Israel’s weapon of house demolitions

Israeli Yamam police invade the home of Abu Majed Eisha in Beit Hanina. (Jill Shaw)

The four-story building in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood a few miles north of East Jerusalem, was clearly home to wealth. As our carload of internationals pulled up the small street leading to Abu Majed Eisha’s house at around midnight on 27 July, I noticed several BMWs parked along the way. Upon exiting the car, we were greeted by a number of middle-aged Palestinian men in suits, asking us if we were there about the house demolition. From what I had learned during my brief time in the West Bank, Palestine, I knew already that this was not going to be an ordinary house demolition.

And what exactly is an “ordinary” home demolition in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories? According to Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) founder, Jeff Halper, house demolitions are one of Israel’s main weapons in its occupation of Palestine. Sadly, this extraordinary and devastating phenomenon is not at all uncommon to Palestinians. ICAHD, an Israeli group whose primary mission is to resist Israel’s practice of home demolitions, states that 18,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel since 1967. Additionally, another 22,000 East Jerusalem homes have demolition orders on them. This does not include the thousands of homes with demolition orders throughout the rest of the West Bank.

The reason for the destruction? Quite simply, the houses don’t have permits. And without a permit, your house is illegal, and therefore subject to demolition. It is this bureaucratic logic that gives Israel’s practice of bulldozing Palestinian homes a veneer of legitimacy, for, after all, only “illegal” houses are demolished. Look a bit further, however, and it quickly becomes apparent that building permits are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain, so in fact, any new growth homes are usually illegal.

During my two weeks’ participation in ICAHD’s summer rebuilding program, I heard the same story repeated countless times from Palestinian residents of Anata, another East Jerusalem neighborhood. Anata reminded me of photos of Afghanistan, marked as it was by piles of rubble and half-demolished homes. Surrounded by this landscape, Palestinians told of spending thousands of dollars over a period of years applying for building permits with the Israeli authorities, only to be denied repeatedly. Reasons for denial range from the illogical to the outright absurd: permits were denied because the land was zoned for agricultural purposes, though the land was pure desert. In other cases, permits were withheld because the land was on an inappropriately steep slope, though much of the land in Jerusalem, both East and West, is on a steep slope. Does the moniker “city on a hill” sound familiar?

Eventually, most Palestinians will build, or in Abu Eishah’s case, expand their homes, without a permit. This is why 22,000 families in East Jerusalem go to bed at night knowing that they may awake the next morning to find Israeli soldiers and bulldozers at their doorstep. According to Salim Shawamreh, whose home in Anata was demolished and rebuilt four times, police usually arrive before or at dawn, while the family is still sleeping. Police and sometimes military, depending on the home’s location, will surround the house and call for the family to come outside. If the family resists, the police will forcefully remove the family, at which point, the bulldozers will begin their work. Sometimes families are allowed to quickly remove some or all of their possessions, and sometimes they are not.

When our group of 18 internationals, hearkening from as far afield as Norway and Finland, America, Portugal and Spain, arrived at the site in Beit Hanina, we learned that five families called it home. A large family lived in the first two floors, while the top two floors each contained two apartments. Residents of the building told us that the first two floors were licensed, but that the top two were not. Abu Eisha had tried unsuccessfully to obtain a permit to expand. When that failed, he did what most Palestinians do — he built anyway. Rather than a fine, Abu Eisha received a demolition order, which he had spent the last two years fighting against in court. On the morning of 27 July, Abu Eisha also lost this battle when the court finally handed down a definitive demolition order. Word spread quickly. By the time our group arrived, about 80 of Abu Eisha’s friends and neighbors were gathered together inside the house, smoking, drinking tea, and sharing stories of misery and insult living under Israeli rule. After discussing what we would do if the police came, some of us drifted off to sleep, hoping that we would wake at a normal hour to a regular morning.

Instead, the warning call came at about 3:30am. A neighbor down the main road had seen the police heading towards the house. Screams rang out through the first floor to wake those who had been sleeping, and a large group ran out of the house and down the small street to the main road. Men rushed to tip over the large municipal trash dumpsters on either side of the street leading up to the home, while others rushed to park their cars zig-zag style up the street leading to Abu Eisha’s house. One could only wonder if the fury with which the Israelis stormed the house was piqued by these vain attempts to block their entry.

Soon, yelling erupted again. The municipal and border police had been sighted coming down the main road. Everyone bolted back up to the house. Within minutes, the Yamam police, the Israeli equivalent of a SWAT team, stormed the house. The Yamam were dressed in full body armor, faces masked in black, armed with American M-16s, and accompanied by attack dogs. The only resistance offered by the Palestinians against this onslaught was a few choruses of “God is great.” The first two floors of the building were quickly emptied, with many Palestinians and activists being hit with batons or fists, or worse, being kicked in the back while running away. Activists and families from the upstairs apartments reported being similarly treated, and were not allowed time to gather or retrieve any personal items.

