Even as I write this Israeli Prime Minister Sharon is meeting with representatives of AIPAC, Israel’s powerful lobby in Washington, in preparation for his meeting with President Bush tomorrow (Tuesday). According to news reports, the American Administration is looking to Sharon to “give a boost” to the Road Map by offering some “humanitarian gesture.” Freeing 100 more Palestinian prisoners, perhaps, or dismantling a couple of its hundreds of checkpoints, or altering slightly the route of the Separation Wall. What it is not looking for, apparently, is Israeli compliance with one of the most crucial elements of Phase I of the Road Map: ending the wholesale demolition of Palestinian homes. The language of the Road Map is clear — and deliberately broad so as to avoid Israeli attempts to trip it up on technicalities:
“The Government of Israel takes no actions undermining trust, including demolition of Palestinian homes, as a punitive measure or to facilitate Israeli construction.”
In the past few weeks the Israeli government has issued dozens of demolition orders against Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. We have received word that demolition activities will commence already this Wednesday, hours after Sharon’s meeting with Bush. Israel argues that East Jerusalem is not covered by the Road Map since it has been formally annexed to Israel. The Quartet seems to be letting Israel get away with this ploy, even though all the American and most European governments have expressed their (mild) disagreement. Nor do the threatened demolitions come under the Road Map’s prohibition of house demolitions, in Israel’s opinion, because they are being carried out for “proper” planning purposes (the construction of the Separation Wall, for instance, or the building of Israeli-only by-pass highways through densely settled Palestinian neighborhoods), not as “punitive measures.”
These provocative moves by Israel, which engender tremendous suffering on the part of the Palestinian families affected (thus violating yet another provision of the Road Map in which Israel takes measures to improve the humanitarian situation), are clearly “punitive measures.” Take the example of just one family, that of Abed Ajaj in the Jabal Mukaber neighborhood, a widower with 11 children who is employed as a driver by the German Consulate. His house is one of six in Jabal Mukaber scheduled for demolition on Wednesday. It lies tucked in the middle of a mountain, far from any proposed road or wall, yet just under a large new Jewish settlement that is under construction. Abed’s modest home is built on his own land, but he has been unable to secure a building permit because his land, like most of Jabal Mukaber itself and more than half of East Jerusalem, is zoned as “open green space”–that is, land that Palestinians are forbidden to build upon. The new settlement is also located on “open green space,” of course, but the Municipality readily changed its zoning to “residence.” Thus Abed’s house is slated for demolition all according to “proper administrative and legal procedures,” of course while the houses of hundreds of Jewish residents just a few meters away are going up post haste. If that isn’t “punitive,” we need another definition of the word.
In fact, all of the demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, more than 300 in the past decade with hundreds of demolition orders outstanding, are punitive, since the entire policy is intended to confine Palestinians to small ghettos within “Israeli” Jerusalem. Palestinians make up more than a third of the city’s population, yet have access to only 6% of its land for all their residential, communal and commercial needs. Amir Cheshin, the long-serving Advisor on Arab Affairs for the Jerusalem municipality under Kollek and, for a time, Olmert, writes in his revealing book Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem (Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 10, 31-32, 37):
“Israel turned urban planning into a tool of the government, to be used to help prevent the expansion of the city’s non-Jewish population. It was a ruthless policy, if only for the fact that the needs (to say nothing of the rights) of Palestinian residents were ignored. Israel saw the adoption of strict zoning plans as a way of limiting the number of new homes built in Arab neighborhoods, and thereby ensuring that the Arab percentage of the city’s population — 28.8% in 1967 — did not grow beyond this level. Allowing “too many” new homes in Arab neighborhoods would means mean “too many” Arab residents in the city. The idea was to move as many Jews as possible into East Jerusalem, and move as many Arabs as possible out of the city entirely. Israeli housing policy in East Jerusalem was all about this numbers game.
Planners with the city engineer’s office, when drawing the zoning boundaries for the Arab neighborhoods, limited them to already built-up areas. Adjoining open areas were either zoned “green,” to signify they were off-limits to development, or left unzoned until they were needed for the construction of Jewish housing projects. The 1970 Kollek plan contains the principles upon which Israeli housing policy is based to this day: expropriation of Arab-owned land, development of large Jewish neighborhoods in ast Jerusalem, and limitations on development in Arab neighborhoods.”
All this begs the broader question of the illegality of any Israeli construction or demolition in East Jerusalem, which is a gross violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. But our immediate and urgent concern is to stop the impending wave of demolitions, with or without the Road Map. We urge you to contact your political representatives, your religious leaders, the media. Mobilize your civic organizations to make protests to the Israeli Embassy in your country. Make noise, demand an end to demolitions. Make yourselves heard. Let’s make our leaders keep the Road Map process honest or admit its failure.
Abed Ajaj and hundreds of Palestinian families are depending on you.