Tuesday, January 18, 2011

OPT: UN agencies and EU call for implementation of international humanitarian law to protect Palestinians in East Jerusalem

Nasser Siam stands by the remains of his home in Sheikh Jerrah, East Jerusalem

IRIN - UN agencies and European Union (EU) officials in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) are calling for the implementation of international humanitarian law to protect the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem from forced displacement.

UN, Palestinian Authority and EU officials say East Jerusalem is occupied territory, requiring protection of the civilian population by international humanitarian law, a legal framework which prohibits population transfer into and out of the territory.

Israel says property transfers in East Jerusalem are private transactions governed by Israeli local municipal law. Today East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967, is governed by Israeli basic law.

Between 5 and 11 January the Israeli authorities demolished five Palestinian-owned structures in East Jerusalem because they did not have Israeli-issued building permits, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Because of inadequate zoning and planning for Palestinians, obtaining a building permit from the Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem is almost impossible, says OCHA. Restrictions prevent Palestinians from lawfully repairing or constructing homes, water systems and other necessary infrastructure. Meanwhile, there are at least 1,500 pending demolition orders in East Jerusalem, potentially affecting the livelihoods of thousands.

“Transfer of property and buildings in East Jerusalem should be regulated by the provisions of the fourth Geneva convention,” said Ghassan Khatib, a representative from Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayad’s office.

But it is unclear how international law could be implemented when some 195,000 Israeli citizens (so-called “settlers”) live in East Jerusalem, out of a total of 500,000 “settlers” in occupied Palestinian land, according to OCHA estimates.

“The quarter of a million people living in suburban communities of Jerusalem, so-called settlements, will remain,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking about a potential settlement agreement between Israelis and Palestinians during an 11 January reception for foreign media. “We have hundreds of Arab residences in Jewish neighbourhoods and we cannot ban Israelis from purchasing property in Arab areas and vice-versa,” he said.

According to the December 2010 Jerusalem Report authored by 25 heads of mission from the EU in Jerusalem and Ramallah, “successive Israeli governments have pursued a policy of transferring Jews into oPt in violation of the fourth Geneva convention and international humanitarian law.” In East Jerusalem 35 percent of the land has been expropriated for “state land”. Palestinians living in Jerusalem only hold ID cards and are prohibited from buying property.

Today some 924,000 people live within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, of whom around 277,000 are Palestinian, according to the EU report.

The USA says the status of Jerusalem must be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians, and has warned both parties not to change the situation on the ground outside a formal negotiating process.

Meanwhile, the number of displaced and affected persons in East Jerusalem is increasing, weakening economic and social stability.

Shepherd Hotel

Israeli authorities bulldozed a wing of the historic Palestinian Shepherd Hotel compound in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem on 9 January to make way for the construction of 20 new Jewish housing units, despite US and UK condemnation.

About 5,000 Jewish “settlers” live in the Old City and Palestinian neighbourhoods Silwan, Ras al-Amud, At-Tur Wadi al-Joz and Sheikh Jerrah, according to the EU.

The Shepherd Hotel, built under Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in the 1930s, was purchased in 1985 for US$1 million by US Jewish tycoon Irving Moskowitz, a supporter of Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem.

“This is not a question of government property, this is a private sale,” said Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Marked for demolition

Many of the legal disputes that result in property transfers are over ownership, while homes and structures built without permits are marked by Israeli authorities for demolition.

Nasser Siam, 52, his wife Lina and their six children, Palestinian Jerusalem ID-holders and registered refugees, are living in the one room of their house that remains standing after Israeli police and authorities from the Jerusalem municipality demolished their home in Sheikh Jerrah on 3 January.

According to the municipality, the area is not zoned for residential property.

“In 1967 Israeli forces seized 40 dunums [3.25 hectares] of the original 48 dunums [3.88 hectares] of land that my family owned at this location,” said Nasser. “I paid US$20,000 [to the municipality] in 2004 to obtain a zoning permit, but the laws changed in 2005 and I lost the money and had to restart the process,” he said.

Nasser was billed $14,000 by the municipality to pay for the demolition of his own home. He earns about $16,800 a year as a sales clerk. In some cases homes have been demolished by the owners themselves, following the receipt of a demolition order from Israeli authorities - to avoid the fee.

Nasser’s family received about $2,250 from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for rubble removal.

According to international law professor Yuval Shany from Hebrew University, “the legal procedure is fair, but in some ways the laws are biased against them [Palestinians].” The Absentee Property Law, for instance, which enables Jewish individuals or associations to claim rights to property allegedly owned prior to 1948, does not recognize similar Palestinian claims, he said.

Seventy-eight structures in East Jerusalem, including 24 homes, were demolished by the Israeli authorities in 2010, according to the UN, displacing 116 people and affecting 289.

All rights reserved. This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.