Once outside, Palestinians were scrambling to get away from the house and down to the main street while police continued to stream into the house. The main street was crowded with dozens of police cars, a few ambulances and bulldozers. As Palestinians and internationals from ICAHD, the International Solidarity Movement, and Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace continued to pour into the street, Israeli police cordoned off the area, aggressively forcing back those who did not back up immediately. I saw one particularly brutal policeman rush forward and punch a Norwegian woman in the face, the force of which threw her to the ground.

Once the initial shock of being raided and thrown into the street in the middle of the night had subsided, the muted drama of waiting began. The police formed a human line in front of the street leading to the house, presumably to block the residents and owners from being freshly inflamed by any view of their homes being wired with explosives. While the police held their line, chatting, laughing, passing along water bottles to each other, the approximately 100 Palestinians in the street cried, consoled each other, and mainly waited. A few gave interviews to the few press members who were on the scene, including a Reuters reporter and a reporter from Palestine Media. The one thing no one did was engage in violence of any kind. When one young man started to walk towards the police with his belt in hand, looking either like he was going to hurl a stone or lash one of the police, a few of his elders rushed to him, embraced him, and pulled him back away from the police. Each man had tears in his eyes.

When the call to prayer came before dawn, the men lined up in a neat row and began praying, exactly opposite the line of police. The two lines of people, one line of young Israeli men and women dressed in full combat uniform with guns slung at their sides, and the other of mostly middle-aged Palestinian men in civilian clothes, could not have been staring across a wider divide, though they were only separated by about 200 feet. Many of the praying men’s eyes were moist with tears, and I saw one man who had been kicked by a policeman stumble to rise from his knees.

After the prayers ended, the waiting began again. A few bulldozers pulled up, some police arrived on horses, and a UN jeep came and went. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, had managed to pass the roadblocks and arrived with copies of Abu Eisha’s building permit in hand. He offered the copies to a number of disinterested police, and then fell back with the rest of us to wait. The waiting lasted for about half a day. The estimated 300-400 police stood in one line chatting and laughing, occasionally rushing forward to back up the crowd, mainly staring straight ahead. The Palestinians milled about, hugged, cried and occasionally screamed at the Israelis.

Those of us with ICAHD left the scene at about 9am, but were informed later that evening that the house had indeed been demolished. Because of its size, it was wired with explosives and blown up, rather than bulldozed. The next day, I went to the former home of five Palestinian families, and saw the gorgeous building I had visited only two nights before lying in a hideous mass of rubble. Neighbors and former residents were also there, processing this new reality. A few of the trees alongside the erstwhile terrace were still standing aside the wreckage. The planted flower beds lining the front of the house remained as well, framing the sign the municipality had posted, stating “Caution, Dangerous Building, Entry Forbidden,” with a cartoon picture of a man standing outside an unstable house that looks as if it might fall on him.

Disregarding the sign, I climbed atop the rubble to fully absorb the destruction. I saw a biology textbook diagramming the development of a fetus, the red and white matching sofa set of the single mother who had only just moved in, a stove still fully intact, and other objects of domestic life. I also saw a Fatah party flag waving atop the metal rods spiraling out of one of the fallen cement columns. As I moved to snap a photo, five Israeli police, all of whom I recognized from the morning before, arrived again, still fully armored and armed. As I scrambled down from the building, two of the police climbed up, scaled the cement pillar, and removed the flag. The Palestinians could only shake their heads.

As I witnessed this, the same question from the morning before repeated in my head: “How does any of this help ensure Israel’s security?” The simple answer is, it doesn’t. But home demolitions, like most aspects of Israeli policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, have more to do with Israel’s agenda of land acquisition rather than its security. How could policies that humiliate, deprive, confine and brutalize the Palestinians, leading to the diminishing of options and a subsequent sense of despair, ever ensure the security of Israel and its people? Though Israel routinely invokes “security” as a catch-all rationale for its policies, it’s hard to see the logic of this argument in cases like the demolition of Abu Eisha’s home.

However, from another lens, the demolition makes terrible sense. Every Palestinian I met in Jerusalem spoke of the undeniable truth as they experience it: Israel is making life economically and emotionally impossible for Palestinians in order to squeeze them out of the area. This is particularly true for Palestinians who remain in coveted Jerusalem, and might explain why 22,000 East Jerusalem houses have outstanding demolition orders. This is why Jeff Halper believes that house demolitions are one of Israel’s main weapons in its arsenal of occupation. Demolish the home, demolish the family, demolish the spirit, and maybe, just maybe, the people will follow.

Jill Shaw is an American living in San Francisco, where she works as a criminal defense investigator. Shaw was in Palestine recently as a participant in the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions’ two-week summer rebuilding program.