Walking through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City is a pleasure to the senses: smells of garlic and tea sift through the air, bright colored scarves, coffee pots and evil eye jewelry hang in tiny shops, and crowds of locals and tourists clog the tiny, stone-paved streets. Though most tourists are drawn to Jerusalem for its historical and religious sites, the city is actually a huge locus of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The most tangible manifestation of injustice in Jerusalem is arguably the government sanctioned housing demolitions in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem.
During a recent trip to Israel, I saw firsthand the discrepancy between Jewish and Muslim communities and the physical divide between West and East Jerusalem. I went on a day tour of East Jerusalem with the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD), a non-violent organization that resists housing demolitions in East Jerusalem through direct action, domestic and international advocacy, as well as tours.
The difference between East and West Jerusalem is stark: where West Jerusalem has tree-lined sidewalks and functioning infrastructure, East Jerusalem has dusty, narrow streets, no trash pick-up, and water storage containers on top of houses because most residents are not connected to the municipal water mains. The separation wall stands eight meters high with barbed wire at the top, dividing Arabs in East Jerusalem from their families in the West Bank. Along with the lack of infrastructure in this area, there are no zoning laws so Palestinian residents are not permitted to build new houses: the legal measure that allows the Israeli government to demolish homes. This system serves as a means of making Palestinians leave East Jerusalem. The situation is complex, however, because once Palestinians leave the city, they lose their residency and therefore access to the Old City, their old homes, and their community. Because of this, many people do decide to remain in East Jerusalem despite the constant threat of housing demolitions.
While on the tour, we spoke with a Palestinian woman in the contested neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. She had been displaced over a year ago – the Israeli government evicted her family and gave her home to Jewish settlers who often spark violence in the area. An international solidarity tent stands nearby where someone sleeps every night to keep watch on the neighborhood. The neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah has entered the limelight because of the scope of its injustice and the ways in which the Israeli government uses its legal system to expand Jewish settlements thereby shrinking the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem.
The most recent East Jerusalem protest ensued on October 25th after the Israeli police gave 231 demolition orders to Palestinian families all across East Jerusalem, including Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in close proximity to the Old City. According to Human Rights Watch, Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes peaked this year, reaching 141 in July. This is the largest number of demolitions per month since 2005. Meanwhile, the Israeli government subsidizes Jewish settlements all over the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem as well.
Though Israel places most its inexcusable violent measures under the banner of “security,” this particular form of destruction is purely discriminatory and does not fall into the category of Israeli defense. If Israel intends to continue the peace process, it must stop demolishing Palestinian homes and building Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.