In the Moredechai Richler novel, while growing up in the heart of Montreal’s Jewish ghetto, Duddy Kravitz is obsessed with his grandfather’s saying, ‘A man without land is nothing.’
Here in the Middle East, in this land of the Torah, the Bible and the Koran there are stories of families and villages where houses and land were bartered for two chickens. Those were simpler times.
In February of this year in Israel, I arrived in the Upper Galilee Village of al-Bea’neh a few hours after it had been under siege during a house demolition. In its wake, it left over twenty injured, five houses destroyed, the uprooting of an olive grove and dozens of kindergarten students traumatized by the effects of tear gas. For a period of time, ambulances were refused entry to the village area.
This happened a few months before Land Day, near the Iron Triangle where the three neighbouring villages of Sakhnin, Arabeh and Dirhana witnessed the clash between villagers and police on March 30th, 1976 when Israeli forces confiscated 22,000 dunams in the villages of the Galilee and considered them as closed military zones and later carried out intensive settlement acts in the area. The confrontations that erupted as a result of Israeli government policy claimed the lives of 6 Arab citizens, 96 were wounded and another 300 arrested.
Arriving in al-Bea’neh the next day, I saw the old man whose home had been torn down beginning to replant new olive trees. Despite the beatings, there was this sense of optimism, regeneration and a sense of the community coming together to respond in a productive way.
In the village council office, they discussed the brutal Israeli policy of home demolitions over Arabic coffee and Gauloise cigarettes before setting off on a 2,000 person demonstration with the residents. On the table were tear gas canisters used by the police the day before which were clearly marked that they had been manufactured in the United States.According to the Arab Association for Human Rights Report, resident Salah Mohammed Saleh al-Dhabbah needed surgery to his skull due to a fracture caused by a policeman who hit him over the head. Another resident had internal bleeding in the eye, broken ribs and a broken nose. By declaring one section a ‘restricted zone,’ the military gave authorization to its forces to use violence indiscriminately. This resulted in the beatings of several residents unconnected to the house demolition.
More than 3,000 homes, agricultural land and other properties have been destroyed by Israeli security forces in Israel and the Occupied Territories in the past three and a half years according to Amnesty International.
Placed within the context of the Or Commission report which followed the deaths of thirteen Arab citizens in October 2000, there is widespread concern about how the police culture discriminates against its Arab citizens. And certainly at every home demolition, in carrying out the state’s policies this culture is on display both within Israel and the Occupied Territories.
This policy of land dispossession administered by bulldozer has a long history. Home demolitions being carried out today in the Galilee, the Negev, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza are exacting a heavy toll largely outside the gaze of the international community. According to Amnesty International, over 3,000 homes, vast areas of agricultural land and hundreds of other properties have been destroyed by the Israeli army and security forces in Israel since October 2000. Home demolitions in tandem with the state assassination policy are the more violent examples of Israeli state policies implemented to address security needs. There is a growing belief that these tactics used in the name of defending state security are disproportionate to the threat posed by both Palestinians and Arab citizens within Israel.
Selective permitting, restrictive planning regulations in the Arab sector and discriminatory policies in the allocation of state land all contribute to a toxic environment which perpetuates itself and is unfortunately carried out in state policy.
In the case of unlicensed houses, restrictive approval processes lead to many people making the decision to build without a permit. In the case of houses destroyed for security needs, the actions of the military in carrying out demolition orders is disproportionate to the threat posed by such buildings. In fact, the collateral human damage caused by carrying out these policies magnifies and perpetuates the systemic dysfunction in the region.
American International Solidarity Movement human rights activist Rachel Corrie was killed during a home demolition in Rafah in March 2003 by a Caterpillar bulldozer used as part of the military operation. Though Israel has ruled it an accident, the US government is considering an investigation.
In March 2003, a mother of ten children who was nine months pregnant was killed in her bed in the middle of the night when her home collapsed while Israeli soldiers blew up a neighbouring house. Residents of Jenin, Nablus, East Jerusalem, villages along the Separation Wall and in Gaza cities like Rafah are particularly targeted.
In the Negev, the Bedouin population already reeling from lack of access to basic services such as water, sewage, electricity, education and health care are faced with regular home demolitions, chemical spraying of arable lands and the possible passage of the Removal of Intruders Law which would streamline the legal process to remove them from their lands.
All of this is happening under the watchful eye of the United States, the EU and the UN in contravention of international law and UN resolutions. There is a feeling that the international power brokers need a more credible framework to hold Israel and its neighbouring countries accountable for their human rights records.
Am Johal is a freelance writer currently working in international advocacy with the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel. He is currently working on building international pressure against the Citizenship Law which denies Israeli citizenship to residents of the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli citizens.