The West Bank in Israel

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Historian Gershom Gorenberg, in his book “The Unmaking of Israel,” devotes an entire chapter making the case that the ideology and practices of radical Jewish settlers and the government in the West Bank are spreading into Israel proper within the Green Line (the border before the 1967 Six-Day War). In this post I want to explore whether developments confirm this thesis, which, if true, has far-reaching implications for the country and its democratic future.

As an aside, Gorenberg’s book, published last fall, is one of the most important and engrossing books about Israel of the past year. It reads like a novel but is chock-full of in-depth research. As an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, he is disturbed by what he sees as the destruction of the core values of Israel and Judaism. If someone like Gorenberg is so concerned, it behooves those on both the left and the right to pay close attention and to take a look at his book.

But let me return to the question of whether the right-wing West Bank ideology is spreading into Israel proper in a significant way. There are two minority groups in Israel that we can view as test cases of this.

Minority Group 1: The Bedouin in the Negev

The first group to consider are Israeli citizens in the Negev who happen to be Bedouin. Loyal to the state and often serving in the Israeli army, many have been forced off their ancestral lands and moved to crime-ridden and poverty-stricken towns. Since they could no longer practice their traditional lifestyle, the social fabric that kept their communities together unraveled.

Today, the government is implementing the Prawer Plan that will force another 30,000 of these Israeli citizens off their lands and into the townships, making way for Jewish National Fund (JNF) forests and Jewish-only settlements. The Bedouin have begun fighting back for their very lives. On March 15 I posted a column on how one such village, Al-Araqeeb, has become a symbol of resistance after being demolished repeatedly by the army and police. A few residents are still clinging to their land and now live among the headstones in the village cemetery, in the hope that the government won’t trespass on sacred ground.

A row of tiny saplings planted by the JNF to create forests on Bedouin land

The rationale for the Prawer Plan is a fear that demographic trends will lead to Jews becoming a minority in the Negev. In 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu, while speaking about the Bedouin situation, issued this warning:

…a situation in which a demand for national rights will be made from some quarters inside Israel, for example in the Negev, should the area be left without a Jewish majority. Such things happened in the Balkans, and it is a real threat.

So the fear is of a threat of secession and civil war if Jews do not retain majority control in every geographic area of Israel. Disregarding for now whether this is a valid concern, in order to accomplish this goal Israel is using strategies that destroy the core foundations of a democracy wherein all citizens have equal rights.

The government has been using tactics that it refined in the West Bank to take over the Bedouin lands: unjust and twisted laws enabling the expropriation of property at the expense of one group to benefit another group, ignoring centuries-old tribal practices for recognizing land ownership that were accepted by the Ottoman and British authorities before 1948, accusing subgroups of being a threat, making life unbearable for residents so that they will voluntarily move, and horrific home demolition practices that impoverish families and force them out. As I wrote on March 15, the greatest irony was when a young Bedouin “who had served in the Israeli army, received his order to appear for his annual reserve duty on the same day he received from the government a demolition notice for his home. No firm date is given with these notices. The bulldozer will simply show up one day at this soldier’s door.”

Demolition of a building at Al-Araqeeb on July 27, 2010

Some have labeled the Bedouin situation in the Negev the “West Bank in Israel,” warning that embittered young Bedouins are becoming radicalized. Netanyahu may be fearful of a Balkans-type situation, but he is doing a good job recreating it with his repressive policies and xenophobic comments.

Even if Netanyahu’s fear is valid, the Bedouin villages threatened with destruction account for only 5 percent of the land in the Negev. There is plenty of other land available for Jewish towns in the wide-open expanses of the desert, and there is no need for the JNF to destroy the way of life of 30,000 Israeli citizens for some additional dunams of forest. This makes no sense unless it is viewed through the prism of the ideology of the West Bank settlement enterprise, where there are similar objectives of building Jewish settlements while forcing the local population out. This brings into focus Gorenberg’s thesis.

A demolished Al-Araqeeb house

Minority Group #2: African Refugees

There are approximately 50,000-60,000 African refugees in Israel today, mainly clustered in the poorer sections of Tel Aviv and Eilat. Most entered Israel illegally, and the numbers crossing the border have increased dramatically. Many, if not most, are asylum seekers fleeing war, torture, rape, and genocide. This is a complex subject with no easy answers, but the government’s repressive policies are deplorable, especially given the Jewish history of fleeing persecution.

Homeless African refugees sleeping in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv

For months, while Nicholas Kristof has been writing columns in The New York Times about the Sudanese government bombing villages in the Nuba Mountains and the resulting mass starvation (a replay of Darfur),  Prime Minister Netanyahu and other government ministers have been accusing these same Africans, who are fleeing for their lives, of being migrant workers and an existential threat to the Jewish state. This culminated several weeks ago with a race riot in south Tel Aviv where refugees were attacked on the street and shops were destroyed by a violent mob of hundreds. The mayhem occurred immediately after Knesset members inflamed a crowd of 1,000 at an anti-African rally. This is how I described it in a blog post on May 25:

Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon from the Likud shouted: “The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!” Miri Regev from the Likud declared, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Michael Ben Ari from the far-right National Union party exclaimed “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over.”

The violence was preceded by weeks of incitement from Government ministers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been making headlines almost every day with statements such as “We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centers, then send them home.” Deputy Knesset Speaker Danon wrote on Facebook that “Israel is at war” and the “Infiltrators are a national plague.” As Peter Beinart wrote in a column yesterday, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease? Where have my Jewish ears heard that before?”

