Wadi al-Humos Demolitions: The excuse – security, The strategy – a Jewish demographic majority
On the morning of Monday, 22 July 2019, the Israeli authorities began demolishing buildings in the neighborhood of Wadi al-Humos, the eastern extension of Zur Baher in East Jerusalem. The move came after Israel’s High Court of Justice rejected the residents’ appeal, and ruled there was no legal barrier to prevent the demolitions. Israel is planning to demolish a total of 13 buildings, including at least 44 housing units, which are in various stages of construction. Two families were already living in the buildings demolished today. Their 17 members, including 11 minors, are now homeless. Some of the structures slated for demolition were built in Area A, where the Palestinian Authority is responsible for planning and building, and had issued the required permits.
Wadi al-Humos is located in an enclave outside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, which were unilaterally determined by Israel in 1967 as part of the ambition to illegally annex to Israel as much West Bank land as possible with the fewest number of Palestinians. The neighborhood holds most of the land reserve for future development of Zur Baher. The Zur Baher committee estimates that 6,000 people currently live in that neighborhood – a quarter of the total population of Zur Baher.
In 2003, the Zur Baher committee petitioned the High Court of Justice against the route of the separation barrier, which was also unilaterally imposed by Israel to serve its interests. The route was supposed to run near Jerusalem's municipal boundary, cutting off all of the homes of the Wadi al-Humos neighborhood from Zur Baher. Following the petition, the State agreed to reroute the barrier a few hundred meters eastward into West Bank territory.
The separation barrier in the area was built in 2004 and 2005, using a more moderate design than in other sections. Instead of a concrete wall, as in most of the route of the barrier in East Jerusalem, Israel built a two-lane patrol road with wide shoulders and another fence. The barrier surrounds the neighborhood of Wadi al-Humos, which may not have been cut off from Zur Baher, but was cut off from the rest of the West Bank, even though the land on which it was built was never annexed to Jerusalem's municipal territory.
The barrier’s rerouting created an impenetrable bureaucratic maze for Wadi al-Humos residents, some of whom have permanent residency status in Israel, while some are West Bank residents. Following a High Court petition, Israel currently recognizes all Wadi al-Humos residents as eligible for national health and social insurance coverage - like all other East Jerusalem permanent residents. However, the High Court accepted the State’s position in another petition, holding that neighborhood residents with West Bank status are not eligible for permanent residency status in Israel and must renew their stay permits - for their own homes - every six months.
The Wadi al-Humos neighborhood is not considered part of Jerusalem, and therefore the Jerusalem Municipality does not provide it with services, except for garbage collection. The Palestinian Authority does not have access to the neighborhood and therefore cannot provide it with any services, except for planning and building permits in the southeastern edge of the enclave, which were defined by the Oslo Accords as areas A and B, meaning the Palestinian Authority has planning and building jurisdiction. Most of the enclave, however, is defined as Area C, where the Civil Administration is responsible for planning and building, and where, just like in the rest of the West Bank, it refrains from drawing up outline plans that would allow the residents to build legally.
Israel’s policy, which almost completely prevents Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem, creates a severe housing shortage for Palestinians living in the city, leaving them little choice but to build without permits. Hundreds of housing units (some in multi-story buildings) have been built in Wadi al-Humos since the separation barrier was built, along with a shopping center, a horse farm and swimming pools. A few of the buildings, located in Area A, were constructed after the landowners received building permits from the Palestinian Authority. The neighborhood's residents built its infrastructure themselves, including roads and water pipes from Zur Baher and Beit Sahur.
In December 2011, about six years after the separation barrier was erected in the area, the Israeli military issued an order forbidding construction in a strip measuring 100-300 meters on either side of the barrier. The military claimed the order was necessary for creating an “open buffer zone” for its operations, because the Wadi al-Humos area is a “weak point of illegal entry” from the West Bank into Jerusalem. According to the military's figures, at the time the order was issued, 134 buildings already stood on the land designated as a no-building zone. Since then, dozens of additional buildings were built, and by mid-2019 there were already 231 buildings in the zone, including multi-story structures built only dozens of meters from the barrier, and scattered across areas designated as A, B and C.
Four years after that, in November 2015, the military announced its intention to demolish 15 buildings in Wadi al-Humos. About one year later, in December 2016, the military demolished three other buildings in the neighborhood. In 2017, the owners and tenants of the 15 buildings under threat of demolition petitioned the Hight Court through the Society of St. Yves – Catholic Center for Human Rights. The petition argued, among other things, that most of the buildings had been built after receiving building permits from the Palestinian Authority, and that the owners and tenants were not even aware of the order prohibiting construction.
During the hearings in the petition, the military agreed to lift the demolition orders against two of the buildings. The military also argued that four of the 13 remaining buildings would be only partially demolished. On 11 June 2019, the High Court accepted the State’s position and ruled that there was no legal barrier preventingthe demolition of the buildings.
The High Court ruling, written by Justice Meni Mazuz, fully accepted the State's framing of the issue as merely a security matter, completely ignoring Israel's policy that almost completely prevents legal Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem, and the planning chaos in the Wadi al-Humos enclave that allowed the massive construction in the area – of which the Israeli authorities were fully aware.
