JERUSALEM — Muhammad Sandouka built his home in the shadow of the Temple Mount before his second son, now 15, was born.
They demolished it together, after Israeli authorities decided that razing it would improve views of the Old City for tourists.
Sandouka, 42, a countertop installer, had been at work when an inspector confronted his wife with two options: Tear the house down, or the government would not only level it but also bill the Sandoukas $10,000 for its expenses.
Such is life for Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation: always dreading the knock at the front door.
The looming removal of six Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem set off a round of protests that helped ignite the latest war between Israel and Gaza. But to the roughly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and has controlled through decades of failed peace talks, the story was exceptional only because it attracted an international spotlight.
For the most part, they endure the frights and indignities of the Israeli occupation in obscurity.
If the eviction dispute in East Jerusalem struck a match, the occupation’s provocations ceaselessly pile up dry kindling. They are a constant and key driver of the conflict, giving Hamas an excuse to fire rockets or lone-wolf attackers grievances to channel into killings by knives or automobiles. And the provocations do not stop when the fighting ends.
Home on the Edge
No homeowner welcomes a visit from the code-enforcement officer. But it’s entirely different in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians find it nearly impossible to obtain building permits and most homes were built without them: The penalty is often demolition.
Sandouka grew up just downhill from the Old City’s eastern ramparts, in the valley dividing the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives.
At 19, he married and moved into an old addition onto his father’s house, then began expanding it. New stone walls tripled the floor area. He laid tile, hung drywall and furnished a cozy kitchen. He spent around $150,000.
Children came, six in all. Ramadan brought picnickers to the green valley. The kids played host, delivering cold water or hot soup. His wife prepared feasts of maqluba (chicken and rice) and mansaf (lamb in yogurt sauce). He walked with his sons up to Al-Aqsa, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
In 2016, city workers posted an address marker over Sandouka’s gate. It felt like legitimation.
But Israel was drifting steadily rightward. The state parks authority fell under the influence of settlers, who seek to expand Jewish control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Citing an old plan for a park encircling the Old City, the authority set about clearing one unpermitted house after another.
Now it was Sandouka’s turn.
Plans showed a corner of the house encroaching on a future tour-bus parking lot.
Zeev Hacohen, an authority official, said erasing Sandouka’s neighborhood was necessary to restore views of the Old City “as they were in the days of the Bible.”
“The personal stories are always painful,” he allowed. But the Palestinian neighborhood, he said, “looks like the Third World.”
Sandouka hired a lawyer and prayed. But he was at work a few months ago when someone knocked on his door again. This time, his wife told him, crying, it was a police officer.
The Night Raid
The knock at the door is not always just a knock.
Badr Abu Alia, 50, was awakened around 2 a.m. by the sounds of soldiers breaking into his neighbor’s home in Al Mughrayyir, a village on a ridge in the West Bank.
When they got to his door, a familiar ritual ensued: His children were rousted from bed. Everyone was herded outside. The soldiers collected IDs, explained nothing and ransacked the house. They left two hours later, taking with them a teenager from next door, blindfolded.
He had taken part in a protest four days earlier, when an Israeli sniper shot and killed a teenager who was wandering among the rock-throwers and spent tear-gas canisters.
Abu Alia seethed as he described seeing his son outside in the dark, “afraid, crying because of the soldiers, and I can do nothing to protect him.”
“It makes you want to take revenge, to defend yourself,” he went on. “But we have nothing to defend ourselves with.”
Stone-throwing must suffice, he said. “We can’t take an M-16 and go kill every settler. All we have are those stones. A bullet can kill you instantly. A little stone won’t do much. But at least I’m sending a message.”
Settlers send messages, too. They have cut down hundreds of Al Mughrayyir’s olive trees — vital sources of income and ties to the land — torched a mosque, vandalized cars. In 2019, one was accused of fatally shooting a villager in the back. The case remains open.
Violence is often sudden and brief. But the nagging dread it instills can be just as debilitating.
Nael al-Azza, 40, is haunted by the Israeli checkpoint he must pass through while commuting between his home in Bethlehem and his job in Ramallah.
At home, he lives behind walls and cultivates a lush herb and vegetable garden in the backyard. But nothing protects him on his drive to work, not even his position as a manager in the Palestinian firefighting and ambulance service.
Recently, he said, a soldier at the checkpoint stopped him, told him to roll down his window, asked if he had a weapon. He said no. She opened his passenger door to take a look, then slammed it shut, hard.
He wanted to object. But he stopped himself, he said: Too many confrontations with soldiers end with Palestinians being shot.
“If I want to defend my property and my self-respect, there’s a price for that,” he said.
His commute is a 14-mile trip as the crow flies, but a 33-mile route, because Palestinians are diverted in a wide loop around Jerusalem along a tortuous two-lane road of steep switchbacks. Even so, it ought to take less than an hour — but often takes two or three, because of the checkpoint.
The Israelis consider the checkpoint essential to search for fleeing attackers or illegal weapons or to cut the West Bank in two in case of unrest. Palestinians call it a choke point that can be shut off on a soldier’s whim. It is also a friction point, motorists and soldiers each imagining themselves as the other’s target.
Muhammad Sandouka earns about $1,800 in a good month. He hoped the lawyer could quash the demolition order. “I thought they would just give us a fine,” he said.
Then he got another panicked call from home: “The police were there, making my family cry.”
Khalas, he said. Enough. He would tear it down himself.
Early on a Monday, his sons took turns with a borrowed jackhammer. They almost seemed to be having fun, like wrecking a sand castle.
Finished, their moods darkened. “It’s like we’re lighting ourselves on fire,” said Mousa, 15.
“They want the land,” said Muataz, 22. “They want all of us to leave Jerusalem.”
When all was rubble, Sandouka lit a cigarette and held it with three beefy fingers as it burned. His pants filthy with the dust of his family’s life together, he climbed atop the debris, sent photos to the police and contemplated his options.