It was another of those routine tragedies that are never publicized. At eight in the morning we at ICAHD (the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) received a call that the Border Police, Israeli police and Jerusalem Municipality bulldozers were massing below the Palestinian village of Anata, poised to begin another day of home demolitions. We never know of demolitions ahead of time. The Israeli authorities responsible for demolishing Palestinian homes – the municipality and the Ministry of Interior in Jerusalem, the “Civil” Administration in the West Bank and the army – do not provide advanced warning to us or, indeed, to the families themselves. Tens of thousands of Palestinian families live with demolition orders on their homes, some 22,000 in East Jerusalem alone, where fully a third of Palestinian homes face demolition at any time. When we received word of preparations for a demolition that morning, however, we knew precisely which home would be targeted first: that of the Hamdan family, the elderly parents their married son and daughter-in-law with their five children, and an unmarried son. It was a home we had rebuilt for the second time in last summer’s ICAHD work camp, when Israeli and international peace activists joined with local Palestinians to rebuild as an act of political resistance to the Occupation.
In fact, we had been present at the original demolition two and a half years before, a report of which, entitled “The Miserable Occupation on a Miserable Morning,” appeared on our website. At that time, 6:30 on a very cold and rainy morning in late November, 2005, ICAHD staff, volunteers and activists had rushed to Anata to witness, document and resist the demolition of the Hamdan family home – and subsequently of their next door neighbor. By the time we arrived the area had already been blocked off by the Israeli Border Police, so we had been unable to approach the houses. We watched from afar as a bulldozer systematically demolished the homes, leaving a pile of rubble and the shattered families standing amidst their belongings in the freezing rain, wondering where to go, where they would sleep that night, how to survive without a home and any financial resources. Later that day we learned that another five Palestinian homes had been demolished: three in Beit Hanina, one in Isawia and another one in A-Tur. The home of yet another family suffered an even more grotesque fate. In a “compromise” with the court, the family is to demolish half its house with its own hands, while the other half will be sealed while the family attempts to obtain a building permit.
Only one small but devastating incident distinguished the Hamdan demolition this past week from the normal routine. As Shaadi Hamdan and I were standing in front of the home, we were accosted by a slim, blond Border Policeman, probably of Russian origin. “I was born to demolish Palestinian homes,” he informed us mockingly, a big smile on his face, a swagger in his movements. “I love demolishing homes. I wake up in the morning hungry to demolish homes.” With that he walked away. I can’t convey the mixture of anguish, anger, bewilderment and resignation that crossed Shaadi’s face at that moment. He simply stood aside as his home was demolished for the second time.
I could not stand aside. Sensing that the forcible removal of the family’s possessions (or most of them) was about to cease and the demolition begin, I seized the moment and rushed into the home, planting myself in a corner of what had been the kitchen before the surprised Border Police could react. The head of the police unit rushed up to me sitting on the floor and ordered me to leave. My conscience as an Israeli, a Jew and a human being forbids me to permit this illegal and immoral act of demolition from taking place, I told him. In fact, I informed him, I am placing you under citizen’s arrest for violating the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 53), which prohibits the demolishing of homes in occupied territories. I thereby asked the accompanying policemen to arrest him. Sputtering, furious, he placed plastic handcuffs on me and had me forcibly thrown out of the house.
Lying on the ground as the bulldozer commenced its evil work, I noted what I often see at demolitions: police and soldiers standing around laughing among themselves, eating sandwiches, swapping the latest sports news. Taking advantage of their being distracted from the demolition itself, I suddenly sprang up and made a run for the bulldozer. The police chased me and wrestled me to the ground. Furious at this additional challenge to his authority, the policeman in charge had me put in tight metal handcuffs and, since I refused to walk, dragged down the mountainside to an awaiting paddy wagon.
Nothing, of course, happened to m
e, besides a few bruises. The Border Policeman “born to demolish” paraded around me repeating his delight at the day’s events, all of which ICAHD activists recorded on film. But we Israeli Jews enjoy a privileged position. We know the police or soldiers will not shoot us, will not beat us, will not detain us for long, and so we exploit that privilege in ways that Palestinians can’t. Shaadi would have been shot for doing what I did. We also know another sad fact: that unless an Israeli like me performs such a dramatic act, no one will notice the demolitions that take place almost daily in Jerusalem, the West Bank and, yes, Gaza. The news spread quickly throughout the world. I was interviewed that day, my hands still in handcuffs, by radio stations from South Africa to Norway. I tried, of course, to put my action in context, to stress that my experience paled next to the crime that had been perpetrated upon the Hamdan family by the Israeli authorities. But I knew the truth: only the arrest of an Israeli makes the news; Palestinian suffering, as their very claim for justice, is ignored. Still, resistance is necessary.
The Hamdan family is now in serious debt and without a home of their own. The three family units have been scattered amongst their relatives. We have offered to rebuild the home, but Shaadi says he has no more stomach for the unending cycle of building and demolishing. He doesn’t see the point of it, neither as an act of political resistance about which no one seems to care nor as a solution to his personal problems. Unable or unwilling to leave the country, which is what Israel’s policy of house demolitions is all about, he will sink into the woodwork, managing to survive out of sight as do millions of other Palestinians. Overwhelmed by the scope of demolitions, it is unlikely we will stay in close touch with him as well. With 18,000 homes demolished in the Occupied Territories since 1967 and thousands more targeted, we will do our best to resist those demolitions we can reach. We have rebuilt about 150 homes in the past eleven years, a drop in the bucket in terms of those needing to be rebuilt but significant in terms of acts of political resistance. Shaadi might not see it, and the Palestinian Authority does not pursue it, but ICAHD has succeeded in raising the issue of house demolitions among both governments and civil society in countries around the world. Ending house demolitions is in the first phase of the all-but-defunct Road Map.
Still, the demolition of the Hamdan home reminds us that Israel continues to strengthen and expand its Occupation daily, through the demolition of Palestinian homes, the expropriation of their land, massive settlement construction, the building of a massive highway system that separates Israeli from Palestinian traffic, the continued construction of the Wall and in a hundred other ways that escape public attention – all in violation of the so-called Road Map to which the US and Europe claim to be so committed.
Our struggles against the Occupation must continue, of course, even if no solution is apparent. Many of us in the critical Israeli peace movement believe that the two-state solution has been eliminated by Israel’s settlement policies (unless we accept the notion of a Palestinian Bantustan, which we do not), but we doubt that a one-state solution will garner the support needed to become a practical program. Many Palestinians like Shaadi feel isolated and even defeated; they persevere, but are in desperate need of international support and protection until a solution – or the will to impose a solution – emerges. We must redouble our opposition to the Occupation in order to show Shaadi that, in fact, the rebuilding his home is part of an effective political movement that will achieve Palestinian national rights and a just peace. We can begin with a minimalist demand that Rice, Blair, Ban and the other international decision-makers should have insisted upon years ago: that Israel end the demolishing of Palestinian homes NOW.