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Destroyed houses advance Israeli political aims


Sixteen-year-old Ali’ al-Halsa finally snapped. Twice the Israeli authorities had ruined her parents’ stone house, and she had remained silent. This time she refused to keep calm, and on a desolate hillside in the middle of the Judean Desert, Ali’ kicked and scratched the police who had come to destroy her home. For creating a nuisance and resisting arrest, she was locked up in a military jail. She spent seven days in the slammer before her lawyer managed to release her on bail.

The house that the Israeli authorities were so determined to destroy was a tin shack with no electricity and no running water; it contained just three bare rooms. This shack, however, was home to Ali’s large Bedouin family whose ancestors had resided in the area ever since the beginning of the Ottoman Empire. On July 14 the Israeli military, accompanied by police and a bulldozer, demolished it, neither realizing nor caring that on that very day over 200 years ago the Bastille was stormed and the great French revolution erupted. Liberty, fraternity and equality were surely not on their minds.

Since 1967, Israel has reduced to rubble some 6,000 Palestinian houses in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. Over 500 of these have been destroyed following the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in September 1993.

According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the motivation for demolishing Palestinian houses is purely political. The committee’s chair, Professor Jeff Halper from Ben-Gurion University, notes that an elaborate system of housing regulations, laws and procedures has been employed to give the policy a legal justification, but contends that the real purpose is to advance political objectives. The goal, he says, “is to confine the 2 million residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to small, crowded, impoverished and disconnected bantustans.” This strategy is used to foreclose the possibility of establishing a viable Palestinian entity. It is employed to ensure Israeli control even after the Palestinians have achieved some form of internal autonomy.

One would have thought that with the change of government this policy would be abandoned. The demolition of Ali’s home was, however, no random incident. On Aug. 11, two additional houses were destroyed just outside Jerusalem in a small village called Wallaja, leaving yet another 11 people homeless. A few days later I visited the families, who had moved into tents. I was told that in their village alone 40 houses have been designated for destruction, while a total of 4,000 demolition orders remain outstanding in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Orders for demolitions are signed by the Interior Minister Nathan Sharansky. This is the same Sharansky who became famous while spending a number of years in a Soviet prison cell. Sharansky’s former accomplishments and reputation as a freedom fighter have not stopped him from destroying Palestinian houses for the simple reason that his moral judgment is informed by a two-tier system -- one for Jews, another for non-Jews.

But it is unfair to place the blame entirely on Sharansky’s shoulders. After all, Prime Minister Ehud Barak is the one who, since his election three months ago, has not ceased speaking about the importance of a true and meaningful peace. While last week he finally agreed to begin implementing the Wye accords, during his first 100 days Barak has not only failed to stop the demolitions, but has also done nothing about the 37 illegal Jewish settlements that have recently been established in the West Bank. Jews who confiscate Palestinian land, ruin fields and violate numerous laws are handled with kid gloves, while a Bedouin family building a tin shack in the Judean desert is handled with an iron fist.

Given this treatment it is not hard to understand why Ali’ snapped. Her sense of justice merely echoes the teachings of the prophets who once wandered through the desert that she calls home.

Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999