Jerusalem’s old city is a living postcard. Crowds pray at the base of the Wailing Wall. Sun reflects off the golden Dome of the Rock. Incense burns in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was said to have been crucified. Narrow brick streets are lined with vendors, tunnels and churches.
But just south of the old city walls lies the community of Silwan. It’s less than picture perfect and is fighting for its survival.
On a sunny afternoon in June, Hanan Abassi, 9, and her brothers Mohamad, 7, and Ahmad, 5, sit on all that remains of their home in Silwan: a pile of broken concrete and rebar. Along with their grandfather Moussa, they walk over the pile and pick through the debris, stepping on pieces of the walls that protected them only two months earlier.
Under the rubble are signs of the lives that once filled the home. A turquoise bike frame. An ice cube tray lying on the paving stones. A television with bricks smashed through the screen.
The branches of olive tree, a common symbol of the Holy Land, rise up through the fallen concrete. The leaves are still green.
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
Moussa Abassi built this house for two of his sons and their children. There were 14 people living in the home before it was demolished. The extended family used to gather there every Friday night for a meal after prayers at the mosque.
It was demolished because Abassi couldn’t get a building permit, a common occurrence in Palestine. The Israeli government requires a permit for homes built anywhere in East Jerusalem, where Silwan is located, and areas in the West Bank that are under Israeli control. Getting that permit isn’t as simple as it is in Canada.
Between 2010 and 2014 only 1.5 per cent of Palestinian permits were approved,1 and the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem estimates the cost of getting one for a 100-square metre home could range between US$35,000-40,000. So when families expand but have their permits denied, many choose to risk building and hope the bulldozers don’t come. Learn more about home demolitions.
The demolition of Palestinian homes, like Abassi’s, is illegal under the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit occupying powers from displacing residents and making permanent changes like destroying private property. Many Palestinians and international observers see the demolitions as a structural way for the Israeli government to take more land, so they can build settlements after forcing Palestinians to leave. Settlements are colonies or homes only available to Jewish Israelis that are built in occupied Palestinian areas. Learn more about settlements.
The day before his home was demolished, Abassi tried to get permission to keep it standing. “I went to see the legal advisor at the Jerusalem Municipality and asked him to give us a chance, to find a way, and he agreed,” he says. “But unfortunately, next morning we received his answer.”
MCC photo/Meghan Mast
Soldiers came to the house at four in the morning and forced everyone outside. Abassi’s sons called him to come and try to stop the demolition, but he couldn’t persuade them. At first soldiers helped carry some of the family’s belongings outside, but within a few hours they received an order to demolish the home immediately.
Abassi worked 35 years for the money to build the home, and it cost about US$200,000. In 48 minutes, it was gone. “The Captain gave his orders to demolish over the furniture and all our stuff, even children’s toys,” he says. “To see your house going down – all the money I made all my life went for nothing.”
The Palestinian Authority, the primary governing body for Palestinians, provided Abassi with US$20,000 in compensation, one tenth of what the home cost. However, he will still be charged by Israel for the demolition, and he estimates the bill will be around US$25,000. Many Palestinians, unable to afford such a fee, choose to demolish their own homes when they receive the orders.
MCC photo/Meghan Mast
Fakhri Abudiab has lived with fear of losing his home since he first received a demolition order 10 years ago. Abudiab lives in the Al-Bustan neighbourhood of Silwan, where the City of Jerusalem plans to demolish homes to create a park known as King’s Garden. It’s an area they believe the biblical King David visited.
Homes like Abudiab’s were built before Israel took control of East Jerusalem and designated the King’s Garden green space. Because Silwan is located in a desirable location, next to Jerusalem’s old city, Abudiab suspects the plan is to push out Palestinians like him and create an Israeli settlement. In Silwan, there are already 54 settlement locations, marked with the white and blue Israeli flag, interspersed with Palestinian homes.
Home demolitions aren’t just happening in Silwan, though its location next to the old city means it gets more international attention. Since 1967, when Israel took control of East Jerusalem and other Palestinian lands in the Six Day War, more than 48,000 Palestinian homes or structures have been demolished. In 2016, 362 housing units were demolished in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, leaving 1,429 people homeless, including 751 minors.2
Ever since Abudiab received the demolition order, the directive has preoccupied his thoughts. For most people, home is a place of calm and relaxation, he says. “But when I go home…when I go in my salon, in my bathroom and my kitchen, I say maybe this is the last dinner, the last day I and my wife, my children will be eating or sleeping in my home.”
He doesn’t travel for fear he’ll return and find his home has been turned to rubble. And when he hears large trucks or construction in the night, he worries it’s the sound of a demolition crew.
This house is the only home he’s ever known, built before 1967, before the permits were needed. “I am born in this home,” he says. “My childhood is in this home, my children, I married in this home, my love with my wife and my children and grandchildren in this home. And they come to demolish it … they said 3,000 years ago [King David walked here]. Who’s more important, the human families or the history?”
After hearing of the plan to turn their neighbourhood into a park, the community of Al-Bustan came up with a proposal to make public spaces around the existing homes. That plan was rejected, and Abudiab says there are 88 families in his neighbourhood living under the uncertainty of demolition orders. He estimates about half the population of Silwan has received demolition orders, approximately 5,000 homes.
While the names of adults like Abudiab and Abassi are on the orders, the stress and uncertainty affects children too. The son of one of Abudiab’s neighbours overheard his parents talking about the demolition order they received. He started having troubles in school, and when a teacher opened the boy’s backpack there were toys and clothes where there should have been books and papers. The boy told his teacher, “My father said to my mother the municipality is coming to demolish my home and I am afraid they’ll demolish my toys,” explains Abudiab.
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
“We know they don’t want us,” Abudiab says. “And you know when the municipality demolish houses, they do not just demolish walls and ceilings, they demolish lives, futures of families.”
Since his children’s home was destroyed, Moussa Abbassi visits the site every day just to look at the rubble. To remove the debris he’ll have to pay, and then to rebuild a new home he’ll have to pay. All that will have to wait until he’s earned enough money again. Since the demolition, both the sons who were in the home, and their families, have been living with him: 24 people in three rooms.
At 60 years old, Abassi has lived almost his whole life under occupation; he hopes for a brighter future for his grandchildren Hanan, Mohamad, Ahmad and others. Something more than a life where children play on the remains of their demolished home. “I wish my house will be the last house in Silwan to be demolished,” he says. “I love my children and grandchildren and I want them to live with freedom, I don’t want them to live in oppression. I want them to live in security. I want them to live like all other children in the world.”
This story is part of an MCC campaign called A Cry for Home. Learn more about the campaign and see how you can get involved.