Not much has changed since the riot. Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who heads the Interior Ministry that is responsible for immigration, has said that most Africans are engaged in criminal activity and few deserve asylum. On May 31st in an over-the-top interview in Maariv, he went further and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by Africans but “do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.” Last week’s newspaper headlines blared “Prime Minister: 25,000 illegal African migrants should be deported as soon as possible.”

Unfortunately, this rhetoric is not new. In a post on March 10 I described how the Netanyahu government has been demonizing the refugees for several years, alleging that the influx of African refugees is a demographic threat to the existence of a Jewish state and defining them as labor migrants or infiltrators (a term previously used only for terrorists). This terminology has been picked up by the media, creating a sense of hysteria over the threat posed by these helpless people.

Given Interior Minister Yishai’s attitudes, it is not surprising that the government has set up an ineffective system to screen refugees (PDF) for valid asylum claims. For example, those fleeing from the Sudan and Eritrea (an extremely repressive government that is ranked below North Korea on some measures), who make up 85% of refugees entering Israel today, are not allowed to apply for asylum. In contrast, 97% and 99% of Eritrean refugees are granted asylum in the United States and Canada, respectively. Africans from other war-torn and repressive countries can apply, but as I wrote in a March 4 column describing Israel’s flawed asylum procedures, in 2008 and 2009, of the 3,200 asylum applications submitted, only three were approved. In 2011, the results were even worse: 3,692 asylum applications were rejected and only one was approved. (NOTE: These statistics also included some asylum applications from non-African nationalities.)

The government’s response to the refugee challenge is to build massive prisons in the Negev desert where new refugees – men, women and children — will be incarcerated for up to three years. Last week saw the announcement of plans for additional facilities that will include tent prisons, where tens of thousands will be incarcerated. This week, a new bill backed by the government was discussed in the Knesset that would impose five-year prison terms on anyone employing, transporting, or providing housing to refugees. If Israel begins forcibly repatriating refugees to their repressive home countries, as Netanyahu has threatened, many will face prison, torture, or death.

The government could choose a more humane approach that is consistent with the 1951 United Nations Convention dealing with refugees, which the first government of Israel helped develop as a result of the Holocaust. There are alternative policy choices that could be made, but instead the government has chosen repression and incitement while ignoring traditional Jewish humanitarian values. For some perspective, it is interesting to read two recent op-ed columns by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz and Rabbi Donniel Hartman.

(Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in this brewing humanitarian crisis. This past winter I helped organize a breakfast program for refugees in Tel Aviv to provide a morning meal to those who would otherwise go hungry all day. In three months we have served over 30,000 meals. The Good People Fund, an American non-profit that raises money to relieve hunger, poverty and human suffering in Israel and America, has funded this program and continues to solicit donations to keep it going. An article describing the breakfast project in this past weekend’s New Jersey Jewish Standard quoted Naomi Eisenberger, Executive Director of the Good People Fund: “We’re doing this on a month-to-month basis, as long as our funds hold out. Our attitude is that we have to leave politics aside. These are hungry people and they’re totally and completely helpless. Someone has to feed them. You can’t let them starve in the middle of Tel Aviv.”)

Breakfast being served to refugees in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park. The US-based Good People Fund (www.goodpeoplefund.org) is raising money to serve this meal on a daily basis.

The West Bank in Israel

So how do the Bedouin and the African refugee situations exemplify Gorenberg’s thesis about the West Bank ideology penetrating Israel within the Green Line? The incitement against these two groups comes from the same desire – for many a religious mandate – for Jews to redeem the entire Land of Israel and ensure Jewish majority control. In the process, the rights of non-Jewish minorities are considered less important and inevitably leads to abuse. As Gorenberg details in his book, many yeshivot now teach that the commandment to settle the land takes priority over other ethical and moral commandments in Judaism.

One very public example of this occurred before the 2009 invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) when the Army’s chief rabbi distributed a booklet to soldiers that included the following:

We are commanded by the Torah to build our state in it [the Land of Israel] and forbidden by the Torah to give up even one millimeter of it to the Gentiles, in the form of any kind of impure and foolish distortions about autonomy, enclave or any other national weaknesses. We shall not leave it under the control of another people, not even one finger of it, not even a piece of a fingernail.

The booklet goes on describe the Palestinians as being identical to the ancient Philistine enemy, and exhorts soldiers to show no mercy toward militants and civilians alike.

Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights NGO, wrote in a letter at the time to the Defense Minister that the booklet “contradicts the basic principles of the laws of war…and also contradicts the principles of Jewish morality in the name of which the Chief Military Rabbi is supposedly speaking.” Gorenberg, commenting on this and related episodes, wrote that Army Chief Rabbi Avihai Ronski, who founded a yeshiva in an illegal settlement, was “legitimizing the religious right’s anti-humanistic attitudes and its claim to be the voice of Judaism.”

Many claim that the treatment of the Bedouin and the refugees is simply racism. Even Jews from Ethiopia, who are black, have experienced serious discrimination in Israel based on their color – and as described in this article, some are struggling with their identity because of the Tel Aviv race riot.

