Al-Bustan: An Uneasy Tale Of Demolition And Domination

Residents of East Jerusalem suburb run from pillar to post to get building permits while settler groups knock at their doors.

If walls could talk, they’d tell a hundred stories of men and women who painstakingly pieced them together, only to be deemed strangers in their own homes. The Palestinian struggle to stay afloat at Al-Bustan in the Israel-occupied East Jerusalem is getting murkier by the day as civic authorities forge ahead with their ‘leave and let live’ rant that could displace nothing less than a thousand people. While Israel hopes to unearth the biblical city of David here by digging underneath Palestinian houses, residents see it as another ploy to push them further into obscurity, forget not the frequent house raids, detentions, and tear gas firings.

Built to raze

The suburb of al-Bustan lies south of the wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, near Silwan, Batn al-Hawa, and Wadi al-Hilweh. Its strategic proximity to the historic Old City means Muslim and Jewish holy sites – Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest in Islam, and the Second Temple, the holiest site in Judaism – are within one’s sight. Palestinians living here in substandard conditions have been at their wits’ end ever since excavations began in the area in 2007. And when the then Mayor of the Israeli municipality, Nir Barkat, announced the plan to build a tourist-specific archaeological park named The King’s Garden (Gan Hamelekh) to link it to the City of David National Park, they were outraged, because the plan included the evacuation of Palestinian families who had built homes on lands they owned but without obtaining building permits. The mass protests that marked plan approval were just the beginning of what was to be a long-drawn battle.

Fast forward to 2021, the 119 Palestinian families in 88 buildings have exhausted almost all legal remedies to keep their homes, barring the bleak prospect of an early resumption of an Israeli court hearing on an appeal filed by them. The Jerusalem Municipality, meanwhile, has served another round of demolition notices directing residents to bulldoze their homes within 21 days. Else, the municipality will carry out the same and charge them for the costs, which undoubtedly will burn a hole in their pockets.

Palestinians had, through years of back-channel negotiations via lawyers and human rights groups, reached an agreement of receiving building permits in adjacent plots in exchange of demolishing their present homes, provided they were not pulled down until new housing was ready. Based on these negotiations and the agreement, residents got court deferrals of demolition injunctions for years until the municipality disapproved of it recently. In its court submission, the city authorities claimed that Palestinian residents were given many years to obtain permits, but they failed to make any significant progress on that front.

Though it sounds partly true, the fact remains that Palestinians hardly have access to permits as their homes stand in the area designated ‘green space’ in the city’s 1976 master plan, thereby prohibiting any type of construction work. Israeli authorities consistently use this tag, along with the more recent designation of land as an open landscape area under The King’s Valley scheme, to trash Palestinian requests for permits. Homeowners are repeatedly reminded that they are staking claim to a piece of land where King David walked thousands of years ago. Moreover, the civic body has officially changed al-Bustan’s name to Gan Hamelekh.

The indigenous residents, however, see it as an extension of the state’s machination to populate East Jerusalem with Jews to prevent it from becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state. The unusually high number of national parks in places of no significant archaeological findings, but high Muslim presence, calls the Israeli bluff.

Divide and destroy

While bulldozers routinely throw the suburb into disarray, the rest of the community is locked in legal battles with Jews, who claim ownership of the land where their homes sit. The settlers cite the 1970 “right to return” law that allows Jews to reclaim property they had lost in or before 1948, the year of Israel’s formation. Result: the already fragile Palestinian community is forced to share space with settlers armed with favorable court orders. Many buildings now sport both the Islamic crescent and the Star of David on different floors, signaling the struggle to wrest control of the prized real estate.

In fact, the residency status of Muslims in East Jerusalem leaves enough room for hijacking their rights. After annexing East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Israel had granted ‘permanent resident’ status to Palestinians. But it was similar to the one accorded to foreign nationals wishing to reside in Israel. As Al Jazeera reports, “Palestinians of East Jerusalem do not have a right to automatic Israeli citizenship nor are issued Palestinian passports by the Palestinian Authority. They are usually able to obtain temporary Jordanian and Israeli documents.”

Another Sheikh Jarrah?

Despite persistent global media coverage of Sheikh Jarrah protests, clashes, and subsequent full-blown war between Israel and Hamas last month, Muslims in occupied East Jerusalem are at higher risk of house demolitions and land expropriation. More so after Israel’s Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit informed the Supreme Court a few days ago that he has no intention to intervene in the High Court of Justice proceedings with respect to the pending eviction of four Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah. Though his decision gave a free hand to the High Court to decide whether or not to hear the appeal of the affected parties, it also drew flak from several quarters. Quoting left-wing group Peace Now, The Jerusalem Post said, “Mandelblit’s decision shows that for the outgoing government, dispossessing hundreds of residents on the basis of discriminatory laws is acceptable… Up till now, Israel founded settlements on land taken from Palestinians but never since 1967 has Israel evicted in a massive way Palestinian families from their homes, in order to replace them with settlers. This is a terrible wrong.”

Though international laws explicitly prevent such transfers, the practice continues unabated. Another Sheikh Jarrah is in the making in East Jerusalem, if not in al-Bustan itself.

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