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UN urges Israel to rethink East Jerusalem construction plans

Secretary-General calls move to raze Arab homes in Silwan 'unhelpful' and 'contrary to international law.'

By Haaretz Service and News Agencies 

The United Nations late Wednesday called Israel's plan to demolish Arab homes in East Jerusalem for the purpose of settlement construction "unhelpful" and "contrary to international law."

"The Secretary-General is deeply concerned about the decision by the Jerusalem municipality to advance planning for house demolitions and further settlement activity in the area of Silwan," UN Chief Ban Ki-moon's press office said in a statement. "The planned moves are contrary to international law, and to the wishes of Palestinian residents."

The East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan:        photo Emil Salman

Ban's remarks came days after the municipality approved preliminary plans to demolish 22 Palestinian homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan as part of an initiative to build a recreational area there. The U.S. State Department criticized the decision, calling it the kind of step that undermines the trust fundamental to progress in the proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"The secretary-general reminds the Israeli government of its responsibility to ensure provocative steps are not taken which would heighten tensions in the city," added Ban's statement. "The current moves are unhelpful, coming at a time when the goal must be to build trust to support political negotiations."

Earlier Wednesday, Israeli right-wing groups threatened to forcibly evict four Palestinian families they claim are living on property belonging to Jews in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

MK Uri Ariel (National Union) announced from the Knesset podium yesterday that the settlers would hire private security firms to evict the four families, consisting of 40 persons, unless they evacuate by July 4.

The right-wing groups and settlers are furious that the police, probably on instructions from the Prime Minister's Office, are not carrying out the eviction orders issued to the Palestinian families, who live in a building that served in the pre-state era as a synagogue.

The synagogue was built in the 19th century for the small Yemenite community in Silwan. For the past 50 years the Abu Nab family, who claims ownership of the building, has been living there.

In recent years heirs of the Yemenite community have reclaimed the building, supported by the nationalist association Ateret Cohanim, which holds the two adjacent buildings - the controversial Beit Yonatan and Beit Hadvash.

Beit Yonatan, a seven-story residential structure, was built illegally in the heart of the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood by Ateret Cohanim.
Despite police discussions in preparation for the evacuation of Beit Yonatan several weeks ago, the implementation has been postponed until at least the end of the month.

A standing order was issued two years ago to evacuate and seal Beit Yonatan, where 10 Jewish families reside. Jerusalem municipal officials have yet to enforce the order, despite court rulings and orders from the former attorney general.

The Beit Yonatan settlers said Wednesday that police have not evicted the Palestinian families due to political constraints; they have warned they would take matters onto their own hands next month. The settlers are justifying the eviction by claiming deeds for the property evidence that it was owned by Yemenite Jews who lived there from the late 19th century until the 1948 War of Independence.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said, in response to a parliamentary question, that the police are prepared to evacuate the structure, but that he has been instructed to delay the action due to political considerations.

"There is discrimination in everything related to the enforcement applied by the state and the prosecution in Jerusalem," said a spokesperson for the Jewish community in Silwan. "It is unclear why the state insists on evacuating Beit Yonatan despite a proposed compromise over the matter. Meanwhile, the same authorities do not implement a court order that unequivocally called for the evacuation of Arab families who had invaded a synagogue belonging to Jews."


Alternative Information Centre reports on the Jerusalem Municipality Planning and Building Committee's decision to approve the demolitions:

23 June 2010

Jerusalem Approves Silwan Demolitions

Wednesday, 23 June 2010 12:09 Tania Kepler for the Alternative Information Center (AIC)


Jerusalem Municipality Planning and Building Committee decided Monday (21/6) to approve a contentious building plan that will destroy 22 Palestinian homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, in order to create a tourist center for archeological sites and a new residential housing complex.

The plan, conceptualized more than a year ago, has been on hold for the past four months following US pressure.

The municipality views the 22 at risk homes as illegal, saying they were built without the proper permits in an area currently zoned as “green” (green zoning limits areas to park use, even if they had homes before the zoning, giving the municipality authority for destructions). All 88 homes inside the El-Bustan section of Silwan were built in what has been labeled the “green zone” and are considered illegal by the city and subject to demolition orders.

Members of the Meretz Party were at City Hall on the day before the decision, threatening to resign over the matter, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), labeled the move “forced displacement,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

The eastern section of Silwan – which includes 66 residences – will be rezoned as residential, and residents will then have the ability to apply for the retroactive legalization of their homes, said the Post.

Since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the municipality has sought to destroy neighborhoods like Silwan and establish a Jewish presence (there are settlements currently in Silwan). In the 1980s, Haaretz reported the Housing Ministry "then under Ariel Sharon, worked hard to seize control of property in the Old City and in the adjacent neighborhood of Silwan by declaring them absentee property. The suspicion arose that some of the transactions were not legal; an examination committee...found numerous flaws."

 The Popular Committee of Silwan has worked very hard over the past few years to combat demolitions and settler takeovers. They presented their own neighborhood plan to the municipality as an alternative to the city’s demolitions but it was rejected.

 Speaking after a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in New York, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told his associates that "'King's Garden,' which has been waiting to be built for 3,000 years, can wait three more months or three more quarters if the political circumstances and Israel's favor require. It's a matter of common sense," according to Ynet News.

 In a statement released by his office, Mr. Barak said that the municipal authorities were “not demonstrating any common sense or any sense of timing — and it is not the first time.”

 A U.S. spokesman said on Monday that the decision threatened recently restarted peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, under American mediation. "This is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust that is fundamental to making progress in the proximity talks," said State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley. The announcement comes only two weeks before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama.

 According to the municipality, the demolition plan stipulates that the 22 families displaced will be included in the zoning of the eastern side, where new homes will be built for them, but it is unclear who exactly would be relocated.

Fakhri Abu Diab, a member of the Popular Committee of Silwan,  whose home is scheduled for demolition, said the city had “become the enemy of the people.”

 “They want to make a garden not by my house, but instead of my house,” he said, adding that his family was “living in fear.” Mr. Abu Diab said his house was more than 20 years old, that he paid taxes, and that his efforts to legalize the house had failed, wrote the New York Times.