Friday, August 8

East Jerusalem: Urban Planning or Ethnic Cleansing?

As a part of urban planning and land use development in communities around the world, building permits are required to ensure public safety, health, and welfare as they are affected by building construction. In East Jerusalem, however, building permits appear to have a different purpose.

A complicated and lengthy application process along with fees as high as $25,000 make obtaining a building permit almost out of reach for many Palestinians and very few permits are actually issued. In addition, Palestinians are only permitted to build one- or two-storey buildings, while adjacent Israeli housing units may have up to eight floors. With a housing density double that of Israeli’s, 11.9 square meters per person in Palestinian neighborhoods compared to 23.8 in Israeli neighborhoods, Palestinians are often forced to build “illegally” without permits. The Jerusalem Municipality enforces the building laws by issuing demolition orders for all houses built without a permit. In recent months we have seen a significant increase in home demolitions among Palestinians in East Jerusalem for this reason.

Just two months ago, a nearby house owned by the Ibrahim Ghazlan Al Abbasi family was demolished because they did not have a permit. One month following the demolition Al Abbasi died of a heart attack and shortly thereafter the family decided to come together to rebuild the home. We watched the four walls of the new structure go up over the past month, but this past week the backhoes returned and the new structure was again demolished. Also within the last week, a five-story building in the nearby neighborhood of Beit Hanina was demolished leaving 70 Palestinians homeless. It is important to underscore the fact that these are not isolated incidents. Nearly 80 businesses and homes have been demolished since the beginning of this year and earlier this summer the municipality announced plans to demolish 47 of the 88 homes in the neighborhood of Silwan.

At the same time, illegal Israeli settlements continue to be built and expanded in East Jerusalem. In January 2008, just two months after Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in Annapolis, the Israeli government announced plans to build 300 new apartments at the Har Homa settlement in occupied East Jerusalem. Settlement expansion is also being encouraged in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah where a court order threatens the evacuation of 27 homes.

Yet Palestinians and internationals are not the only critics of the municipality’s ethnic cleansing program. In protest of the destruction of property and confiscation of homes, Rabbi Meir Hirsh, a leading rabbinical figure, issued the following statement: “Torah Jewry condemns the illegitimate occupation of Palestinian land and the subjugation of Palestinians throughout the Holy Land…What a very different world it would be if all Jews would seek to emulate the traits of Abraham our forefather. Then respect would begat respect and love would yield love and peoples would once again live as true neighbors as we did in the decades before Zionism sought the dispossession of people…We all hope and pray for the day to come, that we all may yet live in peace in the land of our mutual forefather Abraham, under the moral laws of the Almighty.”

As Christians, as messengers of life, healing, and peace between peoples, we must oppose violence in all forms, whether suicide bombings or ethnic cleansing which destroys homes, tears away the hope of a people, and hinders peace. As Americans whose tax dollars support Israel, it is our duty to call upon our government to hold the nation of Israel accountable for actions that contradict the democratic principles we value.

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