Destroying Houses and Lives
An Interview with Salim Shawamreh and Jeff Halper
Salim Shawamreh is a Palestinian living with his family just outside occupied Jerusalem, or not really living, he protests, because "you are always in fear" of the Israeli soldiers marching to "your house hauling your belongings out the street and bulldozing your house." As terrifying and humiliating as it is to suffer this experience once in a lifetime, Salim and his growing family have seen their house bulldozed on two different occasions. The Shawamrehs are among the 16,700 West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians whose homes have been demolished since 1987 -- in all 2650. Home demolition is not a cruelty of the far past, but is alive and well today in Israel, a country that American and Western officials describe as the only democracy in the Middle East. In 1999, partly on Prime Minister Barak's watch, Amnesty International reported that "at least 39 Palestinian homes, of which over 20 were in Jerusalem" were demolished leaving more than "140 Palestinians, including 70 children, homeless." Salim, a Palestinian Authority driver and others, have called this an arm of Israel's policy of "ethnic cleansing." B'Tselem, the Israeli Human Rights group, reports that "while Palestinians are responsible for less than 20 percent of the illegal construction in [Jerusalem], nearly two-thirds of the demolitions are carried out on Palestinian houses." Palestinians and their houses are targeted, Amnesty states, "simply because they are Palestinians," and the policy is geared to secure Israel's grip on Palestinian land. Amnesty's press release (December, 1999) reports that "currently, more than one-third of the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem [about 65,000] lives under the threat of having its houses demolished."
Ghassan Bishara, Media Director, interviewed Jeff Halper, Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and an anthropology professor at Ben Gurion University and Salim Shawamreh during their recent US speaking tour about Israel's home demolition policy and occupation policy in general. Our thanks to Anja Zueckmantel for transcribing the interview.
Can you describe the mechanics of demolishing a house? How is it actually carried out?
Salim: You are basically sitting in your home with your family, not really living because you're always in fear of the Israeli soldiers surrounding your house and giving you 15 minutes to carry whatever possible of your belongings out to the street before they begin to bulldoze your home. Any resistance is met with beating, kicking, shooting, and arrest. A 16 year-old boy who came to help lost his left kidney to a rubber bullet, which also damaged part of his stomach.
Jeff: Demolishing a home--in the West Bank and Gaza--is considered a military operation. The law requires a 72-hour notification before demolishing an Israeli home. But, as a military operation in the West Bank, security considerations dictate the reaction, and any attempt to resist will be considered a threat to the safety of the soldiers. Repeated court appeals for an advance notification were rejected because they give the Palestinians a chance to defend themselves, which endangers the soldiers' security. Sometimes, there is no notice at all. Salim's house case was unusual since his was the fifth house to be demolished that day--at times they demolish up to twenty and thirty houses a week. It was the middle of the day and they thought they could demolish another house. Salim and his family were having lunch when the team arrived. Because they resisted, it gave us time to organize and call others. This was a breakthrough case, where we took many pictures for a later use. Normally, however, they come about 6:30 AM, when all men have left to work, but because no one knows when they may come, people live in constant fear and anxiety. Some Palestinian men have opted for night jobs so as to be home if and when demolition teams show up.
The whole operation whereby soldiers surround the house or the neighborhood and evict the family is very violent. There is also a body language to this operation, when aggressive soldiers bring themselves very close to the angry Palestinians and if a Palestinian tries to push away the soldier it triggers a violent response of shooting and beating up people. For Palestinians, it is a no-win situation. They cannot be passive at the prospect of their house being demolished and when they react they are arrested, beaten, and shot at. It is a set-up kind of a situation, which dictates whether or not they will give even the 15 minutes. In many cases, houses were demolished on top of everything, furniture and all.
The government issues the order to demolish the house. Is the government then liable when they destroy the furniture?
Jeff: No. Although we have tried to press the case when furniture, trees, water systems, lighting, and other things that are not part of the demolition order are destroyed, the answer is that "security considerations require evacuation of residents quickly." In the name of security, "the sacred cow," you could do anything.
Two known reasons for destroying houses are to punish a family of an alleged "terrorist" before any due process and at times before the accused is even caught, and to destroy a house that was built without an Israeli government permit. Is that correct?
Jeff: Since the intifada, there have only been a handful of cases of the former. This should be clarified since most Israelis believe that only houses of "terrorists" are being destroyed. We are talking about apolitical people here, such as Salim, who has never been arrested and built on his own land to shelter his family.
