Geopolitics

An East Jerusalem Neighborhood Is Both Political Powder Keg And Affordable Housing

While a housing crisis grips the rest of Israel, the 22,000 inhabitants of this East Jerusalem settlement enjoy affordable rents. The political price for the controversial project is not so easy to calculate.

View of the district of Har Homa (gnuckx)
View of the district of Har Homa (gnuckx)
Adrien Jaulmes

JERUSALEM - Seen from the outside, Har Homa looks like a white stony fortress on the top of a rocky hill. The buildings of this shiny new neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem wind in concentric turns. There is in fact just one entry, just like in a fortified castle.

Inside, one enters a small paradise of circular streets, kindergartens, cobblestones and well-placed giant planters. The scenery is strikingly gorgeous: overlooking the beige hills of the Judea desert, Bethlehem, and in the distance, the giant mole hill of the Herodium, the palace and necropolis of King Herod the Great. The center of Jerusalem is just 10 minutes away by bus or car.

All the inhabitants of Har Homa proudly declare that they are in Jerusalem.

In the big monopoly game led by the Israelis in Jerusalem, Har Homa is a symbolic property. It was built in the 1990's within the Greater Jerusalem's borders, whose extended limits were never recognized by the international community. Har Homa is also the symbol of the determination and tenacity of past Jerusalem city councils to construct a project on this piece of real estate as part of a longer-term goal of encircling East Jerusalem with Jewish districts. The envisioned network of neighborhoods would cut off Palestinian districts from the rest of the West Bank, and make it almost impossible to divide the city.

The example of Har Homa shows that the international community, especially the United States, is unable to oppose this aggressive, politically-driven urban planning. Like in all the controversial East Jerusalem settlements, the case of Har Homa is a political and real estate imbroglio. The project was launched on a hill nestled between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in woodlands of the occupied West Bank. The Israelis argue that these areas belonged to Jewish landlords that were expropriated during the West Bank occupation in 1948.

The fact remains that Har Homa has been built on the east side of the green line, the boundary drawn in the 1949 cease fire, and as such is considered a settlement by the international community. The fact that the Israeli left wing and the Palestinians mobilized against this project in the 1990's did not stop this building project from going ahead.

Build and build again

Today, Har Homa is a district of 22,000 inhabitants, and more new buildings are about to be finished.

Hertzl Ezechiel, who heads the local Har Homa governing council, was part of a wave of Israeli families who moved to the district in February 2002. He is also a staunchly religious Zionist: "I moved to Har Homa for ideological reasons, and to reinforce Jerusalem," he said. "This means bringing in more and more Jews -- and to build, build and build again."

In the 1990's, there was a mobilization against Har Homa led by Fayçal Husseini, then the top Jerusalem official of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). "Where did it lead? We carried on with the planning project, and today there are 22,000 residents," Ezechiel declares. "Israel must build in Jerusalem. In 2008, Condoleezza Rice opposed any new construction. We demonstrated against it to tell her that we are free to build wherever we want in Jerusalem, and that we are not afraid of anyone."

Ezechiel does also admit that he lives in the district because he can afford a bigger apartment there than elsewhere in Jerusalem. At different levels, residents here share these motivations for being in Har Homa. They are religious without being very orthodox; they are nationalists without being staunch activists like the settlers in Gush Etzion, the neighboring settlements. They are middle-class Israelis who don't see themselves as settlers.

According to Israeli authorities, Har Homa is truly connected to Jerusalem, and is therefore not affected by the settlement freeze.

The housing crisis Israel has faced over the past few years has recently reached a climax with demonstrations in several cities. "Here you have an excellent quality of life and an apartment is twice as cheap as in Jerusalem (proper)," says Ram-El Lavi, a real estate agent who arranges viewings in Har Homa. "It is a unique opportunity for young couples who otherwise could not afford to buy a flat in town."

However, the current buildings are almost full. "There are new projects," says Ram-El Lavi. "But they are on hold in order not to make the Americans angry."

Read the original article in French (subscription)

Photo - gnuckx

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