ICAHD Building Camp 2009

The journal entries below were written by participants in the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions’  annual Summer Rebuilding Camp. The views expressed are not necessarily those of ICAHD.

Day One – August 2nd, 2009


Anata, East Jerusalem, August 2—The day I arrived here a right-wing extremist walked into Open House, a lesbian and gay center in Tel Aviv, and pulled out a gun, killing three and injuring 15.

The next morning, at 5:00 a.m., Palestinian occupants of two houses in Jerusalem were evicted and Jewish settlers installed in their place.

Welcome to Israel.

I am here as part of a 60-member delegation to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions seventh annual summer camp. We will rebuild two houses here in Anata, a village of 30,000 on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, and construct 11 public toilets in the south of Hebron. If there is time remaining, we will work on a project in the Jordan Valley.

We are staying at Arabeia House, which has been demolished and reconstructed four times. It features a spacious downstairs room where the women sleep on mattresses lined up on the floor. The men sleep in two covered areas on the large terrace cut into the hillside. The house has been under a demolition order since June.

On the hill across the way, on the other side of the infamous “Separation Barrier,” as Israeli officials call it (it is known to the rest of the world as the Apartheid Wall), is a military base and prison. Looking east, you can see the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan.

On our first full day here, we were taken on a tour of Anata. It was a striking contrast with the well-kept Jewish neighborhood in the south of Jerusalem where we met for our orientation. The first stop is the top of the hill, where a Bedouin encampment is also under a demolition order. The soldiers across the way find the corrugated metal buildings unsightly and want to move the Bedouins, who drive their sheep by our compound in the mornings, into the village. “Whoever heard of animals living in the middle of the village?” asks Salim Shawamreh, who lives in Arabeia House with his wife, for whom the center is named.

Anata is split in three parts; one section is considered part of Jerusalem, all of which has been annexed by Israel; the rest is split between Areas B and C, administrative designations that were applied to the Occupied Territories by the 1995 Oslo Agreement that was supposed to lead to an independent Palestinian state. Areas with the B designation are under Palestinian civil administration and Israeli military control, while C areas are under full Israeli control. All the houses in the Area C section of Anata are under demolition orders, having been built without going through the expensive and tortuous Israeli permit process, which almost always results in denial for Palestinian applicants.

After our introduction to the village, we began our real work here—building houses for two families whose homes were demolished by Israeli bulldozers. I was working on a house for the Sbaih family, located on a hill overlooking a section of the wall under construction. Looking down, we saw U.S.-made Caterpillar backhoes and bulldozers moving materials around. Up at our site, we were working on pure people power. The internationals, most of them from Spain, cheerfully passed cinder blocks and other materials along human chains. As I passed buckets back and forth, I learned three new words in Arabic: “raba,” sand; “hasma,” gravel; and “mai,” water. These three materials were combined with cement in a small mixer; the resulting concrete was poured into wooden forms to make the columns that will support the walls.

At 5:30, some of us knocked off for the day to attend a demonstration in Jerusalem outside Sheikh Jarrah, where the Hannoun and Ghawi families had been evicted that morning. Their houses were part of a group of 28 that had been bought by Jews in the late 19th century. The previous occupants had abandoned them in 1929 after violence erupted against the growing influx of Zionist immigrants into what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. Israeli courts have ruled that the property should be returned to Jewish ownership. “If they really wanted to be just, they should also return the homes in the rest of Jerusalem that were owned by Palestinians in 1948, and there are a lot more of them,” says Meir Margalit, a staff member at the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

In November 2008, another family was evicted. Um Kamel, whose husband died of a heart attack two weeks after the event, erected a tent outside her home, which was occupied by settlers. This summer, activists from the International Solidarity Movement were staying in the threatened houses 24 hours a day, but they failed to prevent the evictions. Two hundred police and soldiers participated in the raid, in which eleven internationals and two Israelis were arrested. Charlie Wood, an ISM activist who was arrested and released, described how he watched from the back of the police wagon as settlers streamed into the empty houses, shaking hands and joking with police.