However, I think it is more complicated than that. Professor Shaul Magid, who writes a blog on The Times of Israel, has a more insightful perspective now that Jews find themselves as a majority ruling a country:

Some have written that the attacks against migrants in south Tel Aviv are an example of racism. While racism exists in Israel as it exists everywhere, I am not convinced this is the root of the problem. The problem, as I see it, is “otherness.” More precisely, how does an oppressed people became a true majority and refashion its identity so that otherness is not by definition a threat? In this sense, the Arabs have made it too easy for the Jews in Israel to be a majority and yet not identify as such. Holocaust imagery is still used to justify Israel’s behavior, as if a country with one of the most powerful militaries in the world and the backing of the only true superpower can be equated with the emaciated living corpses of Auschwitz. The comparison is nothing less than grotesque. It is arguably the case that the victim has no ethical obligation other than to survive. But the majority is not the victim, at least not in that way. This is not to say that majorities can’t be threatened. They surely can. But majorities, unlike besieged victims, do have ethical obligations toward minorities in their midst.

What I am suggesting is that the mentality of the victim — the identity of the besieged minority — still functions as a pillar of Israeli self-fashioning, and this, I believe, underlies the tragic episode of the migrants. The “other,” any “other,” is a threat by definition, even when she is basically powerless…. what a majority produces when it identifies and acts as a victimized minority is tyranny.

I agree with Magid’s assessment – and this applies as well to the Palestinians. For 45 years they have lived under an occupation that includes policies — practiced on a mass scale — of home demolitions, property theft, economic deprivation, and incarceration without any semblance of due process. I am not referring to policies instituted for security purposes, which are valid, but rather policies that have no reason other than “redeeming the land” and forcing Palestinians out. These practices mostly occur under the radar and are rarely, if ever, covered in the overseas Jewish press. The same goes for the non-security-related violence that is endemic to the occupation – and is rapidly increasing – and the day-to-day harassment and intimidation that occurs.

And now these policies, and the ideology behind them, are being applied to the Bedouin and the refugees, in different ways for each group. The difference between the West Bank and Israel within the Green Line is indeed getting blurry.

Interestingly, Gershom Gorenberg hardly deals with the abusive aspects of the occupation in his book. Rather, he concentrates on the establishment and spread of ideology. One example he uses is right-wing West Bank settlers who are purposefully settling in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel, bringing their ideology with them and creating conflict in areas where formerly co-existence reigned. His thesis is that this will spread to other segments of Israeli society, which it seems is already occurring.

In summation, Gorenberg uses the following allegory to describe what is happening to the country he loves:

In “God of Vengeance,” Sholom Asch’s classic Yiddish play, a character in an unnamed Eastern European town a century ago runs a brothel in his basement while trying to bring up his daughter as a chaste Jewish girl on the floor above. To protect her purity, he places a Torah scroll in his home. He has a matchmaker find a pious groom for her. His plan fails. A wooden floor cannot keep the two realms of his life apart. Reverence for a sacred scroll cannot ward off corruption when people ignore the words written on it.

Let us read Asch’s drama as an allegory for what happens when a fragile democracy tries to maintain an undemocratic regime next door in occupied territory. A border, especially one not even shown on maps, cannot seal off the rot. Nor can politicians’ declarations of reverence for liberal values.

In recent years, the corrosive effects of the occupation on Israel have been glaring, especially the vocal, shameless efforts of the political right to treat Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state rather than as fellow citizens…. Unchecked, the offensive against democracy has grown wider. The political right uses charges of treason to attack critics of policy in the occupied territories, and seeks legislation to curb dissent and the rights of Arab citizens and to bypass the Supreme Court.

And finally, Gorenberg quotes philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who in 1967 joined a small chorus of prophetic voices, including David Ben Gurion’s, that warned of the grave dangers the occupation posed to Israeli society.

Only months after Israel conquered the West Bank, philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that continuing the occupation would “undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab.” Leibowitz’s warning has proved all too prophetic.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel

The Transformation of an Israeli Soldier

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This column is part of a series of narratives that offers insight into the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This story is drawn from the archives of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who are committed to non-violence and ending the occupation. In the past month I have posted several other narratives here, here, and here.

The narrative below is from Chen Alon who is a theater director and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Chen served for four years in the Israeli army and then for 11 years as an operations officer in the reserves. Later, he refused to serve in the occupied territories and as a result served time in jail. The turning point for him was when he was ordered to participate in the demolition of a Palestinian home because it lacked a building permit. For background on this aspect of the occupation, click here to read a recent post.

 

My grandfather immigrated to Palestine before the Second World War because he was a Zionist.  He was the only member of his family to escape the gas chambers of Poland, and so I was brought up with the belief that Zionism literally saved my family. It was not a theoretical concept. I believed that our Jewish state was surrounded by enemies who wanted to destroy us and that men like my father, who fought in the 1967 war, were there to protect us. However, when my father came back from the Yom Kippur war in 1973, he was deeply psychologically damaged and from a very young age I was exposed to his trauma. I went into the army wishing to fix things, but instead I got locked into the same cycle.

I was drafted in 1987 at the beginning of the First Intifada. I call myself an “occupation scholar” because I was sent everywhere and did everything. The most difficult thing of all was the arrests.  One night I remember we had to meet an agent from the security forces to find a wanted terrorist.  My men surrounded a house and as we entered with our flash lights I saw people sleeping on mattresses all over the floor. Then I saw the agent wake someone up and take them to the jeep. It was a 10-year-old child. ‘Can this be the wanted terrorist?’ I asked myself.

