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East Jerusalem: life without permit

14-02-2007 Feature

The last time Samah returned to her home from school was on 22 January 2007. The next day, the 14-year-old left her house in Jabal Al Mokaber, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, and went to school with her three sisters. When the girls returned in the afternoon, their home was gone and in its place was just a heap of debris.

   
  ©ICRC/C. von Toggenburg    
 
  Abu Ahmed with his children, in front of what was left of their house.    
     
 
 
   
  ©ICRC/C. von Toggenburg    
 
  Izeyeh and her daughter in front of their makeshift shelter.    
     
 
 
   
  ©ICRC/C. von Toggenburg    
 
  ICRC employee Rana Al-Qaisy talks with Abu Ahmed and his wife Iseyeh.    
      

Only their little brother Ahmed and baby sister Shaima had stayed home.

" For the bulldozer it was a two-hour job, for me it will be months of work, " says Abu Ahmed, the father of the six children. He knows what he is saying since it is the second time the Israeli authorities destroyed his house in the past two years. In a way, it was better the last time in 2005 because it happened in summer.

The decision about the second demolition was delivered to him in June 2006. On 23 January 2007 the time was up, and the house was brought down. The reason: no construction permit.

It did not help that the house stood on Abu Ahmed's private land and harmed nobody. Actually, following the previous demolition, Abu Ahmed managed to rebuild his house in just twenty days with the help of all his neighbours.

Neither had it helped that it is winter now in Jerusalem. And, finally, it made no difference that Abu Ahmed is disabled, paralysed from the waist down. He can walk on crutches, but he cannot help his wife Izeyeh much, who is now sifting through the rubble. So far she has found a few chairs and a bed that are still useable. A fan and a fridge were also saved.

Abu Ahmed's family's story is not an isolated case. It is actually quite typical in the area. Their neighbours'house, just fifty metres away, was destroyed the same day. And then, there were at least six other houses, including one four-storey apartment building destroyed the previous month. Eleven Palestinian families lost their homes in East Jerusalem in January 2007 alone.

The ICRC gave them some basic support – tents, blankets, mattresses, gas bottles, food parcels and hygiene items. However, as East Jerusalem is an occupied territory, it is up to Israel, as an occupying power, to ensure that people live as normal a life as possible. 

For the eleven families in Jerusalem's neighbourhoods of Al Tur, Sur Baher, Beit Hanina and Jabal Al Makaber, these are eleven different tragedies. Yet, on paper each case looks the same: lack of permit.

" What is hidden behind this is the fact that you'll never get a permit here, because there are no zoning plans, " says Rana Al-Qaisy, an ICRC staffer who has seen more than 150 house demolitions in her four-year career at the ICRC delegation in Jerusalem.

" So, even if you own a piece of land, you can't build anything. And where zoning plans exist, the procedure is so cumbersome that you need a lot of time and money for a lawyer to get through it, " adds Rana.

Families like Abu Ahmed's have neither the time nor the money. They need a roof over their heads, so they build and hope that somehow it will not be their house that will be picked by the authorities and destroyed.

Abu Ahmed's family now lives in a tent donated by the ICRC. The ICRC also issued them a special certificate attesting that their house has been destroyed. In previous years, with this paper, a family could receive cash compensation from the Palestinian Authority. It was never enough to rebuild a house, but it was sufficient to rent a flat for a few months.

Today though, months after the international community's decision to withhold funds from the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian ministries do not have the money for this kind of assistance. Left are some charities and NGOs. But the odds are against Abu Ahmed's family.

As it has been raining in Jerusalem for some time, Abu Ahmed has been going to his parents for a night or two each week. Yet, to reach his parents'house he must climb sixty stair s and with his illness, every step is agony for him. So, with or without a permit, Abu Ahmed is planning to rebuild his home once again.