Yesterday’s demonstration began as a somber gathering of 100 or so outside the barriers police had erected in front of the entrance to Sheik Jarrah. Things heated up when chanting began and some people knocked over two of the metal racks, although no one entered the cordoned-off area. The knot of five or six police who had been huddled near the entrance was reinforced by another dozen, all carrying machine guns. They got into a formation and rushed toward the end with the downed barriers, pushing the demonstrators back a few yards, and a small group of police remained outside the barriers on the sidewalk.

A dance ensued for the next hour, in which police periodically pushed the protesters to the traffic island and then across the street and then retreated. At least three people were arrested.

Eventually we were joined by two more ICAHD staffers who had been to the vigil in Tel Aviv outside the lesbian and gay center. Our first full day, and our stay here is already marked with actions commemorating lives lost and broken. Welcome to Israel indeed.


Day Two – August 3rd, 2009


Controversy erupted, however, over the presence of Anata children at the building site. Throughout the construction of both houses, young boys were close by, either assisting with work, interacting with international participants, standing back and watching, or in one case, throwing rocks at nearby soldiers, guarding construction of the Israeli “separation barrier.” The soldiers fired back teargas, and then observed the building camp atop a nearby hill for the following three hours.

This incident in particular brought up discussion in the group, over whether children should be allowed on the site. Participants had felt anxious about the soldiers, said Jedd Downhill, a participant from Davis, California. They worried that these boys’ form of resistance to the occupation, regardless of its legitimacy, could impede ICAHD’s form of resistance.

Participants who had not even witnessed the rock-throwing were concerned about the safety of kids helping on the worksite, because small children have taken the initiative to carry heavy materials without much supervision. The children might also distract participants from their own work. Arzu Tauukcuoglu, of Istanbul, Turkey, disagreed, seeing the boys as curious and polite, and enjoying their company.

The group concluded that the best solution was to involve the Anata community. Saleem Shawamreh spoke with families in the area, explaining ICAHD’s form of resistance and recommending supervision of the kids. Some participants also bought paper and crayons to engage the children while participants worked.

Even with small disagreements, building has continued on schedule, and the houses are looking promising!

Each day, a different participant will post a piece of writing to the website, describing their perspective on the day. Today’s entry was written by Francisco Marques, from Spain.

4:30 AM: During my sleep, something sounded new, blended with my dreams but still stuck in reality. The sound soon became recognizable as praying, sounding from a nearby mosque. Small time spaces between each phrase made it a conversation that had suddenly erupted. Although reality had already replaced dreaming, it wasn’t clear yet which one was better: If I was still dreaming, I would be distracted from the terrible situation faced by this place and its people. Yet the prayers were real, but still magical, recognized by me, neither a Muslim nor Arabic-speaker, as a statement of hope and a pursuit for peace, shared between us (The ICAHD group) and everyone living here in Anata.

During the day, I experienced in practical terms what I had heard at night. Walking through Anata (and its destroyed houses and streets filled with what no being should even have to deal with) it was clear to me that we are expected here, respected here and above all, given as much as possible here.

That made me wonder whether we, as Westerners, have given as little as a thought toward these families and their children, that play with handmade toys and ride broken bicycles, with the same joy that they use to welcome us in here, using big smiles, strong handshakes, and spontaneous football games. Yes, even with their rotten bikes these children smile!

It was this hope, and this feeling of homecoming, that started my day and reassured me that yes, these people deserve it, yes, hope exists, and yes, I am here!



Day Three – August 4th, 2009




We began our excursion to the Old City of Jerusalem on a bus, with no problems at the checkpoint. We were not even asked for our passports! Then we picked up Meir Margalit, a member of both ICAHD and the Jerusalem City Council, who guided us through the city. We began the tour at “New Gate,” which was built for the Franciscans, to avoid walking around the city wall to access their buildings. We observed Ultra-Orthodox Haredim Jews, and learned the meaning and purpose behind their traditional clothing. We entered the Palestinian zone, and learned about the history of a radical Jewish group from the 1960’s called the “Black Panthers”. We drove across the old 1967 frontier toward the Mount of Olives, and saw the old checkpoint where observers still watch for the former frontier. Then
we saw Israel’s Hebrew university, located on occupied territory.


