Shattered dreams?

House demolition threatens a Mount of Olives family unable to pay a court fine.

Family waiting for court ruling on home (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Family waiting for court ruling on home
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
NGOs like the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, and Rabbis for Human Rights routinely decry the difficulties Palestinians have in obtaining building permits. According to ICAHD, since 1967, more than 2,000 homes have been demolished in east Jerusalem while the number of outstanding administrative and punitive demolition orders is estimated at up to 20,000. The most egregious case is that of Salim and Arabiya, whose home in Shawamreh in Anata (Area C), which adjoins Jerusalem to the northeast, was demolished on January 23 for the fifth time, along with a number of other structures in the Beduin compound.
But the reality of demolitions is more nuanced. Witness the case of the State of Israel vs Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa, which has been making its way through the Jerusalem Municipal Court for more than three years and is scheduled to resume on April 24.
The government’s case against 69- year-old Hawa, a well-known member of Jerusalem Peacemakers, a group he cofounded with fellow Jerusalemites Eliyahu McLean and the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, and a prominent member of the 3,000-strong clan of the same name that lives in the A-Tur neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, doesn’t fit the stereotype for cases like this.
First off, Haj Ibrahim, as he is known, is not a refugee but a stateless person who still owns the house in which he was born and raised. A retiree who collects a pension from the National Insurance Institute as well as from the Bezeq telephone company for which he worked for decades as a technician, he has an Israeli identity card but no passport or nationality. Having declined to take out Israeli citizenship, he must carry an Israeli laissez-passer – a document that some countries don’t recognize – to visit his two adult children in the United States. His children have lost their Jerusalem residence permits because they didn’t return annually to renew their status.
Unlike many parts of east Jerusalem and the areas controlled by Israel’s Civil Administration, as the military rule is euphemistically referred to, zoning is in place on the one-dunam (quarteracre) parcel that Haj Ibrahim inherited.
The plot has been in his family’s control for hundreds of years, he says, adding that his clan traces its roots back to the Islamic conquest of the Middle East nearly 14 centuries ago.
And unlike many streets in east Jerusalem, Hawa’s road even has an official name – Salman al-Farsi Street – allowing for mail delivery and the provision of other government services.
On May 11, 1995, Hawa paid for and obtained a building permit for a 600- square-meter multi-generational family home. The permit was expensive, he recalls. Hiring day-laborers and utilizing the help of his extended family, he immediately began excavating the foundation and then erecting the building, which is located on a steep hillside overlooking the Judean Desert toward Ma’aleh Adumim.
The reinforced concrete and stone structure went up in spurts whenever money was available. In 2000, Haj Ibrahim’s son Umar, today a father of six who drives a taxi for a living, moved into his unit on the ground floor. Five years later he was followed by Muhammad, a plumber and father of three, who shares the garden level. In 2005, a third son, Hamid, moved into the floor above. Hamid is a taxi driver and has four children.
While everything they did was within the letter of the law, Hawa decided that he would like to move out of his crowded ancestral home and move closer to the ridge of the Mount of Olives to live alongside his children and grandchildren. He illegally added a two-floor frame atop the legal building.
The lower level of the addition has never been completed, while the upper floor was intended for himself and his wife, Naima, today 68. The four-floor building lacks an elevator, but a staircase from the road offers easy access to the spacious upper level.
The couple moved in in 2009. But a year earlier a municipal inspector noted the illegal addition. The municipality sent licensed real-estate appraiser Mordechai Alemelech to examine the unlicensed construction. Alemelech passed his photos and documentation on to Amir Hofshi, another professional appraiser, who determined that the two new floors, measuring 480 sq.m., were worth NIS 720,000. The case began to snake its way through the Russian Compound courtroom of Justice Ruth Zokhobetsky. On August 3, 2010, Hawa was convicted of building an addition without a requisite permit under Article 219 of the Building and Planning Code.
While prosecutor Hodiah Ben Noam has asked for a fine of double the assessed value and while Zokhobetsky proposed that the original NIS 720,000 be paid in 30 monthly installments of NIS 24,000, sentencing has been repeatedly postponed.
The hearing last July was adjourned when Hawa fainted in the courtroom.
The pensioner, who walks with difficulty and sometimes uses a cane or a wheelchair, explains that he suffers from poor circulation in his legs stemming from a work accident in 1986. He also has gout and diabetes and has been repeatedly hospitalized in recent months, his condition exacerbated by the stress of the threat of his home being demolished.
For Hawa and his three adult children who live in the building, the fine is an impossible sum to raise. He shows his most recent monthly pension from Bezeq – NIS 3,767. Both he and his wife receive some NIS 1,800 monthly from National Insurance.
Banks refuse to provide mortgages in east Jerusalem, Hawa continues. Nor would he consider selling one of the units in his family’s building to pay the fine, thus legalizing the entire structure.
More pointedly, Abu el-Hawa expresses disappointment that his many friends and colleagues in peace circles haven’t shown support. “I sent an email to everyone. But I didn’t see them in court. Where are the friends? Where is the help?” he laments.
Hawa offers his own suggestion. “I’d like to give the [unfinished] third floor to an orphanage or something, say for 10 years,” he suggests.
“There’s no way I can pay [the fine],” he shrugs. In a worst-case scenario, the court could rule that the illegal construction be demolished and that the defendant be forced to pay for the demolition of his own home.
“I’ll never let them do it,” Hawa states. “We’ll call for friends to demolish the two upper floors cinderblock by cinderblock. I don’t have money for bulldozers.”