Then, in 2001, came the Second Intifada, when Palestinians used arms, not stones. I knew as a reservist I would now be called to respond with tanks, not batons. The strategy was to siege and block everything. The Palestinian villages became like prisons, with one main exit in and out. On one occasion I was at a roadblock being asked to allow a taxi full of sick Palestinian children, who didn’t have a permit, through to the hospital in Bethlehem. At the same time, I got a phone call from my wife who told me she was having problems picking up our three-year-old daughter from kindergarten. So there I was, standing on a sand blockade talking to my wife, while sick Palestinians were waiting in the car, and suddenly I couldn’t bear it any more: on the one hand being a kind, devoted father, and on the other hand being so callous with these people. Were these children nothing more than potential terrorists? My children were human, and yet we had dehumanized the Palestinian children. I began to realize that in the de-humanizing of the other, you begin to de-humanize yourself.

That night we got the order to demolish a Palestinian house. I presumed it must belong to a terrorist, but in fact we were demolishing it because the owner had built an illegal balcony. This is how a civil legal mission becomes a military operation. We came with two platoons, a bulldozer and three tanks, and not surprisingly the operation deteriorated into a fierce battle, with the local Mosque calling people to defend the house and to rise up against the Israeli invasion. It was a crazy situation. I knew from then on that this was the last time I could do such a thing. And when I heard about reservist officers and combatant soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories, I signed their petition. Over the course of two years we became very active trying to convince Israeli society that the occupation was wrong. We wanted to initiate civil disobedience.

When I decided to publish my name as a refusnik, I went to warn my parents because I knew it would be a big scandal. My mother’s reaction was to say, ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ I thought this was strange because in the army I’d been under constant attack and in far more danger. There is a common thought in Israeli society that Palestinian mothers care less about their children – and the proof is that Palestinian mothers send their children to commit suicide attacks. And yet Israeli mothers are willing to sacrifice their children in exactly the same way by sending their children into the army. The mindset is no different.

Then one day I was in Ramallah telling my story to Palestinians and a person in the audience asked me directly, ‘Are you asking us to forgive you?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t forgive myself, nor do I ask for forgiveness.’ For me, telling my story is not about asking for forgiveness but about taking responsibility. This is not just about words and emotions – it’s also about action. I will only be able to achieve self-forgiveness by creating alliances with Palestinians, and this means being allies in a non-violent struggle against injustice and oppression. Israelis need to take responsibility for the Nakba of 1948, just as the Palestinians need to take responsibility for the crazy strategy of suicide attacks.

Home Demolitions: A Challenge to Israel’s Moral Credibility

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“I still remember the day the Israelis destroyed our house. It was the last day of Ramadan…. Suddenly we heard some noise outside, and when my father looked out from the window, he saw the Israeli tanks in front of our building. I started crying and shouting. I knew they came to kill us….” Young Palestinian boy before his home was demolished

Of all the policies of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, home demolitions are one of the most disturbing. Since the year 2000, almost four thousand Palestinian homes, farm structures and other buildings were wrecked. These were “administrative demolitions,” having nothing to do with security or war. Last year, over one-thousand men, women and children were made homeless when their homes were destroyed along with most of their belongings. These demolitions occur without prior notice. There is just a knock on the door, sometimes even in the middle of the night as happened in the village of Anata last winter. The soldiers and bulldozers are outside, and the residents are ordered to evacuate immediately. Sometimes they are given a few minutes to grab whatever belongings they can. Sometimes they are prevented from doing so. Whatever is left behind is destroyed, buried under the rubble.

West Bank Palestinian house before it was demolished. See below for after demolition.

The result is a total loss of the most important asset the family has. Most of these families are poor to begin with. The demolition completes their impoverishment, leading to a psychological trauma with lasting physical and mental health impacts. And to add insult to injury, they often are fined tens of thousands of shekels to pay for the cost of the demolition.

West Bank house pictured above after it was destroyed.

This destruction occurs because Palestinians have constructed or renovated their homes, farms, and businesses without obtaining building permits. The catch-22 they face is that it is almost impossible for them to obtain building permits.

Some readers may find this information troubling.  Which brings up the question of why I am writing about this material at all.  My hope is that readers will forward this information on so as to inform as many others as possible about these practices. This is how pressure can be brought to bear on American and Israeli government and community leaders to take action to change these practices.

Background on Demolitions

The West Bank is divided into three areas.

  • Area A: 18% of the West Bank land. Under the complete control of the Palestinian Authority.
  • Area B: 21% of the land. Under joint Israeli-Palestinian control. Israel and the Palestinian Authority jointly control the security and law enforcement in this area while the Palestinian Authority controls certain administrative functions.
  • Area C: 61% of the land. Under the complete control of Israel.

In addition there is East Jerusalem, the eastern half of the city that was conquered by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. This, along with 28 nearby Palestinian villages, was annexed into the Jerusalem municipality immediately after the war, becoming part of Israel.

Palestinian administered Areas A and B are divided among 200 separate communities, the vast majority of which are less than one square mile in size. All of these areas are separated by Israeli controlled Area C land. Thus the parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority are fragmented, discontinuous enclaves that inhibit effective governance and economic development. The map looks like Swiss cheese. Most of the vacant land near communities that would normally be used for the natural expansion of villages is designated as Area C, unavailable to the Palestinian residents living right next to it.

Map of the West Bank showing Palestinian administered Areas A & B (beige color) and Israeli controlled Area C (Brown color). Notice how Palestinian controlled areas are isolated, discontinuous enclaves.

Israeli policies prohibit Palestinians from building in Area C. New construction must conform to the master development plans that are produced by Israeli authorities. Unfortunately, Palestinian communities have been left out of the master plans so Palestinian construction is permitted in just 1% of Area C.

In East Jerusalem, the situation is slightly better. Palestinians are allowed to build on 13% of the land. However, that land is already densely populated with little room for new construction. Plus, although technically they are allowed to apply for a building permit, bureaucratic procedures are onerous, expensive, and entail lengthy delays (sometimes years).