On the Mount of Olives, we observed a settler house, occupied by political settlers just in the middle of a Palestine zone, at a strong strategic place. Then we began with the old city, discussing “the Dome of the Rock” and Al-Aqsa Mosque. We learned about the conflict between Jews and Muslims over the rock’s meaning, revolving around Abraham, Mohamed, and the Old Synagogue underground.


From the Mount of Olives, we could see E1 (the highway separating East and West Jerusalem), Beit Arabiya, and settlements, learning about plans to join them with Jerusalem.


After that we stepped through Damascus Gate and into the heart of the Old City. We walked through a complicated crossing of little streets full of shops holding everything you can imagine; but for Palestinians themselves, not just for typical tourists. It was really squished and crowded. In one of the shops we could see some uniformed men. On top of the shops, you can still see people living in their homes. Just before we arrived to the Holy Sepulcher Church, we could see an Israel flag waving in the wind. Just in front of the main door, a man with his weapon was sitting, watching the house. We discovered that they are paid by the state, and stay the whole day. Then we entered the Sacred Sepulcher, divided between the Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Catholic Churches. Then we took again the bus to the Spanish consulate, to thank them for the economic help to our trip.


We had the opportunity to speak with our ambassador. We put our cards on the table, because the consul spoke about the good relations between Spain and Israel. Some of us asked for Spain to press the Israeli government about the conflict. He answered that Spain alone is not able to decide about such a big issue, especially since it strongly depends on the EU. Apparently, they send regularly messages to Israel, alone or together with other countries, to give their opinion, which differs from EU’s. After that, someone suggested Spain cutting off its supply of weaponry to Israel, and he did not quite answer our question, speaking like a diplomat. After that, putting aside Spain, we asked about his opinion on the way to resolve the conflict, and proposed working with other countries on an agreement. He discussed his view on existing agreements, and how they could be translated into reality. After a positive meeting, we said goodbye and left the consul.



Day Four  – August 5th, 2009



Anata, East Jerusalem, Yesterday I spoke with a Jerusalem Post reporter, and invited her to come and see the camp in Anata for herself. She couldn’t, she told me, “because we’re not allowed to go to the West Bank.”


And that’s a shame, because that means she won’t be able to see and report on so many things that might help her audience understand what occupation means to the more than 2 million residents of the West Bank.


She won’t see the curious children who come to our construction site near the Israeli “security fence,” the wall that snakes through the West Bank, cutting through villages, separating farmers from their land, and even splitting in two the campus of Al Quds University (Al Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem). Some of the children began throwing stones at the soldiers by the wall the other day, drawing attention from the police and making us nervous that they might shut down our project, a home for the Sbaih family, whose previous house was demolished by the Israeli authorities. (Some 15 percent of the 162 houses that ICAHD has reconstructed over the last seven years have been re-demolished by the Israeli military—the reconstruction work is at least as much a statement of resistance as it is an effort to provide homes for Palestinians, and the families who participate do so with this understanding.)


The Jerusalem Post reporter won’t see the contrast between the illegal Israeli settlements here—lush green landscaped communities with municipal swimming pools and well-maintained roads—and the Palestinian villages, whose narrow streets, if they are paved at all, are
so uneven that the vans we cram into to go to our worksites can only travel at five or ten miles an hour most of the time.


Jeff took us on a tour of one of these communities yesterday—Ma’ale Adumim. It encompasses land stretching all the way to the Dead Sea, and, when construction finishes, it will nearly bisect the West Bank. It includes an industrial park and an aeronautics and space college. This school is intended to turn out technicians to work at the airport that is planned to serve “Greater Jerusalem,” itself a sprawling swathe of land with settlements topping the hills and dividing the surrounding Palestinian villages from each other. Most people live in Ma’ale Adumim more for economic than ideological reasons; unlike the religious settlers who believe the land was deeded to them directly from god, they moved to the settlement because government subsidies make it financially attractive and they feel alienated from the Orthodox population that is ever more dominant in Jerusalem.

Residents drive to work in the city every day, as they do in suburban bedroom communities in the United States, but here they use four-lane highways reserved for Jews, while Palestinians must travel on smaller side roads, going through checkpoints that the settlers never see. The ubiquitous checkpoints that can cause a trip of 10 miles to take hours are tucked out of sight in the tunnels where the Palestinian roads pass under the settler highways. Even the wall itself is constructed so that it is not so intrusive from the Israeli side. While Palestinians are greeted by a 25-foot concrete barrier, often on the Israeli side, the area approaching the wall is a gentle slope with landscaping.


