The High Cost of Israeli Demolitions of Palestinian Homes

By Heidi Schramm – Washington

On February 4, Nir Barakat, the mayor of Jerusalem, announced that he would accept a 2007 ruling issued by an Israeli High Court ordering the Jerusalem municipality to evacuate and seal an illegally constructed Israeli settlement building in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem.  Barakat then insisted that complying with this ruling would compel him to demolish 200 Palestinian homes that were built without Israeli permits in the same neighborhood.  He argued that such steps were necessary in order to assure that the law was not being applied in a way that could be considered “discriminatory” against the settlers.  But, as Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD) pointed out, “In the past fifteen years, there have been more than a thousand Palestinian homes demolished in East Jerusalem versus absolutely no settler homes.” This imbalance has enormous human and political consequences, and seriously undermines the credibility of ostensible U.S. efforts to advance peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

The negative human consequences of home demolitions are significant. According to ICAHD, over 24,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967. And according to the Applied Research Institute, in 2009 alone, the Jerusalem municipality issued over 900 new demolition orders to buildings under its jurisdiction. Israel’s government claims that many of these homes were or will be destroyed because they were “built without the proper permits.”  But the necessary permits are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain.  In fact, a 2008 report released by the United Nations revealed that 94% of Palestinian applications to build in parts of the occupied Palestinian territories under full Israeli control are denied.  In order to accommodate their families, Palestinians are forced to build homes without permits, thus violating Israeli laws that discriminate against them and risking their homes’ demolition. 

The experience of Mahmoud al-Abbasi, whose family’s home was demolished in March 2009, tells a familiar story. Al-Abbasi requested a permit, but was turned down. His family’s home was demolished. At the time of its demolition, his wife, Ghadir, told reporters of her ordeal: “They [the Israeli soldiers] pushed me and shoved me. I was terrified. I told them, ‘This is the only place we have, where else are we going to live?’”  The al-Abbasi family is one of thousands of Palestinian families who have been forced to live in the already crowded homes of family and friends, in temporary shacks, in  tents that are, themselves, liable to be demolished without warning, or even on the streets. 

If the human consequences of home demolitions are dire, the political consequences are equally serious. The Palestinians want Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem to be the capitol of their future state. But the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes, along with the entrenchment of Israeli settlements in key neighborhoods, creates facts on the ground that undermine Palestinian links to the city. Unfortunately, this appears to be precisely the Israeli government’s intention. According to a confidential European Union report written in December 2008 and leaked to the press in March 2009, Israel is “actively pursuing the illegal annexation” of East Jerusalem by uprooting the Palestinian population and expanding settlements. According to the report, Israel’s goals are to “create territorial contiguity” between these settlements and the Old City of Jerusalem and to “sever” East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. If Israel is successful in achieving these goals, Palestinians will find it difficult, if not impossible, to establish a viable capitol in East Jerusalem.

In early 2009, U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell was ostensibly given the mission of advancing peace between Palestinians and Israelis. That has not happened, and acts such as the one suggested by Barakat seriously undermine the credibility of his mandate in the eyes of many across the Middle East and around the world. During his January 2010 visit to the West Bank, Mitchell met three times with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, offering him incentives to engage in “negotiations” with Israel without precondition. But, with Israeli demolitions slated to continue, Abbas has little reason to consent. On January 28, he told a reporter with a Russian television station as much, saying “If I enter negotiations with them [the Israelis] and the [settlement] building in East Jerusalem continues, Israel will be saying that Jerusalem is theirs. So why would I agree to negotiate while building in East Jerusalem continues?”

The Obama Administration seems to understand that the mass demolition of Palestinian homes by Israel seriously undermines the possibility of Palestinian-Israeli peace and reconciliation.  In March 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton responded to an Israeli announcement that it would demolish 80 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem by calling it “unhelpful and not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the ‘road map.’” While her assessment was correct, it was not backed up by U.S. actions to prevent the demolitions from being carried out. Demolishing 200 homes in Silwan will similarly be unhelpful (in addition to being highly discriminatory and unlawful under the Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party). If the United States hopes to be a meaningful contributor to the cause of Palestinian-Israeli peace and reconciliation, then it must use its considerable leverage with Israel to insist that Israel not demolish 200 more Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and finally end the practice there and beyond, once and for all.

– Heidi Schramm is a Research Associate at the American Association for Palestinian Equal Rights in Washington, DC. She contributed this article to

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