Monday, September 25, 2017

Palestinians struggle to hold on to their homes in East Jerusalemís Silwan neighbourhood


By Owen Millar - February 23, 2017
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation] [Features]
Tags: [Silwan] [Settlers]

Silwan, Occupied East Jerusalem - At 2:00 in the morning on Friday, February 10, armed private security personnel employed by the settler organization Ir David Foundation (Elad) surrounded and forcefully entered a property in the Wadi Hilweh area of Silwan, according to local Palestinian residents.

At the time, 76-year-old Izzat Salah was asleep in his home, which is a self-contained residence within the greater property now controlled by the settlers. The sole point of entry and exit for Salah’s home is a shared gated courtyard that adjoins both his home and a second vacant residence.

Accompanied by police, Elad security took control of this courtyard, along with the vacant residence, changing the locks on the external gate. They then prohibited Izzat from leaving his home, while also prohibiting any members of his family from entering the property to check on his wellbeing. Family members were refused entry until a full day after the settlers took control of the property.

Izzat’s son, Khaldoun, who also lives at the property, claims he has obtained a court order that makes it unlawful for the settlers to deny entry to anyone visiting the home. The court order further determines that the courtyard joining the two properties is a shared thoroughfare and cannot be claimed as belonging solely to either residence.

Despite this, as the situation now currently stands, Izzat, Khaldoun, and any visitors to their home must knock at the courtyard gate and wait to be let in by the settlers. As the Salah family told Palestine Monitor, “They [the settlers] close the door. They are the only ones with the key.” The group guarding the property is armed with teargas and other weapons, the family says.

Even though they are now well known to them, each time Izzat, Khaldoun, or a member of their family requests entry into the home, Elad security personnel demand to know their identity. The Salah family estimates there are approximately five security personnel present at the property at all times. Other than these bizarre exchanges, the settlers do not communicate with the Salah family.

Despite occupying the residence around the clock, the Elad security personnel are not the intended long-term inhabitants of the property. A settler family, who has visited the property just once since it was seized, is expected to move into their new home in the near future.

Izzat Salah says he been renting his home from Arafat Azmi Alqaraeen, a resident of Silwan, since 1968. The settlers claim they recently purchased the property from Alqaraeen’s brother, Arif Alqaraeen, who lives in Denmark. The Salah family does not know, and have never had any connection with, Arif Alqaraeen. Arafat Azmi Alqaraeen contests the possibility of the settlers’ purchase claim, saying that his brother does not own the property and therefore has no right to sell it. The dispute over ownership is currently before the court. Representing the settlers in court are 3 lawyers paid for by Elad.

Elad conducts extensive operations in the Silwan area, distributing its attention between settlement initiatives, which it euphemistically refers to as “residential revitalization”, tourism, education, and archaeological operations. Such operations are not unique to Elad, however the strength of the organization’s funding apparatus, combined with its concentrated focus on the Silwan neighborhood, makes it a formidable force.

A 2016 Haaretz investigation of Elad’s funding support found that it received $115 million in donations between the years 2006 and 2013. Tracing the source of these donations, Haaretz determined that the majority of funds were channeled through companies registered in traditional tax havens, including Lichtenstein, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, and the Seychelles. It is not known who controls these companies and Elad refuses to reveal the identities of the people or organizations behind them.

A significant portion of funds also arrives via registered charitable organizations in the United States. Donations to these organizations are tax-exempt under U.S. law, a state of affairs that has caused significant concern (even from some U.S. State Department officials and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel), given that such donations often ultimately end up paying for the private security force that entered the Salah property and the lawyers now representing Elad in court.

Identifying the cash flow that Elad is dealing with helps to understand exactly how powerful the foreign interests are that back its initiatives and also the significant imbalance of power and opportunity that exists between such interests and those of the Palestinian residents of Silwan. 75% of the population of Silwan lives below the poverty line, meaning that, even without the assistance of the police force and government policy, Elad holds a significant amount of leverage in the situation.

Haaretz has reported that Elad offers ₪500 ($134) per day to individuals willing to occupy the houses it acquires, also suggesting a preference for “armed persons from combat units.” The purpose of these payments, says Elad, is to “watch” and “guard [the apartments] until they are inhabited by families.” These facts reflect Elad’s stated aim of responding to “the longing of the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem after 2,000 years”, an aim which, at other times, has been expressed more succinctly: “Our aim is to Judaize East Jerusalem.”

Nihad Siam, who works with the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, offered an apt description of the power Elad holds in Silwan, referring to the organization as a “state within a state.” Such words hold particular implication for the Salah family, who are attempting to hold onto the right to live in their home as individuals, while the settlers who contest those rights represent an organization with its own full-time security force, legal team, and corps of administrative personnel, all backed by a steady flow of international funds.

The actions of Elad are not only enabled by prejudicial policing, but are also actively assisted by government policies and a court system that undercuts their ability to protect themselves from such policies.

According 2015 statistics, only seven percent of the building permits issued in Jerusalem had been granted to Palestinian neighborhoods in the fews years prior to that - despite the fact that 40 percent of the city's population lives in these neighborhoods. Most homes in East Jerusalem are built or renovated without permits because the municipality has avoided approving outline plans, while serving demolition notices to “illegal” structures.

“No one can close their eyes and say it’s not clear what we are talking about regarding demolition and eviction… at first we were saying it’s a silent transfer policy, but no, it is not silent anymore,” Sahar Abbasi, a project coordinator at the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, told Palestine Monitor.

Residents may appeal their demolition notices in court, however there they are also undermined by a crippling array of fines and fees. A homeowner may pay a fine so as to protract their legal proceedings and, at least temporarily, prevent their home from being demolished. “It's like you are renting your own house,” Abbasi said.

At the moment, homes are being demolished at a rate of at least 2 per month in Silwan. Many of these demolitions have occurred despite homeowners already having paid fines to prevent them and, in some cases, despite the fact that legal proceedings are ongoing. These demolitions occur in the middle of the night, often with no more than an hour’s warning, and are always accompanied by police. The bitter culmination of these demolitions is the municipality’s issuing of fees for the machinery used to demolish the house and also the police personnel deployed to enforce it.

As a result of the exorbitant fees demanded by the municipality for a forced demolition, which Abbasi estimates to total approximately 50,000 per home, many residents of Silwan have taken the option of demolishing their homes themselves.

The Salah family has no intention of leaving their home and they believe they have every legal right to continue living freely in the home they have continuously occupied since 1968. Determined to stay, they are receiving continued support from the Wadi Hilweh Information Center and the wider community. As Abbasi says, “They [settlers] are doing things to separate us. But actually demolitions and things like this make the community stronger, more connected. People in crisis are getting more close. This is something they don’t know.”




 

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