94% of building permit applications in Area C and East Jerusalem have been rejected in recent years. The result is that housing becomes overcrowded and unlivable as families grow, businesses cannot expand, and Palestinian villages cannot legally build even essential infrastructure to meet their communities’ basic needs.

Demolitions occur because Palestinians build or renovate existing structures without building permits. Even major repairs, such as replacing an old leaky roof, requires a building permit. For individual Palestinians, the choice they face is to give up their homes and move to Area A, or to build and take the chance they will avoid demolition. Most choose the latter because they don’t want to leave their homes within a close-knit community of social and family ties.

Ruins of West Bank house demolished in 2012.

In addition to Palestinians, 510,000 Jewish Israelis live beyond the Green Line, the former Israeli border before the 1967 Six-Day War. Of these, about 200,000 live in large and rapidly expanding Jewish neighborhoods that ring the outskirts of East Jerusalem, creating a barrier between Palestinian neighborhoods and the rest of the West Bank. See a previous blog post to visualize this better.

The remaining 310,000 Jewish settlers live in Area C in 250 Jewish settlements, of which about 100 were illegally built according to Israeli law. Large numbers of additional illegal housing units each year are constructed without building permits on Palestinian claimed land. Despite their being illegal, the government connects them to the electric grid and water system, builds access roads, provides army protection, and residents enjoy all the benefits of Israeli citizenship. The neighboring Palestinians in Area C have few of these benefits and are governed under a separate military and judicial system.

Home Demolitions in Area C

This year through April 17, the United Nations reported 209 structures were destroyed – 25 were demolished just last week – making 418 people homeless (click here to download the latest weekly report of demolitions, plus political-related violence and injuries, in the West Bank). Here is a recent example of a home demolition described in the April 16th edition of Haaretz.

“On Monday, March 26, 2012, darkness fell on Khabis Sawaftah’s family. While the family members were busy with their morning tasks, two bulldozers, 12 vehicles from the Civil Administration, Border Police personnel and about 40 additional soldiers descended upon them, ordering them out of their home. Khabis, his wife and their five children stood 20 meters away, with the soldiers standing between them and their house. The family watched Civil Administration personnel dump their belongings – sacks of lentils and rice, blankets and mattresses, schoolbooks and clothing – all tossed around as if they were garbage.”

It took 40 minutes to demolish Khabis’s home. He is a poor farm worker tending groves of date palms. After the demolition, the Red Cross provided his family with a small plastic tent. Other than that, they were left on their own. The Jewish reporter who wrote this story described Khabis’s 13 year-old son looking at her with intense hatred since she belonged to the people who destroyed his life.

The pace of demolitions is rapidly increasing. In 2009, 275 structures were demolished, including 116 homes. In 2011, the number doubled to 622 structures demolished, including 222 homes.

Human rights organizations allege that home demolitions are just one piece of a larger strategy to force all Palestinians out of Area C to the isolated, urban cantonments in Area A controlled by the Palestinian Authority or to leave the West Bank entirely. This would make room for the uninhibited expansion of Jewish settlements where construction continues at a rapid pace. In many cases, home demolitions occur within sight of construction in Jewish settlements – Click here to see a video of an example.

The Aftermath of Demolitions

Thousands of Palestinian homes are issued demolition orders. However, it can take years, even decades, before they are actually demolished. This leads to a life of prolonged stress and uncertainty, culminating in a traumatic event when the army and bulldozers show up without advance notice. Demolitions lead to prolonged homelessness or moving away. Those with large enough social networks often break up their families by dispersing members among far-flung relatives and friends for long periods. This leads to psychological and physical health issues for the children and parents, affects school performance, and destroys the family’s integrity. The devastating financial loss of the physical home and their belongings can never be recovered.

“There was no opportunity to remove our furniture,” recalled Ahmad, “and we had 15 minutes to get our important papers. It was so difficult – we had no recourse, no court [of appeal], no choice but to see our home demolished. That night we slept in the street, since the soldiers turned the place into a closed military area. [Afterwards], we stayed with family and the neighbors – by god, we spread ourselves between aunts and uncles. The family was dispersed, and this deeply affected us.”

“One of the most difficult things [to experience] is to be in a house, then to be on the pavement. How can this be true? There is no clothing, no money…There is no money to buy anything.”

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Click the links below to watch two short videos about demolitions.

and

Punitive Demolitions

A widespread perception is that houses are demolished because terrorist suspects or wanted persons were living there. The objective is to create a deterrent. In fact, after 1,500 homes were destroyed for this reason since 1983, the army stopped these demolitions in 2005 because they concluded the strategy was ineffective. Besides destroying the lives of thousands of people, without trial and without proving culpability (many families did not realize someone living with them was involved with terrorism or that the person was wanted for other non-violent opposition activities), these demolitions also were a form of collective punishment which is prohibited by international law.

A Concluding Narrative

Since it is the human element that makes the policy of home demolitions so unsettling, I will end with a narrative about Manal, a pregnant woman with five children who was renting an apartment in East Jerusalem near her parents. Her story includes many typical characteristics of demolitions.

“It was November 2008,” recalls Manal. “I was six months pregnant with my youngest child. On that morning I was having breakfast at my parent’s house and my daughters…were at school. I received a phone call at about 10:00 a.m. from one of my neighbors saying: ‘Come home! They’re about to demolish your house.’ I didn’t believe her but left my mother’s house and ran back to my house. On the way back, I saw many police and soldiers around the house. There were perhaps five jeeps and about 30 police and soldiers standing around the house. The owner of the house [the landlord] was arguing with them, saying that he was waiting for the [court] paper to stop the demolition. But then, after about an hour of waiting, two bulldozers that were there started to demolish the house….”

