Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Blue Skies of Jerusalem

It rained on Monday here in Jerusalem. I’ve been here since October 3rd and it’s only the second time it’s rained. I was actually glad to see, feel and smell the rain. Most of Jerusalem and the West Bank are thankful for the rain because it has been such a hot, dry fall. But, at the same time I was celebrating the rain, I was acutely aware that there is at least one family that might not be so grateful for the rain.

On November 30, our team received a text message from a group that monitors house demolitions and evictions in the neighborhoods that make up East Jerusalem. The message was a demolition alert for Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood to the north of the Old City and home to over 2,800 Palestinians. When the team arrived, there were approximately fifteen police officers near a house where the top floor was being demolished. The picture to the right is what the house looked like shortly after the demolition started. The appearance of the house changed rapidly from that point on as the picture below and to the left reveals.

Although I was not with the team on November 30, when they first went to this demolition, I returned to Sheikh Jarrah on December 1, to view the demolition and to speak with the family members who lived in the house. As we approached the home, the owner, Bahar, invited us to come upstairs and view the scene first hand. As we climbed the stairs toward the front door, the first thing I saw is this door that the police broke through to enter the home in order to gain access to the roof.

From the front door we climbed up to the roof area and were met with the scene (below right). As we stood among the nails, the broken 2 x 4’s and the smashed drywall, Bahar explained to us that he purchased the house 5 years ago. At the time he purchased the house the structure at the top of the house was already there. Before he completed the purchase, the City Inspector came to the house and determined that everything was in order. The previous owner never disclosed that a portion of the home had been built without a permit.*

Bahar went on to tell us that several weeks ago, as he was leaving for work, somebody stopped, put a piece of paper on his door, took a picture, then took the paper down. When Bahar asked what it was about, he was told it was none of his business. On November 30 at 10:30 a.m. a crew of men arrived, broke the lock on the front door, forced it open, went upstairs and started destroying things.

The police told Bahar, that the only thing on the structure that was illegal was the roof, and only the roof had to come down; the rest of the structure could stay. But the pictures show that isn’t what happened. And, really what good would a home be without a roof anyway? The roof and two exterior walls were demolished as were most of the interior walls. One exterior wall, the one facing the street, remained standing. Drywall, wood, window frames, electrical fixtures, flooring, tile, etc. were in a large pile of rubble. The workers remained until approx 4:30 p.m., then left, leaving the piles of debris where they fell.

Bahar told us that he will have to pay 50-60,000 shekels for the cost of demolition - yes he has to pay for the destruction of his home. In addition, he will have to pay any costs associated with cleaning up and hauling all of the rubble away. It was his brother’s family that lived in this apartment. His brother died earlier this year from cancer. His brother had five children, ages 13, 11,9, 5, and 3. The children and his brother's widow are currently living in Bethany with an uncle.

The family of Bahar's brother were probably not as happy as I was to see the rain on Monday, since it now comes directly into what used to be their home. And the picture at the top of this article, the one with the beautiful blue skies? That's a picture of one of the workers throwing a piece of their home into a pile of rubble.

*I need to explain a the issue of permits. As with most municipalities, you must obtain a permit in East Jerusalem to erect anything on your land. By anything, I mean anything, a house, an addition, a chicken coop, a dog house, a storage shed. Now that may not seem like such an odd thing, after all many of us have needed permits over the years in order to modify, expand or remodel our homes. But, unlike most of us who obtain the necessary permit simply by going to City Hall and paying a relatively small fee, in East Jerusalem an application for a permit can take anywhere from 5-10 years and the average cost is $25,000. As a result, many additions are added to existing buildings without the necessary permit.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Welcome To The Life Of Alaa Zorba

Imagine that you are living in a house that your family has owned for 80 years – you have the title to the property, as well as the structures. The papers show that it is yours, free and clear. Imagine also, that 5 years ago, the government allowed someone to start digging a huge hole under your house, without your knowledge, without your permission and without any compensation to you. Every day you hear the noise of the jackhammer and you can feel your house shaking. As you try to sleep at night, the noise and vibrations keep you awake. One day you open your front door and your porch is gone, replaced by a huge hole also dug without your knowledge or permission. Upsetting? Outrageous? Alarming? Welcome to the life of Alaa Zorba.

Alaa Zorba, along with his father, owns a grocery store in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City very near to the Western Wall. If you continue down the street toward the Wall, you come to a stairway on the left, just outside the security entrance. If you climb those stairs, you come to Alaa’s house. There is a synagogue within arm’s reach from Alaa’s house, built two years ago.

We first met Alaa in his store the evening of November 2, 2010 and we asked him to share his story with us. Alaa invited us to his home the next morning. On November 3rd we returned to his store and walked with him down the street toward his home. As we approached the steps to his home, Alaa pointed out an “archaeological” excavation on the left side of the street, directly underneath his home. Looking through the door, we saw a huge hole, which, according to Alaa, is over 45 feet deep and almost 100 feet long.

Alaa told us that the excavation has been going on for approximately 5 years, although the frequency of activity at the dig has increased over the last several months. Although unsure of what they hope to find in this pit underneath his house, Alaa is sure that the digging has adversely affected him and all of the family members living in his house. And, while there is no proof, there is a deep suspicion about the effect of this dig on the stability of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the second most holy place to Muslims.

As we climbed the stairs to Alaa’s home, he showed us the structural damage sustained by his home in the last five years from the digging. In the courtyard at the entry to the home, there are cracks in the walls of the house.

In the entry courtyard on the ground, we saw different colored stones. Alaa explained that the Israelis simply showed up in the courtyard one day and started digging. The family had to go to court and get a court order to stop the digging in the courtyard. When the police came to the house to stop the digging, Alaa spoke to the officers about the dig and the fact that he had to get a court order e had to get a court order to have it stopped. He was then arrested because he was “too noisy with the police.” When we entered the house and climbed the stairs we saw additional cracks in the walls.

As we sat in his living room talking and drinking tea, Alaa told us about his family history and the home they live in. His family has lived in this home for over 80 years, they have the Turkish document that proves that they are the legal owners of the home. His grandfather lived in the home, his father still lives there and now Alaa lives there with his family. As we sat in the living room talking, we heard a rumbling noise begin and the floor beneath our feet started to shake. The digging in the excavation had started. Alaa explained that the noise and the vibration occur during both the day and the night, making it difficult for him and his family to sleep. Alaa also showed us additional places in the home where there are cracks in the walls and the floors are uneven.

We went up to the roof so Alaa could show us just how close the synagogue was to his house. We were also able to see the numerous buildings in which settlements had been established; many had armed civilians sitting on the rooftops. Alaa asked us to keep our EAPPI vests on so that the police would know who we were. He told us that if anyone from his family goes on the roof, the police are immediately at his door and on their way to the roof

to find out what they are doing. In contrast, however, the armed Israeli settlers on the roofs are not questioned at all. And no protection is offered to Alaa's family when they are harassed by settlers or by people at the synagogue within arm's reach of his house. Alaa said the situation was almost funny, but he felt like crying at the same time.

The excavation has the approval of the Israeli Department of Antiquities. The dig apparently has some archaeological significance although if you ask the people working there they cannot or will not tell you what they are looking for. The dig will not be stopped even though families occupy the homes directly above the dig. It will not be stopped even though homes are damaged. There will be no compensation for the damage. There is no way to stop the dig. Upsetting? Outrageous? Alarming? Welcome to the life of Alaa Zorba.