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Protests Arise As Israel Begins Demolition Of Silwan Neighborhood In East Jerusalem



That is the sound of bulldozers demolishing a Palestinian butcher shop in a neighborhood in East Jerusalem where Palestinians have been protesting imminent evictions. What followed - an all too familiar scene. Israeli security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and batons on Palestinian protesters. Some of those protesters hurled stones. Israeli authorities say dozens of homes in the Silwan neighborhood - or Shiloah (ph), as it's called in Hebrew - must be destroyed to make room for a religious tourist park. Israel says the homes were built illegally, but rights advocates point out it's hard for Palestinians to get building permits. And Palestinians are faced with a terrible choice, destroy their homes themselves or watch Israeli authorities do it and pay thousands in fines after the fact. Palestinians say it's all meant to drive them from Jerusalem.

We're joined now by Jalal Abukhater. He's a Palestinian writer and critic of Israeli policies, and he's based in Jerusalem. Welcome.

JALAL ABUKHATER: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: What can you tell us about what's happening in Silwan right now?

ABUKHATER: In Silwan, it's a microcosm of the injustice that we face in Jerusalem generally, especially in East Jerusalem as Palestinian Jerusalemites. I, myself, am originally from Silwan. My family comes from Silwan. We're all connected with this one idea that we feel unwelcome in our city. We feel like our living existence in the city is a continuous struggle. And in Silwan, what you're seeing today is that people have stayed. They've been resilient, and they've been fighting course and they've been fighting this occupation for so long, since 1967. But today, the Israelis are like, OK, we're going to just move the process faster of getting Jerusalemites out of Jerusalem.

People are facing the threat of having their homes demolished because they are not able to get permits or to live in that area. The Israelis claim it was built illegally, the houses and the homes there. And that is to make way for a theme park, for a biblical park in the heart of Silwan. Just we need to always - emphasizing the fact that Palestinians are almost never granted permission to build legally. They're never granted permits. The process of getting a permit to build a home or to fix your home or to renovate is almost impossible to get. You might see your home being demolished at the same time. Just you being unaccepting of that situation, you get arrested, and then you get a house arrest order, for example, but your house is being demolished or is being threatened.

And then you have to pay extra money. Like, for example, the butcher who had his shop demolished in Silwan - he was given a five-day order to house arrest and has to pay a fine of 500 shekels. So they only demolished his source of income, and they're asking him to pay fees for not being happy with the demolishing of his business. It's a very unjust situation.

FADEL: Let me just ask here. You know, Israeli authorities say that this project has been planned for years, that the Israeli position is that Jews have historic and religious links to the area. And like you said, they say the homes are built illegally. What do you say to that?

ABUKHATER: They're never using such arguments to support our claims to get our houses back in West Jerusalem, for example. There are thousands of people who own homes, and they still have the papers. But we can't go to the court, Israeli court, and say we would like to have our house back. They would say, no, this was taken over through the absentee law, and anyone who is defined as an absentee, even though we are present in the same city, would not be able to get their houses back.

FADEL: Now, how are people notified when or if their house or business is to be demolished? I mean, the choice ends up being that you either destroy your own property or you pay the equivalent of thousands of dollars in fines if the Israeli authorities destroy it. How does it actually work?

ABUKHATER: It's a bit surreal. You would just have a (unintelligible) worker knocking on your door. Sometimes they have police escort if they feel uncomfortable to deliver those papers. But this one (unintelligible) worker would come in and say, we've done an inspection of your property, and we found you've committed a violation to this, this, this, this, this. And it's all in Hebrew, of course. Many Palestinians do not even speak Hebrew. And the paper says, you are in violation, and if you wish to demolish your own house, you would save yourself the fees, but you have until this deadline. And they would give you, like, for example, two weeks or three weeks to take action immediately to address this violation that they accuse you of committing. Otherwise, they would come in and address it themselves. Of course, that would never happen to Israeli settlements that have been illegally sprawling and just popping out of nowhere.

FADEL: So this area, we should note, is the subject of dispute. Israel captured the eastern part of the city, which includes Silwan, in 1967, and they claim all of Jerusalem as the capital - or the country claims all of Jerusalem as its capital. But that's not recognized internationally. Most countries see it as something to be resolved through negotiations. And Palestinians seek part of the city as their future capital, right?

ABUKHATER: Yeah, absolutely. Palestinians do see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. It's really weird because every action that Israel does in East Jerusalem, including handing out eviction notices to families in Silwan or giving out demolition orders, those are all - they go against international law that forbids any occupying force to commit such acts in occupied territories. So Israel is really acting in violation of all international rules and norms. They're just willingly ignoring all the condemnations they hear from the U.N. or from the EU or any other international organization.

They want us to believe that Jerusalem is one unified city, but there are different sets of rules and sets of laws that apply. And if you're a Jewish Israeli, you can have a whole different experience living in Jerusalem than if you're a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem. So it's one unified city in their eyes. But at the same time, the divisions are so real in the legal system that they've established in this occupied city.

FADEL: That's Jerusalem-based writer Jalal Abukhater. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ABUKHATER: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.