“Everything that I owned was in the house, my clothes and the girl’s clothes, school books, kitchen things, and most importantly, medical records and equipment for my daughter, Hayat (13), who suffers from a heart condition.  I begged the soldiers to allow them to let me take my personal possessions out of the house. I said I don’t care about the house, that I only wanted my things,” remembers Manal. “They refused to let me into the house, but they sent some men in who took out a few things – a couple of couch beds, a refrigerator and the TV, which were the first things they would have seen when they walked in. They just threw them out of the house – breaking the legs on the couch beds. I couldn’t do anything about it. – I had a severe headache and felt like I couldn’t walk.”

“It took about an hour-and-a-half for the Israelis and their bulldozers to destroy the house. The whole house collapsed on top of our things so we couldn’t get anything else out…. My daughters found out that their home had been demolished on their way home from school….”

…The family had to move back in with Manal’s parents. “It was very crowded,” she says, “and my husband didn‘t want to come and visit us there because there was no space. Me and my daughters slept in one room, the living room. It was very difficult. My children’s school performance suffered – they couldn’t study because there was no space and too much noise with so many people. The only person working in the house was my brother who supported us all,” says Manal.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel.

The Negev: A Bedouin Village versus a JNF Forest

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There was a clear blue sky after many days of rain when we drove to Al-Arakib near Be’er Sheva down in the Negev. The air was cool but the sun was strong. All around us the desert was in bloom as we turned onto the dirt road, passed a small cemetery on the left and pulled up before a large three-sided Bedouin tent. In the distance I could see groves of trees on higher ground. But the surroundings around the tent were barren, just sandy ground and rocks. I was soon to find out why.

To read the rest of this post, go to http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-negev-a-bedouin-village-versus-a-jnf-forest

Roundup of Recent News

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Here are a few under-the-radar items from the past week that are worth looking at.

1 – This was a busy week for demolitions. Here are two examples that include videos of the events.

The first occurred in the South Hebron Hills in the same general area as Susya which I wrote about in the second half of a February 6th post. See http://rhr.org.il/eng/index.php/2012/02/watch-idf-demolishes-in-the-palestininan-villages-of-saadet-thalah-and-ar-rakeez-video-south-hebron-hills/

The second occurred last week in the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood in the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem (see my posts of January 2nd and January 10th ). The government just demolished a community center built by the local residents to make room for a parking lot for the City of David tourist site run by Elad, the settler NGO.  See the videos at the bottom of this link: http://settlementwatcheastjerusalem.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/silwandemoition/

2 – A major event is happening in the Palestinian community but it is garnering little attention elsewhere. Khader Adnan is near death from a hunger strike he began after being arrested and placed in administrative detention. This is a practice that is particularly reviled in the Palestinian community and Adnan has become a hero for risking his life to protest it. There have already been demonstrations to show support for him – and it is anyone’s guess what this might lead to if and when Adnan dies.

Adnan is a member of Islamic Jihad, not a group that most readers of this blog would sympathize with. This obviously adds an element of complexity to this story. However, he has focused attention on an aspect of the occupation that has caused outrage and suffering among Palestinians for a long time. For details of this case from a perspective shared by Palestinians and those concerned about human rights, see http://972mag.com/protesting-arrest-for-months-without-charges-khader-adnan-is-dying/35672/

I intend to cover the topic of arrests and the judicial system on the West Bank in future posts because of the huge impact they have had on Palestinian society.

3 – Finally, this is an interesting perspective on the politics in the American Jewish community from a left-wing Israeli who recently visited the United States. See http://972mag.com/dear-liberal-american-jews-please-dont-betray-israel/35396/

Hope and Reconciliation

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This past weekend there were two things I encountered that gave me hope – hope for the future of a peaceful Middle East.

Hope #1 – Friday’s Haaretz Magazine had a story about teaching the philosophy of Abraham Joshua Heschel in Israel. See http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/magazine/change-of-heart-1.410878

The reporter interviewed Dror Bondi, a teacher at a Hesder Yeshiva in the West Bank (students at a Hesder Yeshiva combine army service with Torah study). Surprisingly, Heschel is not well-known in Israel and is seldom studied. Bondi’s mission is to change that.

Bondi grew up in a West Bank settlement, a child in a right-wing religious Zionist family. He attended demonstrations in the 1990’s protesting Yitzhak Rabin’s peace initiatives. After Rabin’s assassination in 1995 Bondi entered a multi-year crisis during which he challenged his previous beliefs about the land, God, and politics. I am not a philosopher so I will let Bondi’s words speak for themselves in the article but I will say he reminded me of the essence of the religious calling – which ironically can so easily be forgotten here in Israel – and he filled me with hope. (Note: for those readers not familiar with Heschel’s life, the middle of the article offers a brief biography but the beginning and especially the latter half of the article deals with his religious thought and its relevance to Israel.)

Bondi also reminded me of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, another beacon of hope in the Orthodox landscape here (see my December 23, 2011 post). Although both are in the distinct minority, perhaps a time will come when they will change the conversation in the Orthodox Jewish community.

For those who are Jewish educators interested in re-framing the conversation about Israel within a religious context, Rabbis for Human Rights, with branches in both Israel and North America, also has material to assist with this.

