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Demolishing Hope for Peace

by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler
SUR BAHER, Occupied East Jerusalem - "We knew something bad was about to happen when we saw the roadblocks being thrown up, and police everywhere. It soon came down the grapevine - the Israelis were demolishing more houses."

Naim Awisat, an East Jerusalem Palestinian community leader and entrepreneur, drove quickly down America Way (the winding old valley road that links the city' southern neighbourhoods of the Holy Basin with the walled Old City and its holy sites) to Sala'a, a rundown quarter at the heart of the wadi.

A Palestinian boy looks on as municipality workers demolish a house in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Tzur Baher, Tuesday, Oct. 27. 2009. Palestinians claim the demolitions are politically motivated but Israeli authorities say it is because the owners have no permits. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty) The tok-tok-tok of the heavy machinery could be heard "even before I'd rounded the last corner into the dusty square. A ring of troops in full anti- riot gear were in position. I have to admit it was something of a relief when I saw that what they were destroying was only that old derelict building with a corrugated iron roof where our kids used to gather to play pool, and who knows what else - drugs, what have you."

His friend Mohammed Nakhal, an urban planner, was already there. Before they could exchange thoughts about the latest Israeli action, Mohammed's cell phone was ringing non-stop - a string of calls from Dahiyat a-Salaam in the northern part of the city, and from Sur Baher just over the hill on the way to Bethlehem.

More demolitions were under way.

No more sighs of relief, though.

"Heart wrenching - that's what it is when you see 15 people, seven of them children, left homeless out of the blue," says Naim when he reaches Sur Baher.

He watches from a distance: the three giant Israeli bulldozers, replete with cranes, hammer away relentlessly at what a half-hour ago had been the Nimr family home.

Barely holding back her tears, the matriarch, Umm Muhammed, brushes off the grey dust that has gathered on her brown headscarf. Her husband, Nimr Ali Nimr, sits incongruously in a large armchair, one of the few sticks of furniture which the family had managed to salvage during the few minutes they'd been given to evacuate before the bulldozers were sent into action.

He tells Naim and Mohammed that here too the demolition squad had been escorted in by a phalanx of heavily-equipped border police.

Still in something of a daze, Nimr says that when the machines began tearing into the concrete two-storey building, there'd been a brief protest by the teenagers of the neighbourhood. "They threw stones; fortunately, the troops held their fire."

Two hours later, the troops are gone. All that remains of what had once been the extended family home is a pile of rubble - useless concrete and twisted iron girders. Overriding previous U.S. and international protest, Jerusalem's Israeli municipality had nonetheless gone ahead with a spate of new house demolitions in the occupied eastern part of the city.

Altogether on Tuesday, six buildings were knocked down, leaving 26 people homeless.

The latest round brings the number of East Jerusalem Palestinians displaced since the beginning of the year by forced evictions or house demolitions to over 600, according to figures released by UNWRA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees.

Israeli authorities say the demolitions are carried out because the Palestinians owners do not have the requisite building permits, rendering them "illegal".

According to the UN, lack of adequate urban planning in the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, combined with strict administrative requirements and high fees makes it extremely difficult for Palestinian residents to obtain such permits, leaving them no choice but to build "illegally" for their growing families.

"We should hoist them on the petard of their own building policy," says Naim. "If they say we can't build without permits, we say, fine, but then you have to give us permits to develop new residential areas in our neighborhoods. The overcrowding has been unbearable for years."

In addition to the building squeeze, Palestinian families who move outside the city's municipal boundaries risk losing their Jerusalem identity cards, and with that, the right to live in the city, and keep their access to it.

UNWRA officials estimate that "as many as 60,000 of the city's quarter million Palestinians are at risk from forced eviction, demolitions and displacement." Many others face mounting pressure to leave the city due to extensive legal and administrative restrictions that affect many aspects of their daily lives.

"If it goes on like this, over and above the current tension over Israeli intentions to erode our links to our own holy sites, they're simply laying the cornerstone for a new Intifadah (uprising)," warns Mohammad.

Still, he refuses to see the future as entirely bleak.

The U.S. Secretary of State is due in the city on Saturday in an attempt to revive flagging Palestinian-Israeli peace prospects. When Hillary Clinton visited the city in March, she delivered a strongly-worded rebuke against the house demolition policy, triggering a set-to with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli leader insists that outsiders have "no right" to tell Israel what it can and cannot do "in our capital city."

Because of Israel's determination to go on knocking down Palestinian homes, a shadow again looms over renewed U.S. peacemaking efforts.

Says Mohammed: "What we really need to do is to beat the Israelis on their own ground, work from within to make sure we get what is rightly ours.

"There are also thousands of existing demolition orders against illegal construction in the western (Jewish) part of town. We need to work from inside the municipality if we want to change the situation and to stop the demolitions altogether.

"Sure, we have to protest. But protest is not enough; neither is hand-wringing and just bemoaning our fate. It's just as important for Washington to press Israel to issue us more building permits. That should be part of the 'America way'."

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