Pressure continues to mount on Israel to honor its commitments on West Bank settlement construction by dismantling illegally-built structures and halting new ones. It’s not going smoothly.
The latest critic to pile on the Jewish state is Dorit Beinisch, chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court. Beinisch ripped into the Israeli Defense Ministry during an October 28 hearing for repeatedly failing to carry out existing demolition orders and offering a shifting array of excuses. The court was hearing initial arguments in a suit filed by human rights groups over nine homes built in Ofra, a settlement near Ramallah, on privately-owned Palestinian property.
According to a Ynet report on the hearing, government representatives acknowledged that the homes were built illegally on private Palestinian property and are under court order for demolition. The government representatives told the justices that the decision to delay carrying out court orders had been made by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, because of the delicacy of the timing. Barak, alert readers will recall, is the embattled Labor Party leader who brought his party into the Netanyahu coalition, over the objections of most of his Knesset caucus, in order to protect the peace process.
“The court is aware, I’m sure, of the ongoing political process,” Barak’s adviser on settlement affairs, Eitan Broshi, told the justices, according to Ynet. “The defense minister has been wracking his brain with this question and we ask the court’s understanding on the matter.”
Beinisch’s reply: “You say ‘priorities,’ but there is no implementation of priorities. Illegality is being ignored. Ofra isn’t the first instance. There are so many cases up in the air. The impression is that you changed your position about your willingness to demolish.”
Associate Justice Ayala Procaccia added her own criticism of the government’s inaction, saying that “When there are allegations of stolen land, that has to be at the top of the list.”
Happily, the Forward can report that Israel is not entirely ignoring illegal construction in the areas captured in 1967. This week alone authorities demolished at least six illegal structures, a record five of them on a single day, October 27. It must be said that the added alacrity shown in this week’s demolitions might be connected to the fact that they involved Arab homes in traditionally Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The homes were demolished because they had been built “without proper construction permits,” in the words of municipal officials quoted in the Jerusalem Post.
The demolitions are part of a growing trend that could threaten the stability not only of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, but of Jewish homes in West Jerusalem and throughout Israel, as we’ll explain after the jump.
The sixth demolition took place the following day and involved a protest tent put up by Nasser Ghawi and his family across the street from their former home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The Ghawis and a neighboring family, the Hanouns, had been evicted August 2 after Israeli courts upheld a claim by Jewish families that they owned the surrounding property before the city was divided in 1948. Two Jewish groups, the Sephardic Community Committee and Nahalat Shimon International, have been fighting in courts for years to reclaim pre-1948 properties in East Jerusalem, and Jewish and Arab advocates alike are predicting more evictions in the months ahead.
The growing pace of Arab home demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem has become a source of serious new U.S.-Israeli tension, including an unusual State Department diplomatic rebuke to Israel’s ambassador and a public protest by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the worst is still ahead, according to the Murdoch-owned Sky News.
More worrying, some Israelis are warning (here and here, for example) that successful Jewish efforts to reclaim East Jerusalem property lost in 1948 are setting a dangerous precedent that could open the door to thousands of claims by Arab families to property they lost in 1948 in West Jerusalem and perhaps the rest of Israel.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).