Perhaps, the worst punishment besides death meted out against the Palestinian population by Israel is the demolition of their homes. It is cruel, inhumane and humiliating. We have seen far too many pictures of wailing women and distraught men standing beside a heap of rubble and mangled steel, a book caught between two bricks or a dolly’s arm stretching out grotesquely from between iron bars. For over 40 years, Israel has demolished tens of thousands of homes in the West Bank, in Gaza and in east Jerusalem. In Rafah alone, hundreds of Palestinian homes have been razed to the ground by invading Israeli troops. Rachel Corrie, a young American peace activist, lost her life to this terrible practice in 2003 when she was run over and crushed by an Israeli bulldozer tearing down a Rafah home. It is an abhorrent practice, and for good reason. It strips people, not only of their actual house, but of their sense of security and safety, many of their keepsakes and their memories and leaves them to sleep in the street in a makeshift tent or forces them to seek refuge with a relative or a compassionate neighbor.
Yes, having your home demolished before you, sometimes with little or no warning is a terrible experience that causes unimaginable distress. Israel understands the psychological impact home demolitions have on people and how, if the victim allows, it can break a spirit. Now, imagine your own leaders were behind the wheel of the bulldozers, men who may have been your neighbor or coworker or even your friend. Unfortunately, the Palestinians don’t have to imagine it at all. Last week, this horrible scenario became reality in none other than Rafah, Gaza.
Last week, the Hamas-run government demolished 20 houses in Rafah, leaving approximately 150 people homeless and living in tents. The de facto government claims the houses were built illegally on state land, land that is slated for the construction of the Islamic Call and Humanities College. Hamas officials claim they delivered warning notifications to the families, who did not heed them and so they had no choice but to tear the homes down. Now the families are living in tents or have sought refuge with a relative in the already overcrowded and cramped quarters of the Gaza Strip.
This is disturbing, to say the least. I do not have enough information about the exact status of the land or the people who decided to build on it, mostly because I have no way of getting into Gaza (West Bank Palestinians are not allowed entry). However, talking to a journalist friend living in Gaza City has only reconfirmed my own thoughts on this disheartening incident. Even if the land was "public land" and even if the Hamas-run authority there demanded that the families leave, there is no justification for razing the homes, "Israeli-style". Such behavior points to a very dangerous precipice, one that Palestinians in places of authority have often teetered on the edge of. Having lived under Israel’s brutal occupation for so long, we have picked up some of their ways.
It seems irrational, illogical and completely unacceptable that our leaders would utilize measures, which have caused our own people so much suffering. How could Hamas demolish homes of their own people, knowing all too well the distress this causes? More importantly, even if this was "the law" in its strictest of terms, did the authority not take into consideration the circumstances under which all Gazans are living lately? There is no excuse to tear down homes, render people homeless without giving them alternative housing or some sort of sustenance until they can find somewhere else to live.
It is disgraceful. Apparently, this is not the only instance where residents of the Gaza Strip have built on government owned land. This is not surprising given the limited amount of space in proportion to the number of people living in the small coastal strip. Gaza is an open-air prison, closed from all sides. There can be no horizontal expansion in Gaza, so naturally people are scrambling to find anywhere to build and to make a home.
I am not saying that there shouldn’t be law and order in the Gaza Strip, but laws were made to organize society and make everyday living easier for the people. The "illegality" of the structures is not the issue here. They may very well have been built without a construction permit, just like Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem are often built without a permit. That is not because people simply do not want to obey the law. In Gaza, there is practically no land left to build on and hardly any money to build with. In Jerusalem, Israel does not grant construction licenses freely to Palestinians, who are then forced to build their homes without one.
But with Israel, we expect the worse. They are, after all, our occupiers. Israel’s existence is contradictory to our own growth. Their agenda is clear as to why they tear down Palestinian homes. It’s simple: they don’t want us here. What is far more dangerous is when the culprit is elements from our own people. Emulating the worst behaviors of an occupier can never amount to any good.
If Hamas wants to preserve any kind of respect among the people in Gaza, it must never take its lessons out of the Israeli occupation textbook. The people now living in tents in Rafah have been there before when in 1948 they were expelled from their original homes in Palestine. They should not be made to live that tragedy again. If anyone understands the agony of displacement, it is the Gazans. Does Hamas really want that on their heads? What’s more, does it want its policies to be compared to those of its occupiers? I really don’t think so.