The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jerusalem demolitions gain pace under Netanyahu, enraging Palestinians

Israeli security forces stand guard after Israeli police demolished structures in the Jabal Mukaber neighborhood of East Jerusalem on Feb. 13. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)
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JERUSALEM — Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have for decades seethed under Israeli restrictions designed, residents say, to push them out of this disputed city. But for Mohammed Bashir, 25, life has now hit “below zero” as Israel’s new far-right government and especially its national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, have stepped up house demolitions and expulsions that could ignite the city just as violence is spreading in the occupied West Bank.

“Where do we go now?” asked Bashir, who watched bulldozers last week destroy two of his family’s homes, including the one where he lived, in the Jabal Mukaber neighborhood. “Life has no taste for people.”

This month, Ben Gvir, who first made a name for himself in the extremist settler movement, announced a “Bring Back Order” campaign in East Jerusalem targeting buildings constructed without permits — permits that are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain even while settlers are allowed to build freely.

Itamar Ben Gvir: How an extremist settler became a powerful Israeli minister

Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. After decades of state-sponsored settlement growth, about 200,000 Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem alongside 360,000 Palestinians. An additional half-million settlers live in the West Bank, home to 3 million Palestinians.

Since 1967, an estimated 58,000 settler homes have been built in East Jerusalem compared with just 600 Palestinian dwellings, according to Daniel Seidman, an Israeli lawyer specializing in Jerusalem.

Already in 2023, the rate of home and building demolitions is the highest in years, with 39 structures toppled just in the last month, according to data from the United Nation’s humanitarian agency.

Rights groups have denounced the demolitions as collective punishment of the Palestinians who make up one-third of Jerusalem. Thousands of Palestinians who lived with demolition orders for years, paying fines and lawyers as they struggled to legalize their homes, are now worried that under Ben Gvir their homes could be next.

“There is so much despair, so much frustration,” said Raed Bashir, a lawyer who represents Jabal Mukaber residents. “If the state keeps going like this, we are talking about a big explosion in Jabal Mukaber, Issawiya, Silwan, Shuafat, Sur Baher” and other embattled Palestinians neighborhoods. “They want to displace Palestinians from Jerusalem.”

On Sunday, Palestinians in East Jerusalem neighborhoods held a general strike to protest intensified police violence, arrests and demolitions carried out after a spate of deadly attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians in the capital.

“People don’t want a war,” the lawyer said, “but they feel it being forced on them.” The lone Palestinian who rammed his car into a settlement bus stop this month, killing an Israeli man and two children, came from the neighborhood of Issawiya. “Tomorrow you will hear about another attack in Jerusalem, and it will be because the people have no prospects, no hope in life.”

Escalating hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians could spiral into “explosions of violence” and a full-blown Palestinian uprising, CIA Director William J. Burns warned this month. He echoed the concerns of Israel’s security establishment weeks ahead of the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when tensions in Jerusalem are typically high.

It was two years ago, also just before Ramadan, that a police crackdown on demonstrations against Israeli settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Palestinian and affluent neighborhood in East Jerusalem, helped launch the largest protests in years and in part fueled the subsequent Israel-Gaza war.

This year, escalations in East Jerusalem’s impoverished and densely packed communities are happening in tandem with other highly combustible crises.

Settler violence is rising in the West Bank, even as the Israeli military carries out its campaign of deadly raids on Palestinian cities and villages. Israel says it is targeting militants, part of a new generation of armed groups forming in tandem with a deepening succession crisis in the Palestinian leadership.

Normally sleepy Jericho becomes hot spot in spiral of West Bank violence

Already in 2023, Israelis forces and settlers have killed nearly 50 Palestinians, both combatants and civilians, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — the highest rate in years. Some 11 Israelis have died during this period.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under international pressure to rein in Ben Gvir, who also wants to annex the entire West Bank. But, as the prime minister battles corruption charges, he needs his far-right minister’s support to pass a contentious overhaul of the judiciary that would weaken the case against him.

In a call Saturday with Netanyahu, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Washington’s support for a two-state solution — which many Israelis and Palestinians say is already no longer possible — and “opposition to policies that endanger its viability.”

Netanyahu gave Ben Gvir key policing powers as part of a fragile deal to return to office in late December. In the weeks since, the minister has bucked calls to de-escalate and also pushed to intensify arrests, fines, policing and other restrictions targeting Palestinians. He’s feuded with Israel’s police chief, criticizing him for not doing more in East Jerusalem and against anti-government protests.

Most Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens, but rather stateless permanent residents, a status that Israel can revoke if someone lives permanently outside the city. Palestinians say these administrative rules are designed to dispossess them and increase Jerusalem’s Jewish majority.

“They want it to be hard for us to live in Jerusalem and go live behind the wall,” said lawyer Bashir, referring to the separation barrier that walls off the West Bank.

To deter violence, Israel also demolishes the family homes of Palestinians who attack Israelis. The practice, defined as a collective punishment, violates international law, said Jessica Montell, executive director of the Jerusalem-based rights group HaMoked.

But part of Ben Gvir’s strategy has been “blurring the distinction” between administrative and punitive demolitions and using the violence to justify a harsher crackdown, she said.

“He is explicitly linking [permit-related demolitions] to punitive measures in the context of collective punishment against the whole Palestinian community in Jerusalem,” Montell said.

Israel has zoned Jabal Mukaber as part of a state park. About 62 homes are at risk of immediate demolition and several hundred people, more than half children, at risk of displacement. This month, under international pressure, Netanyahu ordered a temporary halt to the demolition of a neighborhood apartment building housing more than 100 people.

But the bulldozers still came to crush the home of Mohammed Bashir’s father and brother last week, and with it his dreams of raising a family there after his own house was demolished last year. Bashir, who runs a barbershop, left school at age 13 to work.

Clashes broke out last week as hundreds of Israeli troops arrived in the neighborhood before sunrise to carry out the order. About 30 people were injured, most by rubber bullets, Bashir said.

“We’ve gotten to the point where today was better than tomorrow,” he said.