An Israeli in Palestine

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At 7:30 this morning (Monday. July 09, 2001), as I was about to travel with other members of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions to the besieged town of Beit Umar, near Hebron, where tons of produce cannot be transported to market and are rotting while the inhabitants face severe hunger, I got a call that six bulldozers accompanied by hundreds of soldiers were entering the Shuafat refugee camp to the north of Jerusalem.  The ICAHD members proceeded to Beit Umar (a report on that later), while Arik Aschermann of Rabbis for Human Rights, Liat Taub, a student and ICHAD staff member, Gadi Wolf, a conscientious objector who just served time in jail, and I headed for Shuafat.

On the way I had that sinking feeling of powerlessness mixed with outrage that always accompanied me to events like this – an equal mixture of responsibility, anger at the injustice, the fundamental unfairness of it all, and helplessness in the face of an unmoving, uncaring, cruel and supremely self-righteous system of oppression. On the way we all worked our cell phones, Arik calling the press, me calling the embassies and consulates (both the American and European consulates are very responsive and forthcoming), Liat and Gadi calling our lists of activists to join us, keeping in touch with our Palestinian partners as well. Meit Margalit, a Jerusalem City Council from the Meretz party who has been a steadfast ally, and Salim Shawamreh, our Palestinian partner who lived in Shuafat before building a home of his own in nearby Anata, which was demolished three times, waited for us.

We passed through the familiar and profoundly banal streets of West Jerusalem, with people all around going about their “normal” lives, passing the thousands of apartments built for Israelis in East Jerusalem (50,000 more or less, so that the 200,000 Israelis living in East Jerusalem today outnumber the Palestinian population), neat stone-faced apartment blocks framed with trees, shrubbery and lawns, served by wide streets and sidewalks. Once past the neighborhood/settlement of French Hill, however, the landscape changes, though we remain within the city of Jerusalem as defined by Israel in 1967. The hillsides become barren, strewn with shells of old cars and garbage. The houses are small, scattered and made of unattractive cement blocks. No trees, no lawns, no sidewalks, certainly no parks – just narrow, dusty, pot-holed streets with no street lights. People, kids walking on the shoulders, competing for space with mini-vans and old cars.  The Third World just a hundred meters down the road, and in the same city.

And then the soldiers.  As we approached the main entrance to the camp, we saw hundreds of soldiers, Borders Police and regular police, some mounted on horseback, others in the dozens of military jeeps that blocked all the entrances to the camp and patrolled its maze of alleyways. We parked and walked in – careful to stay in touch with Salim, who sent some people to escort us, uncertain how Israelis would be received at such a time.  We were received well.  Walking with our hosts I was struck by how “normal” life was continuing.  Kids played in the street, men worked in the garages along the roads, women went about their business.  Just a few minutes away houses were being demolished, the camp was completely overrun by soldiers, yet people had developed a way to continue their lives no matter what. Sumud, steadfast, is the Arabic name for it.

We walked through the crowded camp of some 25,000 people, finally coming out on the top of a hill overlooking the periphery of the camp and, across the wadi, the narrow valley, the Jerusalem settlement of Pisgav Ze’ev looming over Shuafat from the opposite hill. Juxtaposed in this way, the injustice virtually hit you in the face. Here was a crowded camp, layers of jerry-built concrete homes separated by the narrowest of alleyways, leading down a slope where the raw sewage of the camp flowed to the houses where the bulldozers had already started their demolition work (you could hear the hack-hack-hack of the pneumatic drills collapsing the concrete roofs), and then, just a couple hundred meters away, the massive modern housing project of Pisgat Ze’ev (“Ze’ev’s Summit,” named after the Likud’s founding father Ze’ev Jabotinsky) with its manicured lawns and trees. And separating these two world: the stream of sewage down below (Pisgat Ze’ev has its own closed sewage system, thank you), and the “security road” where the army patrols at night, guarding the residents of Pisgat Ze’ev from their neighbors.

In order to avoid the soldiers and police, we walked through the alleyways and down the slope, sloshing through the sewage to come up to the scene of the demolitions. The army and police had their backs turned to us as they guarded the bulldozers and drills from the angry Palestinian crowd – including the frantic home-owners who were about to see their life savings go up in dust.  We quickly ran to the bulldozers and lay down in front of them. A symbolic action, to be sure, but one which created a scene and gave news photographers something to “shoot.”  (Because we are Israelis, we have the privilege of being shot only by camerasé.)  For the soldiers our actions are simply a stupid and incomprehensible, and they cart us away unceremoniously.  We don’t bother to argue with them or explain to them; it is enough that we act as vehicles for getting the images of demolitions out to the world.  Later, when the reporters talk to us, we can explain what is happening and why it is unjust and  oppressive.  Our comments will find their way into official reports (this evening the US State Department officially deplored the demolitions, and we know that European and other governments take note).  That is our role.  Helplessness in the face of overwhelming force and callousness, yet faith that all of you, once you know, will generate the international pressures necessary to end the Occupation once and for all.  As an Israeli, and speaking strictly for myself, I have despaired of ever convincing my own people that a just peace is the way.  Israelis may passively accept dictates from outside, but a just peace will not come from within Israeli society.

Arik, Liat and Gadi are hauled away in a police jeep, presumably arrested. There isn’t room for me, so I’m left sitting in the dust, my clothes torn, just a little bruised from the man-handling and being hauled over the rocks, but glad to have an opportunity to take pictures of the demolitions (you can see them at www.alternativenews.org today or tomorrow) and to relay the ongoing developments to reporters.  The Palestinians across the way either watch impassively, helplessly, or when the bulldozers leave the last rubble heap and approach their homes, react by climbing to the roof, yelling at the soldiers (women even dare push them sometimes), occasionally throwing stones.  At these times the soldiers reactions are quick and violent: high-powered rifles are aimed at the protesters, people are shoved into police vans, tear gas is thrown (sometimes inside the houses, though the instructions on the canisters – produced in the Federal Laboratories in Pennsylvania – clearly state “for outdoor use only.”  People often get shot, though that didn’t happen today.  The soldiers and police, who just a few minutes before were joking with each other (from conversations with them over the years, I haven’t encountered any who saw anything wrong with what was happening, or had any problem blaming the Palestinians for the demolitions of their own houses, and who refer to what they are doing as “work”), suddenly become violently enraged.  As if the Palestinians have the chutzpa to resist, as if they are the criminals, as if “we” now have an opportunity to get even with “them,” to extract revenge for not accepting our Occupation.  And one by one the houses are systematically torn down, this one a shell not yet completed, that one a four story building intended to provide decent shelter (at last) to 30 members of an extended family (I watch the grandfather crying on the side, wiping his tears with his kaffiya, trying not to lose his dignity altogether).  Fourteen “structures” (as Israel calls them).  By 12:30 the operation is over.  The soldiers are in no hurry to leave – indeed, at least a hundred more arrive in the camp as the demolitions are winding down.  Israel loves to leave the Palestinians “messages.”

In the end an army jeep came and I was tossed in the back.  We drove up the security road to Pisgat Ze’ev, where I was told to go home.  Walking over to a bus stop, dirty, smelly from the sewage, my clothes torn, a woman asks me what happened.  Reluctantly I tell her that I was trying to resist the demolition of some of the homes of her neighbors in Shuafat, nodding in the direction of the camp.  The reaction was painfully predictable. “Terrorists!  They’re trying to move their houses into our neighborhood! Why don’t they build with permits, like we do?  They don’t pay taxes and expect free houses and services!  This is our country.  When I came here from Moroccoé..”)  The bus pulls up, we get on and she tells the driver: “Leave him off in Shuafat.  They’ll kill him there.”  (Though Mayor Olmert declares that at every opportunity that Jerusalem is a “united” city, there are no municipal buses to Shuafat or most of East Jerusalem, or street lights, or sewers, or postal service, or even street names.)  An invisible city to Israelis.

According to LAW, the demolished houses belonged to:

Fourteen houses demolished out of 25 that received demolition orders yesterday (the owners were given no chance to appeal to the courts).  Some 2000 demolition orders outstanding in East Jerusalem alone, another 2000 in the West Bank and Gaza.  8000 Palestinian houses demolished since 1967, 500 during the course of the second Intifada, since September.  And WE will not resume negotiations until THEY stop the “violence.”

I wind my way back to Shuafat.  Arik, Liat and Gadi made it back before me and managed to get arrested formally this time (they were released an hour or so later).  I meet up with Salim and Meir and we plan an “action” for the next day or so – perhaps the rebuilding of one of the houses, if the Shuafat people are willing.  As I head home for a shower and a change of clothes, I hear Olmert on the radio: “You cannot build in any city in the world without a permit.  They want to build on green open space that we set aside for their own benefit.  The Palestinians tell me quietly that they support my efforts to fight illegal building.  I don’t demolish homes in West Jerusalem because Jews only build illegal porches, not entire houses. Etc. etc.”  All lies.  But being one of the few Israelis that ever experiences Palestine, I find it impossible to convey to my own people, my own neighbors (good people all, even the Likud and Shas voters), what occupation means, why they should feel responsible and resist with me. Israel is a self-contained bubble with a self-contained and exclusively Jewish narrative.  The struggle continues.

Jeff Halper (53) is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a Professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University. He has lived in Israel since 1973.

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