Municipality ‘hiding’ house demolitions in e. J'lem

12:00 Jul 15 2012 east Jerusalem

By Melanie Lidma for Jerusalem Post

City councilor says policy of not counting "self-demolitions" makes it appear as though the practice has declined.

The Jerusalem Municipality has manipulated the statistics of housing demolitions in east Jerusalem to make it look like fewer are taking place, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

The policy of not including “self-demolitions” – where Arab families are threatened with staggering fines if they do not demolish their own houses – in the official count, has allowed Jerusalem to present a picture of a dramatic decrease in demolitions during Mayor Nir Barkat’s term.

In 2008, the municipality and the Interior Ministry carried out 102 housing demolitions in east Jerusalem. This decreased to 69 in 2009, 27 in 2010 and just 14 in 2011, according to statistics from the municipality, the ministry, B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions. But these statistics only account for the number of homes that authorities destroyed.

In 2000, the municipality began a policy of “self-demolitions.”

Since then, the demolition orders can require the owners of the house to pay exorbitant fines unless they carry out the demolitions themselves. Some Arab families chose this path, fearful they could become mired in debt.

A municipal spokesman said the self-demolitions were a result of the courts placing increasingly higher fines on repeat offenders, and that some people “preferred to demolish the buildings themselves rather than accrue additional fines.” He added that the municipality does not keep track of self-demolitions.

The municipality sees them as a “successful achievement in the enforcement and collection policy,” the spokesman said.

The number of self-demolitions rose from 18 in 2008 to 49 in 2009 and 70 in 2010, Margalit (Meretz), who holds the east Jerusalem portfolio. Margalit is one of the founders of the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions.

The revelation is especially significant ahead of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Israel next Monday. After a number of demolitions were announced during her first visit as secretary of state in March 2009, she publicly called housing demolitions in east Jerusalem “unhelpful.”

“Clinton said we can’t demolish homes, but she didn’t say anything about them demolishing their own homes,” Margalit said. “This way, it doesn’t show up on the statistics.”

“We were playing a joke on the Americans” by manipulating the statistics, Margalit said. “Someone thinks people are stupid, that Jews can always pull a fast one on the goyim, and they are causing huge damage to Israel.”

In response to a query from The Jerusalem Post on Thursday about Clinton’s stance and the subsequent manipulation of housing demolition numbers, a State Department official referred to a White House statement made in 2009.

“Neither party should engage in efforts or actions that could unilaterally preempt, or appear to preempt, negotiations,” it read. “We also object to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. Our position is clear: The status of Jerusalem is a permanent-status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties.”

The municipal spokesman said the decline in house demolitions was due to an improvement in ties between the city and Arab residents, as well as an increase in construction permits given to Arab residents.

The spokesman said the municipality approved 60 construction permits in east Jerusalem in 2011, up from just two in 2005. But, according to a recent housing report by left-wing Jerusalem research group Ir Amim, east Jerusalem Arabs need about 1,500 construction permits a year to accommodate population growth.

Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report from Washington.
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