Hope #2 – This weekend I traveled to Susya in the barren looking hills near Hebron on the West Bank. This is an area with active Jewish settlements and local Palestinians who are clinging to their land, living in tents that get demolished over and over by the Israeli army. The government’s goal is to remove all the Palestinian farmers from the district. As in other areas of the West Bank, this is bare-faced ethnic cleansing with the Army repeatedly loading the residents onto trucks to transport them away. But the farmers keep coming back to their land, setting up new tents to replace those demolished, never surrendering no matter how bad conditions get. I hope to write more about Susya in future posts but the following article by David Shulman, a professor at Hebrew University, will give you a visceral experience of the local Palestinians’ encounter with their Jewish neighbors. It is one of the best descriptions of what it is like to confront the occupation face-to-face. See http://www.palestinemonitor.org/spip/spip.php?article1799

Palestinian farmer's home in Susya. The families live in tents because their dwellings are slated for demolition by the government.

But that is not why I am writing this post – although the courage and tenacity of those farmers is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. Rather, I am writing to tell you about Combatants for Peace (see http://cfpeace.org/), an organization composed of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters, individuals who had fought but now work for peace, non-violence, and an end to the occupation. They have about 200 active members who belong to five regional groups, each one pairing an Israeli city with a Palestinian city, for example, Tel Aviv and Nablus. Each group meets monthly in the Palestinian cities (the Palestinian members cannot enter Israel) to plan activities, tours for the public, and events.

To give you an idea of how and why these former fighters became involved in this organization, the following links are brief life stories of two members of the group, one Palestinian and one Israeli. They illustrate how this conflict has deep and long roots on both sides but how reconciliation can emerge. Both accounts are very moving and provide the kind of insight into the occupation that only personal testimony can do.

1 – http://cfpeace.org/?cat=6&story_id=667

2 – http://cfpeace.org/?cat=6&story_id=970

(Others accounts are available on the website and are worth reading.)

Combatants for Peace organized the bus from Tel Aviv that took me to Susya. All 50 seats were taken, many by former Israeli soldiers who were devoting the day to show solidarity with the farmers in the Hebron Hills.  We were all instructed to remain non-violent and passive if the nearby settlers come to harass and attack.

We spent the afternoon at a newly built school that serves 35 children, grades one through four. For much of the last decade, children did not attend school because road closures made it impossible. A few years ago the community set up tents for a school. When a powerful storm blew the tents away they built the new concrete structure. Since there is no electric power or water hookups provided to Palestinians, the school uses solar power and water is trucked in. Until recently there were no bathrooms at the school.

Of course, since Palestinians in this area cannot obtain building permits, the school already has been served with a demolition order from the government – just like all the Palestinian dwellings in the area. One day a bulldozer will show up unannounced, accompanied by soldiers. It will quickly reduce the school to a pile of rubble, perhaps along with some Palestinian tents in the area. (The farmers live in tents which are easier to reconstruct than buildings after they are demolished.) Such is life for the residents of Susya.

The new school in Susya. Note the solar panel on the roof that provides electricity. The building will be demolished by the army at some point.

But on this weekend Israelis and Palestinians celebrated the school by planting sabra cacti on the hillside in front of the school building. It was a fitting symbol. The school’s principal mentioned in his welcoming remarks that the sabra is historically emblematic for both Israelis and Palestinians – another thing we could fight over if we chose to. But the truth is, just as we are all visitors on this earth, so too with the sabra in Israel and Palestine. It turns out it is a native plant of Mexico and was introduced to the Middle East only during the Ottoman Empire. So much for historical myths!

Local Palestinians and Combatants for Peace planting sabra cacti on the hill overlooking the new school.

A Tale of Two Cities

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“The day Jerusalem was liberated was the day that the city heaved a sigh of relief and began to spread its wings, for the benefit of its Arab and Jewish residents alike….We will never again allow Jerusalem to become a separated, bleak and divided city.“ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

When Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke those words at the Jerusalem Day ceremony in 2010, he was already too late. Unbeknownst to his audience, Jerusalem had already become bleak and divided.

This is a tale of two cities, one rich with parks, well cared for neighborhoods and tourist attractions; the other impoverished and deprived of even basic services. And as for a united Jerusalem spreading its wings for the good of Jews and Arabs alike, well, you decide below on the efficacy of that claim.

As background, as I covered in a post on January 16, A Virtual Tour of East Jerusalem (I urge you to “take the tour” if you haven’t done so already), Israel annexed in 1967 all of what had been East Jerusalem plus 28 nearby villages and incorporated them into the municipality of Jerusalem.

Fast Forward to 2012:

Let’s see how the Palestinian population has fared 45 years later when compared to Jewish West Jerusalem.

Population: There are 303,000 Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, one-third of the population, out of a total of 835,000 people in the Jerusalem municipality (2009 data).

Poverty: 65% of Palestinian families live under the poverty line as compared to 31% of Jewish families. (This is 2008 data. Economic conditions in East Jerusalem have gotten much worse since then so these figures have deteriorated further.)

Children:  74% of Palestinian children live under the poverty line compared to 45% of Jewish children. (Also 2008 data)

Schools: Average class size is 32 students in East Jerusalem versus 24 students in West Jerusalem. School buildings are neglected, often run down. The Jerusalem municipality’s own statistics listed 50% of East Jerusalem’s classrooms to be sub-standard in 2009 (704 out of 1,360) including 221 that were deemed unfit.