Like in many similar rulings in the past, the justices did not discuss the Israeli policy that almost completely prevents legal Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem, with the purpose of further engineer the Jewish demographic majority in the city – a policy that forces the residents to build without permits. The severe building shortage in East Jerusalem, including in Zur Baher, was central to the village's demand to reroute the separation barrier eastwards. Instead, the judges ruled that the home demolitions were necessary for security reasons, because construction near the barrier “can provide hiding places for terrorists or illegal aliens” and enable “arms smuggling."
The judgment also clarifies the extent to which the “transfer of powers” to the Palestinian Authority in areas A and B as part of the interim agreements has no practical meaning – except for the need to promote Israeli propaganda. When it suits its purposes, Israel relies on that “transfer of powers” to cultivate the illusion that most of the residents of the West Bank do not really live under occupation, and that actually, the occupation has ended. When it doesn’t serve Israel interests, as in this case, Israel casts aside the appearance of “self-government,” raises “security arguments,” and exercises its full control of the entire territory and all of its residents.
The justices rejected, almost flippantly, the petitioners’ argument that they did not know of the existence of the order forbidding them to build, and that they built after they relied on permits they received from the Palestinian Authority, ruling that the residents “took the law into their own hands." The court claimed that the residents should have known, based on the provisions of the order requiring that its contents be brought to the knowledge of the residents “to the extent possible”, by posting it, along with low-resolution, difficult-to-understand maps, in the District Coordination Office, as well as on arguments presented to the court by counsel for the state. In doing so, the justices completely ignored the relevant facts: that the military took no action to inform the residents regarding the content of the order before November 2015, that the order was issued years after the construction of both the barrier and the buildings, and even then – nothing was done in the early years to enforce it, and no real effort was made to ensure that the residents knew the order existed – not even as obvious and simple an action as posting a notice on residents' homes.
This High Court ruling may have far-reaching implications. In various places in East Jerusalem (such as Dahiyat al-Bareed, Kafr ‘Aqab, and Shu’fat Refugee Camp) and other parts of the West Bank (such as a-Ram, Qalqiliyah, Tulkarm, and Qalandia), numerous residential buildings were built near the separation fence. Furthermore, as a result of the Israeli planning policy that prevents Palestinians from receiving building permits, many other buildings were built without permits, with no other choice. The latest ruling gives Israel legal backing to demolish all of these structures, hiding behind “security considerations” in order to carry out its illegal policy.
Testimony of Isma’il ‘Abidiyah, 42, married and father of five, resident of Wadi al-Humos
I’m originally from the Um Lison neighborhood in Jabal al-Mukabber. I got married in 1998, and lived with my wife in a 50-square-meter unit. We had five kids, and we started to suffer from crowding. I felt we had to find a bigger house.
In 2015, I bought a plot in Wadi al-Humos and got a building permit from the Palestinian Authority, since the land was in Area A and part of Bethlehem District. I built a two-story house, 300-square-meters each. The first floor is still under construction, and we live on the second floor.
We received the demolition order in 2016, and we’re still in shock over the fact that the appeal we filed with the High Court wasn’t accepted. We’ve all been going through a very hard time emotionally since the decision was delivered. I stay up until dawn. I keep thinking where we would go after the demolition, what we would do. These thoughts keep me up at night. Even my son, who’s taking the matriculation exams this year, can’t focus on his studies. God only knows if he’ll even pass the general exam.
I borrowed a lot of money to buy the land and build the house. I have a lot of debt. If the house gets demolished, I’ll become poor. I don’t think I’ll be able to get myself out of this situation. I’m a simple laborer, and my income is very limited. We’ll have to rent another house and pay back the debt at the same time. Right now, I can’t even think about it logically and can’t plan what’ll happen after the demolition.
Testimony of Munther Abu Hadwan, 42, married and father of five, resident of Wadi al-Humos:
I got married in 2001. I’m originally from Shu’fat Refugee Camp, and that’s were three of our children were born. We couldn’t go on living there because of the overcrowding, lack of safety and the crumbling infrastructure. I felt that my children’s future was in danger. Our house was also crowded. There was only one room, a kitchen and a bathroom, all in 40 square meters. We moved to Ras al-'Amud temporarily, which is better than the refugee camp. We had a 50-square-meter home there.
My brothers, father and I looked for a cheap place to build in, and we found Wadi al-Humos. I bought the land and we got a building permit from the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem, because the land is in Area A in the West Bank. We built two stories - a garage and a residential floor above it with two units. We were planning to build a third floor with two more units for my brothers Ashraf and Ahmad.
The demolition order the Civil Administration issued dashed our hopes and dreams of settling there. The order instructs us to demolish the house ourselves by 18 July 2019. We have been tense ever since, unable to think about anything else. Every time I look at my children, I get sad. Where will we go after the demolition? I have no idea! Maybe the street.
I’m a poor man. I’m a day laborer working in construction. I can barely provide for my family. I can’t afford to rent an apartment, not even for USD 500. I think once the demolition happens, we’ll have no choice but to put up a tent on its wreckage and live there. We have five kids: Ousamah, 17; ‘Abd a-Rahman, 15; Iman, 13; Adam, and Adham, 21 months.
Every time the kids see a military car entering Wadi al-Humos, they think the demolition is about to happen and they panic. They live in a state of tension, anxiety and confusion.