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Israel ramps up house demolitions in Jerusalem as violence escalates


JERUSALEM — Ratib Matar’s family grew. They needed more space.

Before his granddaughters, now 4 and 5, were born, he built three apartments on an eastern slope overlooking Jerusalem’s ancient landscape. The 50-year-old contractor moved in with his brother, son, divorced daughter and their young children – 11 people in all, plus a few geese.

But Matar was never at ease. At any moment, the Israeli code enforcers could knock on his door and take everything away.

That moment came on January 29, days after a Palestinian gunman killed seven people in East Jerusalem, the deadliest attack in the disputed capital since 2008. Israel’s new far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir called not only for the sealing of the attacker’s family home, but also the immediate demolition of dozens of Palestinian homes built without permits in East Jerusalem, among other punitive measures.

A few hours after Ben-Gvir’s remarks, the first bulldozers rumbled into Matar’s Jabal Mukaber neighborhood.

For many Palestinians, the increasing rate of home demolitions is part of the new ultra-nationalist government’s wider struggle for control of East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and liberated by the Palestinians. claimed as the capital of a future independent state.

The battle is fought with building permits and demolition orders – and it is one that the Palestinians feel they cannot win. Israel says it is simply enforcing building codes.

“Our construction is under siege from Israel,” said Matar. His brothers and sons lingered by the ruins of their home, drinking bitter coffee and receiving visitors as if in mourning. “We are trying very hard to rebuild, but in vain,” he said.

Last month, according to the United Nations, Israel destroyed 39 Palestinian homes, buildings and businesses in East Jerusalem, displacing more than 50 people. That was more than a quarter of the total amount of destruction in 2022. Ben-Gvir posted a photo on Twitter of the bulldozers clawing at Matar’s house.

“We will fight terrorism with all the means at our disposal,” he wrote, though Matar’s house had nothing to do with the Palestinian shootings.

Most Palestinian apartments in East Jerusalem were built without hard-to-get permits. A 2017 UN study described it as “virtually impossible” to secure them.

The Israeli municipality allocates little land for Palestinian development, the report said, while facilitating the expansion of Israeli settlements. Little Palestinian property was registered before Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, a move not recognized internationally.

Matar said the city has rejected his application for a building permit twice because his area is not designated for residential development. He is now trying for the third time.

The penalty for unauthorized construction is often demolition. If families don’t tear down their houses themselves, the government will charge them for it. Matar fears his bill – he knows neighbors who paid more than $20,000 to have their homes razed to the ground.

Matar and his family are now homeless and staying with relatives. He vows to rebuild on land he inherited from his grandparents, although he has no faith in the Israeli justice system.

“They don’t want a single Palestinian in all of Jerusalem,” Matar said. Uphill in the heart of his neighborhood, Israeli flags fluttered from dozens of apartments recently built for religious Jews.

Since 1967, the government has built 58,000 homes for Israelis in the eastern part of the city, and fewer than 600 for Palestinians, said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer specializing in Jerusalem’s geopolitics, citing the government’s statistics office and his own analysis. In that time, the city’s Palestinian population has increased by 400%.

“The planning regime is dictated by the calculus of national struggle,” Seidemann said.

Israel’s city plans show state parks surrounding the old city, with some 60% of Jabal Mukaber designated as green space, off limits to Palestinian development. At least 20,000 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem are now slated for demolition, watchdogs say.

Matar and his neighbors face a painful choice: build illegally and live under constant threats of demolition, or leave their hometown for the occupied West Bank, sacrificing Jerusalem residency rights that allow them to work and travel relatively freely throughout Israel .

While there are no reliable numbers on permit approval, the Israeli municipality earmarked just over 7% of its 21,000 housing plans for Palestinian homes in 2019, reported Ir Amim, an anti-settlement advocacy group. Palestinians make up nearly 40% of the city’s approximately 1 million inhabitants.

“This is the goal of this policy,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at Ir Amim. “Palestinians are forced to leave Jerusalem.”

Arieh King, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem and leader of the settlers, acknowledged that demolitions help Israel solidify control over East Jerusalem, home to the city’s most important religious sites.

“It’s part of enforcing sovereignty,” King said. “I’m glad we finally have a minister who understands,” he added, referring to Ben-Gvir.

Ben-Gvir is now pushing for the destruction of a residential tower housing 100 people. In an attempt to ease tensions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed the eviction scheduled for Tuesday, Israeli media reported.

King claimed that it was possible for Palestinians to obtain permits and accused them of building without permission to avoid an expensive bureaucracy.

When the al-Abasi family in East Jerusalem found a demolition order on their new windblock home last month, they considered their options. The government demolished their last apartment, which was built on the same lot, eight years ago. This time, Jaafar al-Abasi decided he would tear it down himself.

Al-Abasi rented a tractor and invited his relatives and neighbors to join in. The destruction lasted three days, with breaks for hummus and soda. His three sons borrowed picks and jackhammers and angrily hacked into the walls they had decorated with colored plaques last month.

“This place is like a ticking time bomb,” said his brother-in-law, 48-year-old Mustafa Samhouri, who helped them.

Protests over the demolitions have rocked East Jerusalem in recent days. Two weekends ago, Samhouri said, the family’s 13-year-old cousin opened fire on Jewish settlers near Silwan across the valley, wounding two people before being shot and arrested.

“The pressure just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” said Samhouri. “And finally, boom.”

Associated Press writer Sam McNeil contributed to this report.

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