The Israeli journalist won’t see the irony of the acres and acres of stumps from Palestinian olive trees that have been cut down by the military, while other ancient trees with thick gnarled trunks have been uprooted whole and transplanted to beautify the grassy traffic circles in the settlements. “Imagine seeing a 400-year-old olive tree that has been in your family for generations planted in a Jewish settlement,” says Jeff. These green oases with their grass- and tree-lined streets are a tremendous drain on the water resources of the region. Israel and its settlements in the West Bank use 85 percent of the water from the West Bank, while in many Palestinian villages and cities, municipal water comes only two days a week.


And it’s too bad the reporter won’t come to our construction site to see what a small group of people, fueled by a passion against injustice, can accomplish. In only a few days, we have gone from a bare foundation to a structure with four walls and a roof, with the beginnings of interior walls tracing out the rooms where a family will raise children, eat, drink, sleep, and, we hope, grow old together.


Yes, with a little effort, it’s possible to go through life in Israel and the settlements without ever seeing a Palestinian. And that’s the real shame.




Day Six & Seven – August 7th-8th, 2009


It’s Friday, August 7¬, and I am in an underground cave in the Bedouin community of Susia, in the South Hebron hills. Bego and Inez have begun to scrape away at the layers of encrusted goat dung with hoes. Ellen, Denise, Julia, Martina, Terry and I bend over to collect the crumbly cakes of dung and carry them up the steps cut into the stone. Outside, we drop them onto a pile. The wind comes from the southwest, from everywhere, raising dust, straw and dung, and it is in our eyes, nose, mouth and ears. The sun is so hot you can hear it burn. I initially thought this job would be easier than the others, as I would be underground part of the time, but the cave is long, and two-thirds of it is a goat pen, and the dung is deep, and the deeper one digs, the more aromatic it becomes. “Shit!” is more than an expletive, it’s what we dig, carry and inhale. It’s in our hair, our clothes. The French videographers decide to interview us in the middle of this. Some go to spas, ashrams, silent retreats; we dig shit. We try to spell each other, working in 10-minute shifts … but the ammonia eventually drives us out … into the sun.

We left Anata this morning, loading 33 mattresses and blankets onto the bus … the other 30 ICAHD volunteers will replace us on Saturday afternoon.

The people here are ’48 refugees from Beersheba. They came here, to the south Hebron hills and built the village of Susia. As Bedouin, they followed seasonal patterns
, spending the winters in the town and the summers on their lands in the hills, cultivating and grazing sheep and goats. Those patterns can no longer be followed, and they live in the hills year round. After ’67, they started having problems. Settlers. The first home demolition was in ’68. There was a period of relatively peaceful coexistence with the settlers in the ’70s, but in the ’80s a military base, an archeological site and their corresponding “security zones” engulfed the residents and forced them to relocate to the new Susia. The new Susia is a collection of patched-together tents and ramshackle structures of tin, cardboard, blocks, whatever, along the crest of a hill. Another row of structures is to the east on the opposite crest, and there are a few other structures are scattered below us. There is also a settlement, also called Susia, to the southeast … solid ticky-tacky yellow homes in a grid of green lawns and smooth roads. On the map that we are shown, it is surrounded by a large yellow triangle, which is the security area. The Bedouins of relocated Susia are squashed between Susia National Park and the yellow security area around the settlement of Susia. Five years ago, a boy from the community was shot and killed by a settler in the olive grove below us. Nothing happened to the settler, no investigation, no charges.

The terrain here is arid and rocky, and we walk in from the road over rubble and white stones smoothed by constant foot traffic. There is an openness that I like. Chickens, goats, a camel, beautiful scruffy children. We pass a water hole, a wind turbine and a solar panel, international donations. The water hole is not a well, but for storage. Water is trucked in. One 10-cubic-meter tank costs the community 350 NIS; that’s about 70 euros or 90 dollars. The price of water is way cheap in Israel since it is taken from West Bank aquifers, and the denial of water is one of the ways the Israeli state carries out its ethnic cleansing. The slow sqeeze. No showers until Saturday night at the earliest, back in Anata (and even then, it is an unpredictable trickle… Ramallah itself only gets water five days out of the week, while the areas around Ramallah get water twice a week).

