Israelis demolish Palestinians' homes

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The Independent Online
THE BULLDOZER took just a few minutes yesterday to turn the house of Maher Izzat Hassan, a Palestinian taxi-driver living on the outskirts of Jerusalem, into a heap of concrete rubble. He said: "I did not know the Israelis were going to demolish it until they came this morning."

On the other side of the narrow valley of Isawiya, just below the Hebrew University, another bulldozer, closely guarded by Israeli soldiers, was tearing apart the house of Abdul Razaq as-Sheikh, a 35-year-old building worker. By the time it had finished, the only things left standing were three small green plants he had recently planted outside the door of his home.

As news of the house demolitions in Isawiya spread among the 155,000 Palestinians who live in Jerusalem, many said that they feared their own homes would be next. Israeli authorities routinely deny Palestinians building permits, so whole neighbourhoods have been built illegally. Demolition orders have already been served on 850 houses.

These are the final weeks of the Israeli election campaign and Palestinians are frightened that they are seeing the start of a wave of demolitions designed to show Israeli voters that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, is strengthening Israel's grip on Jerusalem.

"It is all to do with the elections," said Ziyad Abu Humus, whose own house is under threat of destruction. "Maybe the bulldozers will come for my house soon."

Danny Seidmann, an Israeli human rights lawyer, agrees. After watching the destruction of the houses in Isawiya, he said: "The timing of this is not accidental. Another five demolitions are planned for tomorrow. Netanyahu is basing his campaign on the defence of Jerusalem, so these poor unfortunate people lose the roof over their heads." Mr Seidmann added that tensions were already high among Palestinians and a single spark could cause an explosion.

For the moment, people in Isawiya, most of whose houses are under threat, look apprehensive rather than politically militant. "They don't give permission for people to build so we don't know what to do," lamented Latifa Dorbas, as she tried to salvage the furniture of one house.

Pressure on Palestinians in Jerusalem has intensified over the past five years. Since 1993, when the Oslo accords were signed, those living on the West Bank - often within sight of the city - have not been able to enter it without a permit. The value of a Jerusalem identity card has thus been increased, but the Israeli Interior Ministry began a campaign to withdraw these three years ago and has so far confiscated 2,179, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem. This has had the effect of forcing more Palestinians to come back into Jerusalem because they fear losing their residency rights.

Why these rights matter is explained by the case of Fayez Zeitawi, a Palestinian from Jerusalem who was knifed earlier in the year, apparently by a Jewish serial stabber. His hospital fees were about pounds 11,200. But his right to reside in Jerusalem was withdrawn in 1998 and with it his right to health insurance. He will have to pay his medical expenses himself.

The daily Haaretz newspaper notes that "as a Palestinian [Mr Zeitawi] cannot be recognised as the victim of terrorist activity".

In addition to trying to reduce the number of Palestinians in the West Bank, the government is rapidly increasing the number of Jewish settlements and settlers in the area. United States satellite photographs reveal that Mr Netanyahu has built 12 new settlements on hilltops since the Wye Plantation accords with the Palestinians - now frozen - were brokered by the US President, Bill Clinton, last October. Another six settlements were built immediately before the Wye meeting.

Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, told Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Foreign Minister, that the new settlements break an explicit Israeli promise to the US not to build new settlements or expand existing ones. In the past three years the number of settlers on the West Bank has risen from 150,000 to 180,000. Housing starts in the settlements last year were up 105 per cent, compared with only 20 per cent in Israel.

New access roads are designed to carve up the territory, isolating Palestiniansand making it more and more difficult on the ground for Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, ever to establish a Palestinian state.