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Palestinian family whose Jerusalem home was demolished moves into a cave

For much of the past seven years, Khalid Zir and his family called a makeshift tin shack in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan home. But now that Israeli authorities have demolished the hut, Zir has become even more desperate.

With no other housing options, Zir, his wife and five children have gathered their belongings and moved into a cave that used to serve as the family's stable.

"My house was demolished, and I was obliged to live here because I did not have any place to go to," said Zir, a 39-year-old maintenance worker. "I wanted to rent a house but there are no houses here for rent, because there are no licenses for us Arabs to build."

The family's odd plight highlights the tricky issue of home demolitions in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital. Israel says the matter is merely one of law and order and that it was the Jerusalem municipality's responsibility to crack down on zoning violations and illegal building. The local Arabs, however, see a more sinister agenda aimed at preventing them from growing while nearby Jewish settlements continue to expand.

Over the past decade, 448 homes of Arabs in east Jerusalem have been demolished, leaving 1,752 people homeless, according to data provided by the B'Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group. This year alone, 30 homes have been knocked down, leaving 80 homeless.

Many homes were like Zir's, dilapidated shacks near family plots that were built without permits.

In a statement, the Jerusalem municipality denied carrying out housing demolitions, saying it had simply "removed uninhabitable tin structures located in public property that is designated to become a national park. Thus, the area cannot be used for private residential purposes."

B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli said the city was within its rights to punish building violations but added that the issue has been "hijacked to promote the political agenda" of putting pressure on Palestinians to reduce their numbers in east Jerusalem.

Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, has ringed the area with Jewish settlements to cement its control. More than 200,000 Israelis now live in the areas, which the country considers neighborhoods of its capital. Palestinian residents say it is expensive and difficult to receive building permits, forcing them to build homes like Zir's. The international community does not recognize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem.

In the meantime, the Zir family is trying to make the best of a tough situation. They have moved some furniture, a refrigerator and a television into the cave and installed lighting. Zir walks over to his father's nearby home to shower.

But he says he has no plans of backing down.

"We are staying here," he said. "We are patient, we are going to stay here even in a cave, under the sun, the snow and the rain, we will stay here."