E. J’lem housing demolitions decreased in past two years

Some cite intense int'l pressure on city; others say families are knocking down their own homes to avoid prohibitive fines.

House demoltion in east Jerusalem (R) 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
House demoltion in east Jerusalem (R) 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The number of house demolitions in east Jerusalem has greatly decreased over the past two years due to intense pressure from abroad, city councilors from across the political spectrum told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
The municipality, on the other hand, credited the drop in demolitions with a slowdown in illegal building, a spokeswoman said.
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“There are thousands of buildings with demolition orders against them that have already been conclusively decided by the court, and they need to carry them out; it’s not at all connected to a slowdown in illegal building,” said City Councilor Elisha Peleg (Likud).
Both Peleg and left-wing City Councilor Meir Margalit (Meretz) agreed on the cause of the demolition slowdown: foreign pressure.
“Right now house demolitions are at the minimum that is possible – there’s only been four or five demolitions so far this year,” said Margalit, who is co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). “Why? Because the Americans came and said, This time, really, stop, no excuses, no stories.”
Margalit traces the pressure back to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit in November 2009.
Peleg sent a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the beginning of the week demanding that house demolitions be resumed.
“It’s a state problem. It’s the same thing with Jewish building in east Jerusalem – the European Union and the United States and the leftists jump on it and say it will damage, heaven forbid, the peace process,” he said.
“Obeying the law – that’s damaging the peace process?” According to the ICAHD, 27 inhabited structures were demolished by the authorities last year and 69 were demolished in 2009, compared with 104 in 2008. In the years 2000 to 2007, an average of 98 inhabited structures were destroyed annually.
But in 2008 and 2009, the number of east Jerusalem Arab residents demolishing their own homes greatly increased, said Margalit.
Because “self-demolitions” are not carried out by the authorities, they are not reported to the media or recorded as demolished structures in municipal records.
According to information from the Interior Ministry, which does keep track of self-demolitions, there were 70 in 2010, well over twice as many as were destroyed by the authorities.
Families choose to demolish their own homes when the fine they are forced to pay for demolition is higher than the cost of the demolition itself. The fine is imposed by courts, which examine each case individually and determine a fine based on the size of the structure or other extenuating circumstances, such as repeat offenders, a municipal spokeswoman said.
The municipality refused to reveal the average fine. Margalit said he had heard of figures approximating NIS 200 per square meter. Most of the demolished structures are between 100 and 150 sq.m., representing a fine of NIS 20,000 to NIS 30,000 for the family – on top of the costs of relocating and paying for alternative housing.
There are two types of housing demolition orders – judicial orders, which have gone through the court system, and administrative orders, which come from local authorities. Jerusalem’s Building Supervision Department posts 270 demolition notices per week on apartments all over Jerusalem, or around 14,000 per year, a spokesman told the Post in January. Owners can be given demolition notices for everything from enclosing a balcony to building an entire house.
Under a judicial order, homeowners can be charged for the cost of the demolition because they supposedly have an opportunity to appeal. In cases where a police presence or other security measures are needed, the owner can technically be charged for the additional costs, though this is rare.
Earlier this year, the Knesset heard the first reading of a law that would force owners who received administrative orders to pay for the demolition as well. Activists say that fear and confusion surrounding the discussion of the new law could convince families to demolish their own homes rather than pay a fine. In the past few years, roughly a quarter of the demolition orders have been administrative.
The fines are big business for the municipality. Last year, the city collected NIS 14.3 million in fines from building infractions, ICAHD found. In 2004, the decade’s most active year regarding demolitions, the municipality collected NIS 34 million.
There are between 20,000 and 30,000 illegal structures in east Jerusalem, which represent about a third of all the homes there. According to ICAHD, half have demolition orders pending against them.
A State Comptroller’s report released in October blamed decades of lax enforcement for the explosion of illegal building in east Jerusalem.
East Jerusalem Arab residents complain that they are almost unanimously denied building permits.
“People think if there are fewer homes for Palestinians, there will be fewer Palestinians,” said Margalit.