Why don't Palestinians ask for permits in the first place?
Salim: Israeli law is geared to make permanent the Israeli occupation of our land and force us into a narrow area. They want to fit us within their master plan for the area, which is to strengthen their hold on our land. I will not receive a permit as long as it does not agree with their master plan; only few permits are granted. The more Palestinian houses are built, the less land is left for settlements.
Is it part of the master plan to minimize the Palestinians' presence in those areas?
Jeff: Yes, but in 1981, an efficient bureaucracy was set up to cast the military occupation as a civil administration. It is important for Israel to present itself as a democracy and a country of law, and the zoning code is an important façade to market that image. They cannot destroy Palestinian houses and say, "We are destroying them in order to confine Palestinians into fixed areas." Therefore, they developed this Kafkaesque system of going through the motion of permit applications and fees collection, but the intention is to deny permits. Playing out the game makes Israel appear just like any other country. When a complaint is lodged, bureaucrats can show that a permit was not issued. Complying with the law means demolishing the house. The whole thing is laid out in a watertight fashion to make the process look legal. A very few permits are granted, because if none were then no one would play the game. So one always has hope--like Salim, who thought, "maybe I'll get the permit."
The permit is very expensive also. It could cost $6,000 in parts of the West Bank, but in East Jerusalem it goes as high as $30,000 to $40,000 in various fees. Being denied a permit is like throwing money away. Construction in the occupied areas must suit the master plan and no Palestinian building does. The proof is that all house demolition is done to Palestinian and none whatsoever to Israeli homes. Although the Israelis may show figures of demolished Jewish houses, they are false. Rarely they may demolish an illegal porch or a swimming pool in West Jerusalem--but never, ever have they demolished a whole Israeli house.
Are you saying that no Israeli houses were demolished even when no permits were granted?
Jeff: Eighty percent of the building violations are in West Jerusalem and eighty percent of the demolitions are in the eastern side. While in East Jerusalem almost always whole houses are demolished, it is never so in West Jerusalem.
How does the Israeli government explain or defend this gap?
Jeff: It does not. It provides figures that do not fit. They say we demolished 20 houses in East Jerusalem and 17 in West Jerusalem, but that is not true. You will never see an Israeli (Jewish) family living in a tent because its house was destroyed. If the authorities sent a bulldozer to destroy a Jewish house, there would be a revolution--this is absolutely unthinkable.
What is the real aim of this policy in your opinion?
Salim: The real aim is ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. "Let them leave the country and go find themselves another place to live."
Do you agree with this assessment, Jeff?
Jeff: Pretty much. They certainly try to confine Palestinians. Someone told Salim after a lecture here, "Demolishing your house is like telling you, "you have no place to return to." It is not that they are forcing anyone out now. True, ethnic cleansing is a loaded term, but essentially that is what we are talking about. As far as I know, Israel is the only country that systematically demolishes houses of a particular population.
How does the legal community in Israel feel about this subject? Has the high court heard the issue?
Jeff: We have taken many cases to the court; Salim's case was one. The legal department of the civil administration has closed all loopholes. After 33 years, there is no legal challenge that has not already been made. The whole thing is pretty much watertight. The court's answer is that Palestinians should have permits.
Is your house in Jerusalem, and what did the court tell you when your case was presented there?
Salim: No, it is in area C (Anata), just outside of Jerusalem. I took my case to the court only to gain some time. I knew that my home was going to be demolished. I was just hoping that something could happen in the meantime. Nothing did.
Your house, Salim, was destroyed twice already. Couldn't it be destroyed again and again?
Salim: Yes. According to the occupation authorities, my house is illegal and it may be destroyed any time. We have to live with this fear. I hope that my presence here and appeal to the American people and government and the UN may help end this demolishing policy. The experience of soldiers beating my family members, my wife losing consciousness, my children scattered, tear gas and arrests has traumatized and destroyed, not only our homes, but our lives and many families' lives forever.
If they destroy the house again, will you rebuild it again?
Salim: I have nowhere else to go. I will rebuild it a hundred times.
For you as an Israeli activist, what would constitute a viable solution with the Palestinians?
Jeff: Had you asked me four years ago, I would have said a two-state solution. Today, the only option is working out a binational state for both peoples and equal citizenship for all. This matrix of Israeli control of people and territory has created this new reality that makes territory impossible to detach.