Hashem Jalajel was living in a bucolic, cave-pocked valley outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City when Israeli troops wrested the area from Jordanian control in the 1967 Middle East War.
The new Israeli authorities deemed his one-story home legal. But as Jalajel’s family grew with the valley’s Arab population, new homes went up without permits and the area became a focal point in the struggle for control of Jerusalem, which lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Today the 80-year-old patriarch, his extended family and nearly 1,500 neighbors face eviction from their homes in the bustling urban neighborhood so that the municipal government can raze the buildings and expand an archaeological site devoted to Jewish history. Residents of the area, part of the Silwan district, are fighting back peacefully in the streets and the Israeli courts.
The dispute is an early test for the Obama administration as it tries to foster peace in the region. Visiting Israel and the West Bank this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the demolition plan was “unhelpful” and a violation of Israel’s international obligation to refrain from encroachment on disputed land.
If carried out, the plan would cause the largest swath of demolitions in East Jerusalem since its postwar annexation by Israel, which has not been internationally recognized.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat called Clinton’s criticism “a lot of hot air” and said the U.S. was trying to interfere with his authority to control zoning and his plans to promote tourism.
“If you build illegal houses, you pay the consequences,” he told a group of American correspondents, saying he had expressed that view personally to Clinton. “I expect people to obey the law.”
The experience of three generations of Jalajels, however, sheds light on the complex and volatile realities that make any Israeli-Palestinian turf battle here much more than a legal issue. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of an independent state for them; the mayor and the right-wing Likud party, which is expected to lead the next government, insist on keeping all of Jerusalem under Israeli control.
Jalajel, a retired Jordanian army officer and construction worker, has four sons. When they married and started families, they began applying in the 1970s for permits to build new homes on their half-acre plot.
By then Israeli authorities had become concerned about the rise in Arab population, perceived as a threat to their rule, and had set a goal to limit the number of Arabs in Jerusalem to about one-fourth of the city’s population. Jalajel’s building requests were denied.
He built anyway, adding a floor to the original structure and erecting two other buildings on the property. When his grandchildren married and started families, some of them, too, applied for building permits and were rejected. And like their grandfather and fathers, they built anyway, adding a third floor to the original house and a second floor to one of the others.
The family says it has paid more than $17,000 in fines to stave off demolition of the three buildings, carved into nine apartments for 48 Jalajels.
The same thing has happened elsewhere across East Jerusalem. City Hall made it almost impossible for Arabs to build legally, so they built illegally. Today Arabs make up a bit more than one-third of the city’s 752,000 residents.
As negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s core issues have stalled, the struggle over Jerusalem has played out in skirmishes over eviction orders, fines, demolitions and illegal rebuilding.
In 2005, authorities moved to raze 88 homes in Silwan’s disputed section, which Jews call the King’s Valley in tribute to the biblical David, who is said to have settled there. The government designated the area as part of the City of David archaeological park.
But City Hall backed off that year after Jalajel and other residents mobilized the support of leftist Israeli lawmakers, human rights activists and the Bush administration. Silwan residents then applied for city permits to keep their houses.
After Barkat’s mayoral election in November the application was turned down. Demolition orders have been reissued and city inspectors have visited some condemned homes to take photographs and measurements.
Residents said they were summoned to a meeting with city officials last month and told that they would be offered housing elsewhere before bulldozers destroyed their homes. Jalajel said even the original ground floor of his home is targeted for demolition.
“There is no way we will allow this to happen,” the patriarch declared, seated in the unpermitted third floor of his home and breathing with the help of a respirator. He suffers from severe asthma and speaks with great difficulty.
“We have lived here for centuries,” he rasped. “I inherited this land from my father, who inherited it from his father. I lived here all my life. Do they think they can just come and uproot me just like that to put a Jew in my place?”
Several blocks from his home, a tent pitched by residents has become a protest headquarters. At midday prayers there Friday, Sheik Ekrima Sabri, a former mufti of Jerusalem’s Muslim community, urged the residents to hold on to the land at all costs.
Within sight of the protest tent is a large Israeli flag draped from a residential building, one of several fortified enclaves for Jewish families that seek to challenge East Jerusalem’s mainly Palestinian character.
Barkat supports the expansion of such settlements, although he says the land to be cleared in Silwan will be uninhabited green space, not a neighborhood for Jews.
He says the park, which is being developed by a foundation associated with Jewish settlers, is a historical attraction that will serve his effort to draw millions more tourists to Jerusalem.
In the meeting with American correspondents, Barkat acknowledged the need for better city services in East Jerusalem, better planning and easier permits for building there.
“However,” he added, “it is not an excuse for people to build illegally.”
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater contributed to this report.