In addition, due to an estimated shortage of 1,000 classrooms in the municipal schools there, an estimated 11,000 Palestinian children (12% of school age children) did not attend school for the 2009-2010 school year due to lack of space. Tens of thousands of others were forced to attend private schools, which posed a severe financial burden on the mostly impoverished population. In 2008, the per-student budget allocation for elementary school children in Jewish West Jerusalem was 400% higher that in East Jerusalem: 2,372 NIS (New Israel Shekels) per Jewish student versus 577 NIS per Palestinian student.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that there is a 50% drop out rate for Palestinian children compared to 7.4% in the Jewish sector.

Several recent court rulings have ordered the Jerusalem municipality to build more classrooms and to increase the East Jerusalem school budget. How these rulings will be implemented is a question that will unfold over time.

Pre-school: There are roughly 15,000 three and four year olds in East Jerusalem. Despite the importance of early education on child development, 90% of them are not enrolled in a pre-school educational program. This is not for a lack of interest. There are only 2 municipal pre-schools in East Jerusalem compared to 56 in West Jerusalem.

Land: One-third of the land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated by the Israeli government from Arab owners since 1967.

Housing: As of 5 years ago, over 50,000 housing units for Jewish residents has been built on this expropriated land. That number is larger today. No housing has been built for Palestinian residents.

Housing density for existing homes in East Jerusalem is almost double what it is for Jewish residents: on average, 1.9 people per room versus 1 person per room. It is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits to construct new houses or to repair existing ones due to discriminatory policies. The result is massive illegal construction without safety inspections and the constant threat of demolition by the government.

View of East Jerusalem neighborhood

Municipal Services: There are minimal municipal services provided to East Jerusalem residents. A simple walk through neighborhoods will reveal decrepit roads and sidewalks, and few public parks or playgrounds. Hundreds of streets are not provided with trash collection services that results in trash piling up everywhere.

Street scene in East Jerusalem

Water connections: 160,000 Palestinian residents, over half the population, have no legal connection to the water network. Either they jury-rig connections to the water mains or they use stored water in containers.

Sewage: Estimates state that East Jerusalem is in need of 50 kilometers of new main sewage lines. Entire neighborhoods still use cesspools, not ideal for densely packed urban neighborhoods, and existing sewage facilities are antiquated and poorly maintained. It is not unusual for sewers to overflow and for sewage water to run above ground close to homes.

NOTE: These last few items pose a risk to public health from infectious disease but they continue to be ignored by municipal authorities.

Postal service: 10 post offices serve Palestinian areas compared to 42 in West Jerusalem. Mail delivery is only partial and sporadic making commerce more difficult.

In addition, Palestinian residents face the ongoing menace of home demolitions and eviction, especially in the neighborhoods directly abutting the Old City where the government works closely with several ideological NGOs to evict Palestinians and replace them with Jewish settlers (For details, see my posts of January 2 and January 10).

Home in East Jerusalem shortly after being demolished. Note pile of rubble in the background.

The construction of the Separation Wall, as noted in previous posts, has disrupted the flow of commerce by severing neighborhood from neighborhood and all of East Jerusalem from the nearby commercial centers of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the rest of the West Bank. This has caused massive economic dislocation and impoverishment.

Separation wall in Jerusalem. Note how it splits this neighborhood in two, severing all connections.

The data above is just a sampling of the comparisons between Palestinian East Jerusalem and Jewish West Jerusalem. For those interested in more details, you can read a full report that was produced by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an organization that fights for the rights of all Israelis. (For more details, see http://www.scribd.com/doc/31806771/Report-May10-ACRI-Human-Rights-in-East-Jerusalem-Facts-and-Figures Scroll down to page 38 for English). A preface to the report sums it up as follows:

“Israel’s policy for the past four decades has taken concrete form as discrimination in planning and construction, expropriation of land, and minimal investment in physical infrastructure and government and municipal services. As a result, East Jerusalem residents suffer severe distress, and their conditions are worsening.”

“Life in East Jerusalem can be described as a continuing cycle of neglect, discrimination, poverty, and shortages. These, compounded by construction of the Separation Barrier cutting Jerusalem off from the West Bank, have led to the social and economic collapse of this part of the city. A large majority of East Jerusalem residents do not receive, and cannot afford to buy, the most basic services.

It seems to me that the facts on the ground in East Jerusalem belie the claim that Jerusalem is indivisible. East and West Jerusalem are like two separate worlds, one a modern urban environment, a magnet for visitors, and the other a neglected and impoverished backwater. The demand for a unified city which has been made into a roadblock for peace, the city that tourists are shown with reverence, is a Potemkin Village hiding the truth.

Update on recent Bedouin Home Demolitions:

Two days ago I linked to a late breaking story about a middle of the night demolition of several Bedouin homes. Unfortunately, more details have emerged that make the situation more distressing. In all, six houses were destroyed making many more families homeless than was originally reported. See this update to read what the experience was actually like: http://972mag.com/idf-commits-price-tag-attack-against-activists-resisting-home-demolitions/33866/

Salim Shawamreh's house before it was demolished. See the link above for the view afterwards.

Profoundly disconcerting in the above link was when one of the Israeli soldiers yelled at Rabbi Arik Aschermann, director of Rabbis For Human Rights in Israel who had rushed to the scene, to take off his skullcap because “he was a disgrace to Judaism.” This while the soldiers were escorting a bulldozer from house to house, demolishing them without any advance notice. In the dead of night, entire families – men, women, children and babies, bewildered and disoriented – were evicted into the cold winter rain with no shelter and just the clothes on their backs.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof. (Justice, justice shall you pursue.) Deuteronomy 16:20

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