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(Jerusalem) - Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem should immediately stop demolishing Palestinian homes in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said today.

In the week beginning October 27, 2009, Jerusalem municipal authorities used bulldozers to demolish five residences, while thousands more Palestinians are threatened with demolition of their homes. In the demolitions of the five buildings from October 27 to November 2, Israeli authorities displaced 57 Palestinian residents, including many children. Three other buildings were partly demolished. Israeli authorities justified destroying the homes primarily on the grounds that the owners lacked building permits, which are extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain.

"The Israeli government is depriving Palestinians of the right to live in their own homes, in neighborhoods where many have lived for generations," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Basing this cruel destruction of people's homes on unfairly applied building regulations is a thinly veiled legal façade to force them to move out."

Israel has forcibly evicted or demolished the homes of more than 600 Palestinians, half of them children, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem this year, according to the United Nations. Israel's imposition of its building laws on Palestinians in occupied territory violates international humanitarian law protections for private property. Its application of the building permits law is discriminatory and is an arbitrary and unlawful interference in the home under international human rights law.

Jerusalem municipal authorities demolished three Palestinian-owned buildings on November 2, displacing 31 people. Residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor told Human Rights Watch that at 8 a.m., two bulldozers demolished the homes of the al-Shwaike and al-Qawasmi families, displacing 14 people.  The buildings, joined by a common wall, were built in 1982.

"We didn't even know the building was going to be destroyed before it happened," said Haroun al-Qawasmi, who lived in one of the buildings with his wife and four adult children. "There were scores of soldiers there, and they told us that we had built the house without a permit."

 Tareq al-Shwaike said that he was not informed of any demolition order before his family's adjoining building was destroyed, displacing him, his wife and three children, his mother, his sister and her husband. "The municipality told me I have to clean up the ruins of what they destroyed or else I'll have to pay when they do it," al-Shwaike said.

The third home, in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem, was destroyed at around 2 p.m. Human Rights Watch was unable to contact residents of the building, but according to initial reports by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and by Al Maqdese, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization based in East Jerusalem, the demolition displaced approximately 17 members of the Rajaby family.

On October 27, Israeli authorities demolished two homes in East Jerusalem, and partly destroyed three others. Residents of a two-story building in the Sur Baher neighborhood of East Jerusalem told Human Rights Watch that scores of Israeli soldiers and police officers surrounded the building at 5:15 a.m. and ordered the residents to leave immediately. The authorities did not allow the residents time to remove their furniture or other belongings before three bulldozers demolished the building, which housed 17 members of an extended family, including five children.

 "Soldiers entered our house without asking and detained my daughters and sons," said one resident who did not want his name used. "We only had time to get our clothes."

He said the building's first floor was built 11 years ago, and a second floor was added later to accommodate the owner's married children.  A second resident said that his family had owned the land on which the house was built for at least three generations. The residents said the family had spent 150,000 shekels (US$37,500) over the years in failed attempts to obtain a permit for their home.

 At 9 a.m. on the same day, Israeli authorities demolished the East Jerusalem home of a 73-year-old Palestinian woman and her 32-year-old son, who did not want to be named. The son said he had constructed the building from pieces of wood and metal sheeting after Israeli authorities demolished their initial home on the site in 2006.

 "We have been living on this site for 40 years," he said. "They destroyed our first house because we didn't have a permit. So I put up the zinco (sheet metal) building. It wasn't a permanent building, just a hut."

He received a first demolition order in May and a second one in September. "I can't afford a lawyer so I went to the court myself, but they told me, ‘You don't have a file here.'" He was afraid the authorities would punish him further by fining him for the demolition.

East Jerusalem includes more than 70 square kilometers of the West Bank that Israel annexed to its territory in 1967, and remains occupied territory under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 regarding occupied territories prohibits the occupying power from destroying private property unless such destruction is "rendered absolutely necessary by military operations."

Israeli authorities state that house demolitions are carried out against homes that have been built illegally without official building permits. However, a UN report published in April found that it is extremely difficult for Palestinian residents to obtain such permits under Israeli law, which Israel applies to annexed parts of the West Bank in violation of international law.

The UN estimated that roughly 60,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem currently live in buildings that the Israeli government has designated illegal. A December 2008 report by the European Union (EU) found that Israel was "actively pursuing the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem" by means including the construction of Jewish-only settlements and demolitions of Palestinian houses.

The European Union report concluded that Israel's housing policies in East Jerusalem unlawfully discriminate against Palestinian residents. Like Israeli citizens, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem may obtain building permits only for buildings in areas zoned for construction. The Palestinian population makes up over 60 percent of East Jerusalem's population, but the Israeli government has zoned only 12 percent for Palestinian construction, according to the EU report. Even in this small zoned area, many Palestinians could not afford to complete the application process for building permits, which is complicated and expensive.

In contrast, Israel unlawfully expropriated 35 percent of East Jerusalem for the construction of Jewish settlements, for which building permits are much easier to obtain. Since November 2007, Israel approved building permits for 3,000 housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, as opposed to fewer than 400 building permits for Palestinian residents, according to the EU report. Government policy, as stated in the Local Outline Plan for Jerusalem 2000, approved by Jerusalem's Local Committee for Planning and Building in 2006, calls for a ratio of 70 percent Jews to 30 percent Arabs in the Jerusalem municipality, including annexed parts of the West Bank.

The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the occupying power from transferring its own population to the occupied territory.

"The Israeli government is destroying the homes of Palestinian families and causing unnecessary suffering so that it can expand illegal Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem," Whitson said. "Israel needs to respect the basic rights of Palestinian families to property and housing."

Human Rights Watch interviewed other East Jerusalem residents whose homes were partly or completely demolished in three separate incidents on October 27. Israeli authorities may impose heavy fines for illegal construction on Palestinians whose homes they bulldoze, so some East Jerusalem residents have "self-demolished" their homes to avoid financial penalties. One resident had begun but not completed "self-demolishing" his building when it was bulldozed, and was afraid of being fined by Israeli authorities. Another family whose home was demolished was still paying a fine of 60,000 shekels (US$15,000) for illegal construction.

The Jerusalem municipality spokesperson's office did not immediately respond to Human Rights Watch's request for comment on the demolitions. According to the municipality's website, "The Municipality of Jerusalem demolishes buildings or parts of buildings for reasons of urban planning, not for security matters . . . Municipal policy is to issue demolition orders only where illegal buildings are not yet occupied and where they interfere with plans for public facilities such as schools or roads, or with the city's historical heritage."

Israel's policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinians in East Jerusalem on the basis of difficult-to-obtain building permits, while facilitating the construction and growth of nearby Jewish settlements, is also discriminatory under international law. The prohibition against discrimination is spelled out in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and codified in the major human rights treaties that Israel has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Ongoing and repeated home demolitions prevent residents of East Jerusalem from enjoying the right not to be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful state interference with one's home and the right to adequate housing. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors the compliance of states with the ICESCR, has stated that "the right to housing should not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense which equates it with, for example, the shelter provided by merely having a roof over one's head or views shelter exclusively as a commodity. Rather it should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity."

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