Since April 2019, the Israel Police has been engaged in a campaign of abuse and collective punishment against the neighborhood of al-‘Esawiyah in East Jerusalem. The operation continues, despite social distancing restrictions announced by the government, putting local residents in danger.
One of the poorest neighborhoods in Jerusalem, al-‘Esawiyah lies on the eastern slopes of the Mount Scopus ridge, hemmed in by an array of Israeli institutions, Jewish neighborhoods, military bases and roads built on its land. The neighborhood is estimated to have 22,000 residents, and its population density is 3.5 times the average population density in Jerusalem.
This report covers various aspects of Israel’s policy that have together created the harsh living conditions in the neighborhood. While this abusive policy is employed in other Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Al-’Esawiyah is a particularly glaring example.
- Land grab: Since occupying the West Bank in 1967, Israel has taken over more than 90% of al-’Esawiyah’s land using expropriation, declaration of “state land” and military seizure. Some of this land was annexed shortly after the occupation. In 1945, al-‘Esawiyah land spanned some 10,000 dunams – from the Mount Scopus ridge to the area of Khan al-Ahmar in the east. Today, residents have access to less than 1,000 dunams, locked in by Israeli institutes and neighborhoods – the Hebrew University, Hadassah Mount Scopus Medical Center, the neighborhoods of French Hill and Tzameret Habira, military and police bases and roads. Most of this area is densely built, and there are hardly any land reserves for construction.Of all the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that Israel has eaten away at since occupying the West Bank, nowhere have the authorities benefited more from the land grab than in al-‘Esawiyah. The landgrab, always for the needs of the Jewish public, has robbed al-’Esawiyah’s residents any chance of benefitting from their land, and it is one of the key factors for their poverty.
- A no-planning policy: Ever since al-‘Esawiyah was annexed to the municipal borders of Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities have gone to considerable lengths to prevent any construction or development in the neighborhood. For instance, they have avoided drawing up an adequate outline plan for al-‘Esawiyah and blocked an independent plan drawn up by the residents in collaboration with Israeli NGO Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights. The current outline plan, approved only in 1991, 24 years after al-’Esawiyah was annexed to the Jerusalem municipal boundaries, did not allow significant construction in the first place and appears to be mostly meant to limit building and development possibilities in the neighborhood.Obviously, the absence of a proper outline plan has not made the real need for housing disappear. Left with no choice, many residents build homes without permits. This sentences them to a life of uncertainty, under constant threat of demolition or of fines amounting to hundreds of thousands of shekels (The exchange rate at the time of writing was 3.5 NIS per 1 USD). More than half of the apartments in the neighborhood, upwards of 2,000, were built without a permit. The municipality uses this reality, of its own creation, as an excuse not to build public institutions or develop and maintain infrastructure. It has even found a way to profit off this situation by imposing fines for illegal building, adding millions of shekels to its coffers over the years.
- The campaign of abuse and collective punishment: For more than a year now, the Israel Police has engaged in a violent campaign in al-’Esawiyah. Special Patrol Unit and Border Police forces regularly enter the neighborhood for no reason, without any prior occurrence that could justify police presence, much less the presence of aggressive paramilitary forces on such a large scale. Special Patrol Unit and Border police officers, armed from head to toe enter the neighborhood with vans, jeeps and drones and intentionally create arbitrary instances of violent “friction” that disrupt routine and make daily life extremely difficult in the neighborhood. Among other things, they randomly close off main streets, creating long traffic jams; use loudspeakers on patrol cars and police vehicles late at night; provoke residents by aiming weapons at them; conduct degrading inspections and search cars and bags (including children’s schoolbags); verbally goad residents; order shops to shut down for no apparent reason, without showing a warrant; use dogs to search shops; raid homes and search them without a warrant; and falsely arrest minors (sometimes in the middle of the night), in severe violation of their rights. Initially, regular police officers also patrolled the neighborhood, took up positions at exit points and ticketed drivers, business owners and passers-by for negligible infractions.
Just as the police expected, these violent provocations elicited reactions from local residents, the “disturbances of the peace” the police uses to retroactively justify the entire operation. These reactions include throwing stones, hurling Molotov cocktails and setting off firecrackers. The Special Patrol Unit and Border Police officers fire tear-gas canisters, stun grenades and black sponge rounds at residents and beat them. According to the community leadership, from the beginning of the operation through January 2020, some 300 neighborhood residents have been injured as a result of the violent police activity. The police has also falsely arrested several neighborhood leaders.
The ongoing, violent police operation in al-‘Esawiyah throws into relief what Israel has already made clear regarding the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem: as occupier, it sees the people who live there as no more than subjects who can be treated as it wishes. Israel’s policy regarding these neighborhoods is driven by its goal to take over as much land as possible and expand its control as far as it can – utterly ignoring the harsh consequences for residents, which include extreme poverty, unbearably crowded living conditions and planning chaos.
Since annexing East Jerusalem, Israel has viewed the Palestinians who live there as an unwanted addition. The policy it implements in these neighborhoods – which is particularly blatant in al-‘Esawiyah – is aimed at incessantly pressuring the residents. In the short term, this is meant to oppress Palestinians in the city, control them and keep them poor, underprivileged and in a state of constant anxiety. Given Israel’s declared intention to ensure a Jewish demographic supremacy in Jerusalem, the long-term goal of this cruel policy appears to be to drive Palestinians to breaking point, so that they “choose” to desert their homes and leave the city.
This conduct clearly demonstrates the demographic considerations that guide Israel’s actions: preferring Jewish citizens over unwanted Palestinian residents. Accordingly, the Israeli authorities incessantly harass the entire Palestinian population of Jerusalem, including the blatant example reviewed in this report: the 22,000 people who live in al-‘Esawiyah. This abuse, which is the result of an ongoing policy led by all Israeli governments since 1967, lays bare Israel’s priorities in the only part of the West Bank it has – as yet – taken the trouble to formally annex: no equality, no rights, and not even reasonable municipal services. Instead, state authorities use their power in the annexed territory to cement the superiority of one group over another.