twisted role reversal, disturb the peace.

The time I’ve spent in the neighborhood and the research and analysis for this report have also driven home for me the damage inflicted by the planning chaos the Israeli authorities impose on the neighborhood. Fifty-three years after its annexation to the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, al-’Esawiyah has no proper outline plan that reflects residents’ needs. The inevitable result is unbearable overcrowding resembling a refugee camp, dilapidated infrastructure and constant anxiety for thousands of families living in fear their meager home will be demolished. More than half the homes in al-’Esawiyah (about 2,000 units) were built without a permit, as residents have no other choice.

Al-’Esawiyah residents have not forgotten that 90% of their land was taken by the Israeli occupier. This land is now used by the Hebrew University, Hadassah Mount Scopus Medical Center, nearby Jewish neighborhoods (French Hill and Tzameret Habira, both of which are settlements under international law), the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim and military and police bases.  South of al-‘Esawiyah, where the neighborhood’s last remaining land reserve for development is located, the Israeli authorities are planning to declare a national park. Al-’Esawiyah remains trapped in an enclave, with no prospects for development. 

Conditions in the neighborhood are not some sort of inescapable fate. They are the direct result of the policy Israel employs throughout East Jerusalem, a policy that sees Palestinians not as human beings with equal rights, but an unwanted addition to be rid of in order to maintain a Jewish majority in the city. Life in the neighborhood will not change until this concept does.

Eyal Hareuveni, B'Tselem researcher and the author of the new report, "This is Jerusalem: Violence and Dispossession in al-‘Esawiyah"
Here is some of what B’Tselem has been covering in recent weeks:
  1. Since the start of the corona crisis, and despite unprecedented social distancing measures introduced by Israel, state-backed settler violence in the West Bank has ramped up. In these violent incidents, settlers have physically assaulted Palestinians with the aid of clubs, axes, electroshock weapons, stones and assault dogs, in some cases causing severe injury. Settlers have also attacked homes, torched cars, vandalized and uprooted olive trees and other crops, and stolen livestock. For years, Israel has allowed settlers to attack Palestinians and damage their property virtually unimpeded, as a matter of policy.  In some cases, soldiers who are present at the scene protect the attackers. In others, they join in the attack. Over the course of March and April, B'Tselem field researchers collected dozens of testimonies about violent attacks that were perpetrated for a single purpose - driving Palestinians off their lands and out of their homes.
  2. The daily violence inherent in the occupation continued in the West Bank even as the world came to a standstill due to the corona pandemic. From 1 March 2020 to 3 April 2020, Israeli security forces raided 100 homes in the West Bank and arrested 217 Palestinians, 16 of them minors. B’Tselem field researchers documented night raids on 12 homes, eight of which belong to members of an extended family. The accounts reveal the soldiers’ aggressive entry into the homes, how they scared children and other family members, destroyed belongings and wreaked havoc, all while brazenly ignoring the measures taken by the authorities (in Israel and in the West Bank) to prevent the spread of the virus.
  3. On May 1st, International Workers Day, we addressed the employment conditions of tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers working in Israel. They are some of the country’s least protected workers, routinely exploited. Israel announced Palestinian laborers who wished to continue working during the corona pandemic would not be able to return home for fear of infection. However, the authorities did not issue any directives for accommodating them within Israel, leaving them at the mercy of their employers. Some have had to sleep in construction sites in disgraceful conditions. Those who chose to return home received no compensation and many were fired. Three Palestinian laborers shared their experience with us and told us about the hard choices they were forced to make.
  4. Over the course of January and February 2020, the military blocked access to five villages in the West Bank as collective punishment. The closures impacted tens of thousands of West Bank residents, completely disrupting their lives and impairing their ability to make a living, get to school, farm their land, receive medical treatment, or simply maintain a reasonable daily routine. This form of collective punishment, which forces local residents, who have done nothing wrong and are suspected of nothing, to live in conditions of uncertainty and frustration and waste precious time and money, is completely unjustifiable and an abuse of military force.
  5. Back to al-’Esawiyah: Since the beginning of the year, three minors have been injured by sponge bullets fired at them as part of the ongoing police “operation” in the neighborhood. They were eight, nine and 16 years old. The youngest victim lost his eye. Firing of sponge rounds in the middle of a residential neighborhood can lead to grave and even fatal consequences. In order to prevent such consequences, the regulations restrict the use of this ammunition, prohibit firing it towards the upper body or at minors, and limit the minimal open fire range.  Nonetheless, in recent years, hundreds of Palestinians in East Jerusalem have been injured by sponge rounds, including minors. Despite all this, the Israel Police refuses to change the open-fire regulations that allow such injuries.
B'Tselem in the media: