Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 March 2012
Issue No. 1088
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Homes destroyed, shattered lives

Israel's criminal policy of house demolitions in the occupied Palestinian territories is intended to destroy Palestinian lives, writes Graham Peebles*

Click to view caption
A worker looks as excavators demolish the Shepherd Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem

Within the catalogue of criminality that is Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the destruction of Palestinian homes must rank as one of the most cynical and heinous. According to the website, "some 90,000 people are currently reported to be at risk of displacement as a result of Israeli policies such as restrictive and discriminatory planning, the revocation of residency rights, the expansion of settlements and the construction of the West Bank separation wall."

Let us explore further, with tacit reference to the United States, which bankrolls the operation.

Home: a refuge from the world, safe and secure, somewhere to relax with family and friends, and breath easy, free from fear. This simple image is unknown to many Palestinians living under the illegal occupation of the West Bank by Israel. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA), "the Israeli practice of demolishing homes, basic infrastructure and sources of livelihoods continues to devastate Palestinian families and communities in East Jerusalem and the 60 per cent of the West Bank controlled by Israel, known as Area C. Many of the people affected already live in poverty, and demolitions are a leading cause of their ongoing displacement and dispossession in the West Bank."

Last year saw more homes demolished than in the previous six years, and record numbers of people were made homeless and displaced. According to the US human rights organisation Human Rights Watch, by November last year the "Israeli authorities had demolished 467 Palestinian homes and other buildings in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), displacing 869 people." The UN puts the figure even higher at 1,000 homes. Alongside the illegal destruction of Palestinian homes, Israeli settlement expansion has accelerated, as has "an escalation of violence perpetrated by settlers," according to Human Rights Watch.

The total number of recorded house demolitions since the occupation began in 1967 is estimated to be 24,813, says the website With Palestinians perversely being forced to either demolish their own homes or face a charge from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to do it for them, some homeowners undertake the task themselves. The family "is liable for the costs of the house demolition, which can run to tens of thousands of dollars. To avoid these costs, Palestinians subject to administrative house demolitions may opt to undertake the demolition of their own home, and it is not known how many Palestinians choose this route." These "homemade" demolitions are not included in the figure of 24,813 quoted above, making the actual total much higher.

We should reflect for a moment on the absurdity of living under an illegal occupation that forces families to bulldoze their own homes.

LIVES DEMOLISHED: The impact on families whose homes are demolished and the effects, immediate and long-term, are devastating. Children are particularly vulnerable, as are pregnant women and the elderly. Families are displaced and separated, and children are made homeless and frightened and unsettled for years.

As one source notes, "children who have had their home demolished fare significantly worse on a range of mental health indicators, including withdrawal, somatic complaints, depression/anxiety, social difficulties, higher rates of delusional, obsessive, compulsive and psychotic thoughts, and attention behaviour, even six months after the demolition. They cry more, are afraid to go to school, feel they are not loved or that others are bad to them, feel guilty, nervous and are very tense."

House demolitions also add to the numbers of Palestinian refugees, who constitute the largest single group of refugees in the world, there being an estimated seven million Palestinian refugees worldwide in 2007, together with 450,000 internally displaced people in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

PROPAGANDA THAT PERMITS VIOLENCE: As well as the demolition of homes, places of work, businesses and sources of livelihood are also destroyed, as is basic infrastructure including wells, rainwater harvesting cisterns, and other essential structures. When in the West Bank in 2009, I myself witnessed numerous roadside stalls outside Hebron being demolished. I counted eight smashed or in the process of being destroyed at the hands of the IDF. The reasons given included that the Palestinians involved has set up shop without the required official permits.

Israeli explanations justifying the demolitions serve only as propaganda, seeking to justify the unjust, the illegal, and the inhumane. The nonsense of permits is particularly absurd, since it is the Israeli authorities that grant, or refuse to grant, permits for a variety of aspects of daily life, including housing, the importing of goods, travel, trading and infrastructure development, such as water pipes, electrical lines, communication, etc.

The IDF claims that it only destroys Palestinian homes that are built without a permit or for "military reasons." However, this is disingenuous nonsense and is the locution of the deceiver attempting to trap the right-minded into legitimising the actions of the IDF and validating its illegitimate authority.

This bureaucratic maze of madness, established, maintained and administered as an instrument of control, adds to the armoury employed by Israel to bring Palestinians to their knees. Israeli military law systematically deprives Palestinians of their rights and denies them the ability to have any real effect on shaping policy regarding the land on which they live and with respect to their rights.

The two-tier legal structure installed by the occupying force is designed and implemented to maximise the suffering of the Palestinians, leaving them with no choice but to live outside the system. Israel's discriminatory planning restrictions result in the lack of building permits for the Palestinian population in the West Bank, forcing them to build without permits and live under the constant threat of eviction and demolition.

FLOUTING CONVENTIONS: While Palestinian homes and essential structures are destroyed, Israelis living comfortably and securely within the illegal settlements are allowed to flout the law.

The organisation Peace Now has documented "a dramatic increase in the number of new illegal buildings in the settlements, and construction is proceeding according to plans that were never approved by the IDF. At least 507 unapproved housing units are currently being built in 29 settlements," it says. These Israeli developments are not subject to demolition orders, even though they are built without the permits that are compulsory under Israeli law.

House demolitions exercised exclusively against Palestinians have displaced thousands of families, while neglecting to enforce the planning laws on Israeli settlers. The contradictions coil around the IDF, strangling its actions within a web of dishonesty and deceit as it justifies atrocities with bureaucracy and supports criminality.

Israel has no legitimacy under international law to create subsidised settler ghettos, or to destroy the structures of those who build without its permission. The full and complete domination of the Palestinians is its aim, with all the land under Israeli control. As the former Israeli leader Menachem Begin once said, "the return of even one bit of earth to the Arabs would be a betrayal of the nation."

The demolitions of homes, infrastructure and places of livelihood is illegal under international law, which notes that the systematic policy of house demolitions carried out against Palestinian residents in Jerusalem contravenes the fourth Geneva Convention which forbids "any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons" except where such destruction is rendered "absolutely necessary by military operations."

"Extensive destruction of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly constitutes a grave breach to the Convention, which can theoretically be prosecuted under the universal jurisdiction of States party to the Convention."

This theory needs to be implemented in practice, and collective complacency needs to give way to international outrage. To the above should be added a raft of articles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, where Article 9.1 says that "State Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his/her parents against their will," and Article 24.1 says that "States Parties recognise the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health."

Article 27.1 says that "States Parties recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development," and Article 31 guarantees "the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts."

Article 38 says that "States Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child." All these articles are relevant to the impact of house demolitions on children in the West Bank. What is required most urgently is the implementation and enforcement of international law.

QUIET TRANSFER: The demolition policy is a tool of terror in a planned campaign, with the clear intention of subjugation, control and intimidation. House demolitions are tied in with the overall strategy of expansion by Israel and the realisation of imperialist goals. It is part of the grand design of Judaic-Zionist expansionist doctrine, which intends to seize all the oil-rich lands from the shores of the Euphrates to the banks of the Nile and implies the continuing illegal settlement building and violence at the hands of settlers and the Israeli Defence Force.

Israel has continued to flout agreements for a moratorium on illegal construction in the settlements, and evictions of Palestinian families to make way for incoming settlers continue apace. Throughout the eastern half of Jerusalem, non- stop pressure is applied as part of a policy of "quiet transfer."

In reality this "quiet transfer" is far from quiet or peaceful, since it involves the forced eviction and displacement of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem. It refers to the technique used by the IDF to disempower the Palestinians and to extinguish their hopes for the future by making daily life tortuous, leading to the transfer of East Jerusalem citizens out of the city into the West Bank.

"The increasing rate of settlement expansion and house demolitions is pushing Palestinians to the brink, destroying their livelihoods and prospects for a just and durable peace," comments Human Rights Watch. Just after Christmas last year, "Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat announced plans to strip IDs from 70,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, and transfer them to the West Bank civil administration. Though not a physical transfer, this stripping of IDs will mark the largest en masse stripping of citizenship rights since 1967."

Thus, the process of ethnic cleansing continues apace in Jerusalem. This policy of intimidation, unjust building controls, the theft and rationing of water and the issuing of demolition notices constitutes a methodology for suffering that underpins the policy of "quiet transfer" in East Jerusalem. It is designed to try to wear the people down until sooner or later they simply give up.

Once they leave, such residents rescind their rights to Jerusalem ID papers, destroying any hopes of employment in Israel proper and effectively keeping them caged in the poverty of the West Bank. Everything Israel does inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories is part of an overall plan and a vision of total domination. The demolitions are no exception to this rule. Each demolition is a microcosm of the occupation: why Israel is demolishing a particular house in a particular area exposes how the wider occupation works and how the process of house demolitions is contributing to the wider occupation.

PARTNERS IN CRIME: Israel disregards international law with the support and involvement of its partner in crime, America. Every time a Caterpillar bulldozer from the US smashes into a Palestinian home, Israel commits another illegal act and the US corporate giant is an accessory to the crime, causing ever more human agony and distress.

Caterpillar has a long history of complicity in widespread human rights violations within the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It routinely provides Israel with equipment designed specifically for military use, knowing it is used to demolish Palestinian homes, to kill and injure Palestinian and international civilians, to destroy olive trees and farmland, and to facilitate expropriation of Palestinian territory through construction of Jewish-only settlements and Israel's apartheid wall.

America is also the supplier of everything that destroys and contaminates in the occupied Palestinian territories, from white phosphorous bombs burning the children of Gaza to Caterpillar bulldozers demolishing their homes. The US provides Israel with at least $8.2 million each day in military aid alone, with the international human rights group Amnesty International's Fuelling the Conflict report stating that "transferring weapons to a consistent violator of human rights is illegal under international law."

The US academic and activist Norman Finkelstein referred to Amnesty's findings by noting that "Israel is a consistent violator of human rights, and therefore there has to be a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel." The consistent supplying of arms by America to Israel maintains and sustains the occupation. "The US is by far the biggest supplier of weapons to Israel. Supplying those weapons to Israel is not only illegal under international law, it is also illegal under domestic US law."

Those sitting in comfort within the White House know well what US corporations are supporting, where US arms are deployed and what the silence of consecutive US administrations has allowed to continue. By its support, the US is condoning the on-going demolition of homes and the destruction of too many lives to count. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton merely describes the demolitions as "unhelpful," noting that they violate Israel's obligations under the US road map for peace.

In reality, this "US roadmap for peace" is a blood-splattered road of rubble that leads nowhere. It is in the hands of a broker whose vision is not one of peace -- the US has blocked the two states vision supported by virtually the entire world since the mid 1970s -- but instead is one of extended hegemony and dominance throughout the Middle East and the world.

Any road map to peace could be swiftly navigated were America to withdraw the support it gives to Israel and the diplomatic, economic and military tools that are fuelling the illegal occupation and causing untold suffering to the Palestinian people.

The days are numbered for such tyranny and injustice. A growing movement of solidarity and cooperation is building daily throughout the world. This movement is shining light into the darkest corners, and there are few darker than in Israel, sustaining all those who call for justice, freedom and unity. All that perverts and soils the lives of men, women and children everywhere should be exposed. Implement and enforce the law.

* The writer is director of The Create Trust, a UK registered charity supporting fundamental social change.

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