We enter the shade of a tent, and sit on pillows. Nasser welcomes us, and explains their history, with a map, and the work. We will break into three groups. Some will work in the field, making a pool for irrigation, others will put up a tent, and others will clean a cave. That’s my team.

Fortunately, since we have had enough of the cave cleaning, and the sun is high, it is time for lunch. We sit around a tent floor, and I fall in love with a baby boy with huge eyes. The food is prepared by women, and served by men. It’s very orderly, and they won’t miss you for long: if you haven’t gotten your tea yet, or want more bread, it appears. After lunch, we go to the field in the valley, and carve out a hole which is supposed to be a meter deep, which will be used to irrigate the field below. It can’t be too big. That would attract attention. We also remove rocks from a field. There are quite a few rocks in Palestine. When you start these tasks, they seem infinite and impossible, but then an hour later you look up and see the progress … something that resembles a water catchment, and a field that can be cultivated. Everyone is doing this back-breaking work, to the best of their ability. Certain people work especially hard, and hold the rest of us to a high standard.

As the sun gets lower, blue shadows stretch across the valleys and the topography takes shape. Volunteers and villagers joke and play. We disperse, mingle, take pictures, explore. There is soccer, dabka, figs, flirtation, and the camel gets its walk and “shower.” (It rolls around in a sandy spot.) We have dinner on the cement floors of three tents, sitting on our mattresses from Beit Arabia, trying not to spill rice on Arabia’s blankets. There are two presentations, one by someone from Combatants for Peace and another by Sarha, about her refusal to enlist. I am having difficulty keeping my eyes open, and drift in and out, curled up in Arabia’s plush blankets, among the volunteers around me. There is a soft breeze, a moon and stars. Outside the tents, a bonfire. Someone plays a flute while others sing and clap. It is strong and gorgeous.

Until two days before our departure for South Hebron, the plan was to build 11 bathrooms in nearby Omel Kher, another Bedouin village very close to the settlement of Karmel. They have no electricity, no running water and are subject to harassment and attacks from the neighboring settlers. Men take care of the biological necessities during the day, and women at night. The topography does not suggest pleasant evening strolls (steep slopes, loose rubble, sharp thistles). Two days ago, villagers and their activist supporters were finishing the holes when they were contacted by the civil police and told that if they continued, all the work they had done in addition to the illegal houses in the village (most of them) would be destroyed. ICAHD decided it was too dangerous to continue. This village has already seen many home demolitions. Instead, we would do legal work, such as clearing a road and clearing a field. Midday Sunday, August 9, we arrive. Our hosts serve us lunch in a tent from which we can see the yellow settler houses and the trailers just across the road and up the hill. After lunch, we make our way to the work site. There is a confusing argument between the residents. An older man is very agitated and upset. We descend a steep rocky slope into a narrow valley and clear stones, which we throw into a dry riverbed. The guys spend a lot of time and effort moving a boulder (weighing somewhere between 300 and 500 kilos) by wedging a metal pipe under the stone and between other rocks. There is a shared tenacity … if this is the only job they can do, they will do it. Internationals, Palestinians and Israeli activists will not be defeated by this rock. It finally tumbles into the riverbed. He explains that he was very worried about the Israeli settlers…what they would do when they saw us coming to work. We all thank him. He keeps looking at the ground. Today is Saturday, and the sun is setting.

We meet our other half upon leaving. They will continue this work on Sunday, and clear the road of stones. These are “legal” jobs. There are jokes and goodbyes. In the distance, behind the fence, some of the volunteers noticed the settlers, sitting in lawn chairs, watching us. This afternoon, back in Anata, a call comes through from Omel Kher. The information is minimal, but it appea
rs the settlers and the army came into the village. They don’t need to do much to freeze the work. Their presence alone is threatening, and they get away with murder. What will happen to the people of Omel Kher and Susia once we are gone?