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.

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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