When residents of Shuafat woke on 2 December to free-flowing traffic at the checkpoint where Israeli forces control movement to and from this overcrowded refugee camp, many were unnerved.
“We immediately knew that this was not a charitable gesture and that there was an ulterior motive,” Abdullah Alqam, a veteran local activist, told The Electronic Intifada.
And sure enough: that day hundreds of Israeli troops entered the Jerusalem-area camp. Hours later, the home of Ibrahim al-Akkari had been destroyed in accordance with a demolition order handed down by an Israeli court more than a year earlier.
The demolition — overseen by undercover forces disguised as civilians, as well as rooftop snipers — did not just destroy al-Akkari’s penthouse apartment and render his widow, Amira, and their five children homeless.
The explosion that ripped through the area severely damaged three other homes, leaving a further 14 people, including seven children, without roofs over their heads, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
It also evinced a little-commented-upon phenomenon in this current “intifada of the knives,” usually characterized as a series of “lone-wolf” attacks: a growing sense of communal cohesion among Palestinians.
It may be too soon to draw comparisons with the first Palestinian intifada. But communities are beginning to come together in ways reminiscent of the solidarity that defined the 1987-1993 uprising.
Many Palestinians have lamented the erosion of such communal solidarity following the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, the subsequent advent of the Palestinian Authority and the spread of nongovernmental organizations, all causing fundamental structural transformations in Palestinian society.
Act of spontaneous solidarity
The demolition of the al-Akkari home sparked an immediate response in the camp. Once the Israeli soldiers had cleared out, children and youths came instantly to remove the rubble and prepare to rebuild.
A committee to reconstruct the al-Akkari home and provide assistance for other families whose dwellings were damaged was established on the same day.
“We did not wait for organizations and parties to make promises; we wanted al-Akkari’s family, and all those damaged by the demolition, to know that they are not alone. This was a spontaneous act carried out by the people, not organizations,” Shahir Alqam, spokesperson for the campaign, said.
A fundraising campaign raised within two days some 100,000 shekels ($25,000), according to the independent grassroots youth movement in the camp that organized the drive.
What stood out about the campaign was not so much the amount it raised, but the community response. This was not organized by a charity or nongovernmental organization — it was an act of spontaneous solidarity.
Amira al-Akkari was not too surprised.
“Perhaps I was only surprised by how quickly they reacted to support us. We knew that the entire camp was with us,” she said.
Punitive home demolitions
Residents of Shuafat had come together several times over the past year to thwart Israeli attempts at demolishing the house.
The demolition order was handed down after Ibrahim al-Akkari — a salesman, his family’s sole breadwinner, and a refugee displaced in 1948 from what is now called West Jerusalem — was shot dead after his car hit a group of people at a light rail stop in Jerusalem in November 2014, killing an Israeli soldier. A Palestinian man later died of his injuries.
Israel deemed it an incident of vehicular homicide and a court ordered the family home destroyed in accordance with its policy of punishing Palestinian families for the actions of their relatives.
Collective punishment measures like punitive home demolitions, used by Israel against Palestinians but never Jews, are illegal under international law and the practice has come under protest by the United Nations and human rights groups.
According to B’Tselem, since October 2015, 26 homes have been either destroyed or sealed and rendered out of bounds to their inhabitants.
Two people were killed last month when Israeli forces raided Qalandiya refugee camp on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah to carry out a demolition order.
Despite the Israeli military’s own admission in 2005 that such punitive measures are counterproductive to deterring attacks, the courts resurrected the practice in 2014 after it had been discontinued for several years.
Palestinian communities have resisted the orders from being carried out.
In the days that followed the order against the al-Akkari home, Israeli occupation forces tried on several occasions to enter Shuafat camp. Each time they were rebuffed by camp youths armed only with stones and Molotov cocktails who had erected barricades and were supported by others from neighboring Anata village.
The demolition attempts stopped for a while but resumed with a vengeance in October of this year as Israeli aggressions on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound met with increased Palestinian resistance and in turn a harsh military and police crackdown.
On 8 October, after a resident, Subhi Abu Khalifa, had been detained as a suspect in a stabbing incident, Israeli forces once again pounced on the camp. The assault prompted 48 hours of clashes that left two residents dead.
Wissam Faraj, a cleaner, was killed in clashes next to the Abu Khalifa home on the first night of confrontations. On 10 October, Ahmad Salah was shot and wounded and witnesses said paramedics were prevented from reaching him before he died in the street.
Yet again, Israeli forces were rebuffed. This time, however, the military imposed draconian restrictions on movement in and out of the camp, preventing people from getting to their places of work, study or worship.
Residents understood that they were being made an example of. They had defied Israel. Now they were all being punished.
But rather than cow residents, Israel’s punitive measures only appear to have stiffened resolve in the camp.
“The message that the camp conveyed is that those who resist should not fear the demolition of their home,” said Yassin Sbeih, a teacher and activist. He said the camp’s response should be replicated in all villages and neighborhoods where home demolitions have been carried out.
“Shuafat refugee camp paid with blood to support the Palestinian resistance during the first and second intifadas and in the current one. Of course, we will not hesitate to pay with our money, too,” said Abdullah Alqam.
“We showed that despite all the attempts to break the spirit of the camp, to punish it, the threats to revoke our residency, we will not turn our back on the resistance,” he added, referring to Israel’s moves to strip Palestinians of their right to live in Jerusalem.
In a video filmed by Shuafat resident Hisham Abu Sninah following the Akkari home demolition, one young camp resident struck a defiant note.
“If they demolish, we rebuild,” he said, a rallying cry that is reverberating in Shuafat.
Amira al-Akkari also echoed the sentiment. The widow and her five children — the oldest of whom is 14 — have been provided with a temporary residence until the reconstruction of their home is complete.
“Even after they had demolished our home and forced me and my children to go through this, I am still proud of Ibrahim and totally respect his decision,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “Those home demolitions will not stop the resistance.”