Tue, 15 Aug 2000

Israel targets 'their Jerusalem homes'

By Mohammed Assadi

JERUSALEM (Reuters): Hashem Aqel has seen a lot in his 95 years as a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, including the loss of much of his 75 acres of land to Israel.

He and eight Palestinian families are currently waging a court battle to keep what is left of their land near the Hebrew University, built in 1925 in what is now Israeli-annexed Arab East Jerusalem.

There are thousands of stories like Aqel's in the holy city, sagas of sorrow that provide a tragic backdrop to the emotive issue of the fate of Jerusalem.

Two months ago, Aqel received an order from Israel's Jerusalem municipality to demolish his home and clear his plot to make way for student accommodation. The edict was stayed until Sept. 30 pending a court appeal.

"It is not enough that they looted all my possessions, now they are trying to destroy the last thing I have," said Aqel, whose family's three houses in West Jerusalem were inhabited by Jewish families after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Jerusalem, claimed by Israelis and Palestinians as their capital, was the biggest stumbling block at last month's U.S- sponsored Camp David peace summit which collapsed after 15 days of intensive negotiations.

The Jerusalem-based Land Research Center (LRC) said in its last annual report that in 1999 Israel increased by 16 percent the demolition of Palestinian houses -- the homes of 330 people -- in East Jerusalem.

The Israeli authorities say the houses have been built without permits. Palestinians and human rights activists say Israel issues only a handful of permits, a policy they charge is aimed at weakening the Palestinian foothold in Jerusalem and in nearby West Bank villages.

"Palestinians need at least 22,000 housing units to satisfy their urgent needs," said Yakoub Odeh of the LRC.

He said it takes the Jerusalem municipality five years to respond to a Palestinian license application.

Since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, it has demolished more than 2,000 Arab houses in the city, Odeh added.

He said Palestinians have been banned from building in 86 percent of Jerusalem "under the pretext that the areas were green lands". The term refers to areas that are not zoned for residential construction.

"What is left for Palestinians for building is just eight percent of the size of East Jerusalem," said Odeh.

As a result, Palestinians have been forced to live outside Jerusalem and end up losing their residency rights and other benefits, he said.

Official Palestinian statistics show Israel confiscated 778 residency permits in 1998 and 5,768 from 1967 to 1998.

Israeli municipality officials declined to comment, but former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek said demolition policy under his 27- year tenure, which ended in 1987, had been more liberal.

"We just demolished houses on the roadway," he said. "Now, under (Ehud) Olmert, there is a policy to demolish Palestinian houses (in East Jerusalem) -- to my regret," Kollek said, referring to the present mayor.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, an Israeli human rights activist who heads a committee against house demolitions, said Israel destroyed more than 174 houses in the period between 1987 and 1999. Olmert took office in 1993.

He said tearing down Palestinian homes in Jerusalem was "one more aspect of silent transfer" of Arabs to ensure Jews have a majority in the city.

Israeli officials have voiced concern that Palestinians outnumber Jews in Jerusalem.

"I am sure most of the Israelis wouldn't like many Arabs to live here," Kollek said.

According to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the Jewish population, numbering more than 400,000 in East and West Jerusalem, grew by one percent in 1998 compared to 3.5 percent for Palestinians.

A recent Palestinian census predicted the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem would reach 496,445 in 2010. According to the census, Palestinians in the Jerusalem area, which includes some villages surrounding Jerusalem, number 331,553.

Faisal al-Husseini, the PLO executive committee member in charge of Palestinian affairs in Arab East Jerusalem, told Reuters that Israel has been treating Palestinians in the city more like foreign residents than citizens.

"Demolition of houses aims to push Palestinians to find an alternative outside Jerusalem," said Husseini.

Israeli law has traditionally stripped many Palestinians of residency rights in Jerusalem by withdrawing permits for people who fail to prove in documents that they have lived in the city for seven consecutive years. The law applies only to Palestinians.

"They want to get rid of the remains of the Palestinian houses to make Jerusalem purely Jewish," said Husseini. "It is a policy".

On June 5, a Palestinian was taken to a military court for the first time on charges of "illegal building" in a case activists fear will give Israel greater range to demolish houses if successful.

Meanwhile, Aqel sits in his garden overlooking a luxury hotel he says was built on his confiscated land.

"I'm burning up inside every day when I look at this hotel," he said.

Part of Israel's parliament was also built on his land, Aqel says, showing yellowed Ottoman, British and Jordanian documents as proof.

Back in 1973, he said, part of his land was confiscated to build Hebrew University student housing. In the current case, the university offered him and eight other Palestinian families "huge amounts of money" to buy what remained of their plots.

The university said in a letter it had offered Aqel two alternative new sites and to build an equivalent house at its expense. He refused.

"If they gave me all treasures of life, I would not leave here," Aqel said.