The NGOs, Demolition of Illegal Building in Jerusalem, and International Law

By Justus Reid Weiner

Various nongovernmental organizations accuse Israel of abusing the Arab population of East Jerusalem by demolishing their illegally built (unli censed) homes. NGOs claim to be acting as the worlds conscience and proclaim the objectivity and accuracy of their reports. Using the idiom of international law, these NGOs have inflicted lasting damage on Israels reputation. They accuse the Jerusalem municipality of having different standards for house demolitions as between Arab and Jewish neighbor hoods. The general public, unable to decipher the legal jargon in the NGOs' criticisms, tends to assume that they are credible.

Does Israel breach the human rights of the Arab residents of East Jerusalem by demolishing their illegally built structures? At issue here are the laws and facts underpinning the NGOs' accusations; whether the NGOs make proper use of the Fourth Geneva Convention and other instruments of conventional and customary international law; and the extent to which these NGOs adhere to their proclaimed standards of accuracy, objectivity, and political independence.

In 1947 the UN General Assembly voted on a plan to divide the British Mandate of Palestine into two neighboring countries? one Arab and the other Jewish, with Jerusalem being a separate international entity. This partition plan was accepted by the Jewish leadership but rejected outright by their Arab counterparts. Wars followed, first in 1948, which ended with an armistice in which the city was divided into Israeli and Jordanian sectors. Thereafter, the 1967 War resulted in the reunification of the city under Israeli control. Israel announced the whole of unified Jerusalem as its eternal capital. Ever since then the Palestinian Arab leadership has boycotted the Israeli administration of East Jerusalem. Many NGOs have played a central role in the struggle for the city.

The notion of NGOs fighting for human rights evokes an almost romantic picture of the underdog heroes fighting an inherently evil tyrant on behalf of the helpless and oppressed. But is such a perception valid in regard to the NGOs' efforts to condemn Israel's demolition of illegal buildings in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods?