By Moriel Rothman
Al-Khalayleh, Palestinian village near the settlement of Giva’at Ze’ev, outside of Jerusalem – A group of young men are swinging shovels and hammers at the walls of a house – their own house.
They had watched as the bulldozers tore down their neighbors’ homes and buildings early the same morning, and decided to destroy part of their house themselves. They were doing this, on one hand, to “not let the Israelis have the pleasure of doing it,” they told me.
But more than that, they were doing so with the hope that the authorities would decide that enough of the house was gone, and allow them to keep one room. Also, this way they perhaps could avoid the fine Palestinians are commonly forced to pay– for the cost of the demolition of their house.
Their desperate efforts were in vain: after the bulldozer finished across the street, border police swarmed over to the house where the boys were swinging their tools.
Everyone was cleared out of the area and the bulldozer went to work flattening the entire structure.
This specific demolition, along with four others, took place Tuesday morning (December 6, 2011) in the village of Al-Khalayleh, but the story could describe hundreds of similar demolitions that have taken place in recent years throughout the occupied territories. The story is as follows:
A Palestinian family builds a new house or building. Sometimes they try to get a building permit, other times they do not bother. Either way the result is the same: permission is not granted and the building is constructed “illegally.”
According to the Israeli planning group Bimkom, in 1972, 97 percent of the building permits submitted by Palestinians were approved. By 2000, the rate was down to 2.7 percent. Since 2000, the acceptance rate has averaged somewhere around 5 percent.
The building is then declared illegal by Israeli authorities – whether it be the Civil Aministration in Area C, as was the case in Al-Khalayleh, or the municipality in East Jerusalem, as was the case in two demolitions that took place the day before (December 5) in Wadi Asoul and Beit Hanina (where, as the homeowner explained, “They dug into the concrete around the home also, so that it will be impossible to rebuild.”)
Sometimes the families are warned in advance that there will be a demolition, sometimes the bureaucracy takes place over their heads or behind their backs. Either way, they rarely know exactly when the demolition will happen.
And there was indeed a current of surprised panic in Al-Khalayleh, humming around the sea of dark blue uniforms and bright yellow bulldozers, dotted with Palestinian villagers holding up cell phones to film.
Everyone was yelling, making phone calls and demanding to see papers. Then the engine of the bulldozer clicked on, the black traction started to move, and the crowd grew silent – unless maybe it had been silenced by the sound of cracking concrete.
Within five minutes, the demolition was finished and the police escorted the bulldozers 100 meters up the street, to destroy the next structure.
And then the next. All in all five structures – two of them residential houses – were destroyed in the span of a few hours.
As the final structure was being demolished, the owner of one of the houses came up to me and asked:
“What can I do now?”
“I… don’t know.”
But in fact I did know. Nothing. The answer is nothing. The demolition was, in essence, a punishment for being Palestinian. He has no option to go to court, because the only courts he has access to are the occupation courts. If he rebuilds, his house will likely be destroyed again. And in all likelihood, the bulldozers will return soon to destroy some of his neighbors’ houses as well.
If trends can tell us anything, these demolitions over the past few days are just the beginning of a renewed wave of destruction. Is this governmental decision bolstered by the realization that most of the Israeli population will never hear about the demolitions, and that many of those who do hear about them will choose to ignore these stories of destruction? That the issue will be written off as “too distant” or “too complicated” or even “too depressing?”
It is not too distant – these demolitions are taking place inside and around Jerusalem, a matter of minutes in a taxi for an Israeli living in West Jerusalem.
It is not too complicated – these demolitions do not involve “terrorism” and “deterrence” and “death.” Even the argument that “Palestinians are illegally taking over land” cannot be applied here, as all of these structures were within the municipal borders of the Palestinian village itself.
These demolitions are simply instances of government offices wielding bureaucratic force to demolish homes built by Palestinians without a permit, which they would not have received even had they requested one. Why? Perhaps to exert control. Perhaps to remind the Palestinians that this land is not their land, not even the villages they live in. Perhaps to sow helplessness, despair, depression.
And these demolitions are certainly depressing. But they are not “too depressing,” especially for those of us with the privilege to go home at night – to a home that is not and will not be in danger of demolition. It is our obligation as Israelis, as wielders of such privilege, to see to it that these demolitions do not continue as planned, whether that be through lobbying, writing, witnessing, posting, filming, discussing, protesting or some other way. We cannot sit silently.
Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli writer and activist. He lives in Jerusalem, and is active with Rabbis for Human Rights, who recently submitted a petition asking the Israeli Civil Administration to allow Palestinians in Area C to plan for themselves, rather than depend on permission from the Israeli system.