London: An olive in my garden is worth more than anything material in the whole world. These sad words were spoken by Mahmoud Salhiya after his home in Sheikh Jarrah was recently demolished by Israeli forces.
Sheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian neighborhood of 3,000 located east of Route 1 which runs north-south through Jerusalem and separates the Israeli and Palestinian sectors. The neighborhood has two distinct sections: the north is the part inhabited by the wealthier Palestinians while the south, poorer part, is populated by hundreds of Palestinian refugees from 1948.
The Salhiya family house is in the southern area of Sheikh Jarrah on land designated by an old town plan which was authorized in the 1980s for the construction of a public building. But part of the house already existed, along with a few other structures, when the plan was prepared. In fact, the house and other buildings on the plot are already visible on maps of Jerusalem from the 1930s.
Importantly, according to the Jerusalem Municipality itself, Palestinian homes built in East Jerusalem before 1967 are considered legal and therefore cannot be demolished. But the zoning of the Salhiya land for public use – which ignored the fact of existing residential property already on the site – is indicative of a common practice that has characterized Israeli planning for East Jerusalem since 1967.
Israeli authorities argued that Salhiya’s property had been expropriated to create a “special” school for the benefit of residents of the neighborhood. But this “top-down” planning did not include any consultation with family or community.
Demolition as a control tool
Police reportedly arrived at the property in the early hours of what was one of the coldest nights this winter and forcibly removed 15 members of the Salhiya family before bulldozing the house. They arrested Mahmoud Salhiya and five members of his family, as well as some of their supporters, Palestinian and Israeli activists.
This traumatic event is part of an ongoing attempt to displace Palestinians from their homes – not only in Sheikh Jarrah but also in other neighborhoods such as Silwan, on the outskirts of the old city, which is under ongoing conflict between Jewish settlers and the local Palestinian community over archaeology, tourism development and housing.
Housing demolitions have become an all too regular occurrence. According to a report by B’tselem (the Israeli Center for Information on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) between 2006 and November 2021, Israeli authorities demolished at least 1,176 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. At least 3,769 people lost their homes, including 1,996 children. The housing demolition serves Israel’s attempt to control the city’s “demographic balance” – maintaining a Jewish majority in Jerusalem’s municipal territory at the 70/30 ratio that has guided Israeli policy since 1967.
Emerging urban geopolitics
The case of the Salhiya family must be understood in the broader context of the political processes that have been taking place in Jerusalem since June 1967 and the declaration of the city as the unified capital of Israel. The expropriation of Palestinian land by the state through legal measures was central to the settlement of East Jerusalem at this point.
Planning further contributed to the settlement of the city and was characterized by the construction of settlements (“satellite neighborhoods”). Since 1967, Israel has expropriated more than a third of Palestinian land that has been annexed to the new borders of the Jerusalem Municipality – 24.5 square kilometers – most of it owned by Palestinians. Some 11 neighborhoods were erected for Jewish residents only.
Under international law, the status of these neighborhoods is the same as illegal Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank. As a complementary step, a series of master plans were drawn up that effectively limited the growth of Palestinian neighborhoods by limiting building rights and defining most Palestinian land as ineligible for housing construction.
The beginning of the 21st century marked the shift to a more radical policy in Jerusalem with the construction of the separation barrier. This allowed Israel to de facto annex an additional 160 square kilometers of the occupied territories.
The route of the barrier creates a sharp division between the walled city of Jerusalem and the Palestinian hinterland. The concrete barrier deliberately disrupts the functional integration of Palestinian neighborhoods and isolates them from their hinterland in the West Bank.
The construction of the separation barrier placed the vast majority of the territory and resources of the Jerusalem metropolis under Jewish control. Palestinians are confined to disjointed enclaves with no sovereignty, freedom of movement, control over natural resources or contiguous territory.
Recent events in Sheikh Jarrah clearly mark the current phase of colonization of Jerusalem. It is a small-scale appropriation of Palestinian territory accompanied by expulsions and displacements of Palestinians who remained in the city. Palestinian homes are demolished or colonized by settlers as in the case of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah while agricultural land is confiscated from their Palestinian owners – as in the case of Walajeh where the separation barrier surrounds the village and cuts it off from the most of its inhabitants ‘ land.
This is a new phase in which Palestinian space is appropriated not only through military acts or large-scale urban planning (as described above) but rather on small-scale urban spaces and the use planning policies. These include land use changes, planning for the apparent “public good” (such as the attempt to build a school on the Salhiya land in Sheikh Jarrah), infrastructure development and tourism development. There is also clear discrimination in the distribution of building permits. While 38% of the city’s inhabitants are Palestinians, only 16.5% of building permits have been granted for construction in Palestinian neighborhoods.
Thus, Jerusalem has become a model for using “mundane” devices like urban planning to reinforce Israeli dominance over this divided and contested city.
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Posted: Friday, January 28, 2022, 12:48 PM IST