House Demolitions in Sur Baher: Out of Jerusalem, Inside the Fence

Policy Papers and Reports / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

The route of the Separation Fence/Wall/Barrier in the area of Jerusalem generally follows the city’s municipal boundaries, separating East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods from the West Bank. However, the fence has created two types of complex, anomalous situations. In some places, it has left certain Jerusalem neighborhoods (such as Kafr Aqab) outside the fence. In other places, the route of the fence has placed areas outside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries “inside” it – including parts of Area A of the West Bank under direct Palestinian Authority (PA) control. One such case is in Sur Baher, a Palestinian neighborhood included within Jerusalem’s southern boundary (in the 2018 municipal elections, a neighborhood resident tried to run for the city council), whose southeastern flank known as Wadi Hummus is not included within the city boundaries and is considered under PA control.

The development of the Wadi Hummus residential area stems from decades of Israeli land expropriations in Sur Baher for the construction of the adjacent Jewish neighborhoods of East Talpiot and Har Homa (as well as for the fence and the so-called “American Road”), leaving Sur Baher without land reserves for its population growth and forcing it to expand eastward toward the West Bank. The dozens of new apartments that were built there house young families from Sur Baher. During discussions in the early years of the millennium on construction of the fence (in light of the second Intifada), residents of Sur Baher asked that its route encircle the neighborhood leaving it intact, including Wadi Hummus, rather than dividing it in two. Their request was accepted, but it generated various legal issues discussed over the years in the courts, especially with regard to the legal status of Sur Baher’s residents living in this area. Since Wadi Hummus is under official control of the PA (in areas A and B of the West Bank, according to Oslo accords), residents sought and received building permits from PA planning authorities.

This anomalous situation led to a dispute between the residents in Wadi Hummus and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in recent years. In 2012, the head of the IDF’s Central Command issued a ban on construction within 250 meters of the fence (on the “Israeli” side), and demolition orders were issued for 13 buildings containing some 70 housing units within that perimeter. In court petitions, the Palestinian residents argued that Israel has no authority over planning and zoning in the area, noting that the PA had approved the construction. The Supreme Court, however, accepted the army’s argument that security considerations necessitated the demolitions. The IDF also rejected various compromises, including raising the height of the fence. On the morning of July 22, bulldozers along with army and police forces arrived at the site and began razing the homes.

Urban planning and home demolitions are among the most sensitive and painful issues in East Jerusalem. These issues touch upon the unresolved legal and political status of the area, the absence of zoning plans and land registry in the Palestinian neighborhoods, and municipal policy on building permits. The circumstances in this case are somewhat different and unusual due to the location of the homes in an area under PA control, and it therefore resonates abroad more loudly than other home demolitions in East Jerusalem.

For example, in the days preceding the demolitions, a delegation of foreign diplomats, mostly European and including the French Consul in Jerusalem, paid a visit to the neighborhood. The demolitions gave rise to international protests and condemnations, among others by the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, the EU and the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov. Separately, three senior UN officials – Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick, Director of West Bank Operations for UNRWA Gwyn Lewis, and Head of the UN Human Rights Office in the occupied Palestinian territories James Heenan – issued a statement decrying the demolitions and condemning Israel for violating international humanitarian law. In addition to that, the EU Members of the UN Security Council (Belgium, France, Germany, Poland and the UK), together with Estonia as a forthcoming Security Council member, published a joint statement to condemn the demolition, arguing it constitutes a violation of the Oslo Accords. The PLO’s Executive Committee held an emergency session and called on the world to intervene.

The Sur Baher demolitions are severe and troubling, both in terms of civilian and municipal aspects and of international diplomatic ones. Some 70 Jerusalem families with legal status of Israeli residency, who received PA building permits, are caught in the middle of this complex diplomatic and legal situation and held hostage to fateful issues such as the future status of Jerusalem, the Oslo Accords and the Separation Barrier. This move has disastrous and painful repercussions for the delicate fabric of life in the city and casts into grave doubt the various declarations and plans made in recent years by city and national authorities regarding efforts to improve the lives of East Jerusalem’s residents

Dr. Lior Lehrs is a Policy Fellow and Director of the Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking Program at the Mitvim Institute; he is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations and the Harry S. Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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