Israeli demolitions squeeze Palestinians

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Ala’ Fakhari looks like the lord of his castle. Straight-backed and silent, he gazes out over his family’s small plot of land in the valley below.

He also has a sense of humor. His dark eyes gleam with the irony of greeting guests cross-legged on the ruins of a demolished home.

Only last week, on the morning of April 4, an Israeli bulldozer wound its way up the Hebron hills, wrecking first this house, then Ala’s future apartment and then three other buildings nearby. “I immediately came here to comfort my friend,” says 27-year-old Ala’. “But I knew that when they were done, they were moving down the valley.”

Below, the three-apartment home that Ala’s father began building in 1999 for Ala’ and his brother and their future wives lies in a jagged deflated pile.

In only four days, the Israeli army last week tore down 25 Palestinian buildings. The series of demolitions marked a dramatic renewal of the Israeli policy of bulldozing Palestinian homes constructed without a permit.

All this, says Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, has a political goal. “I think that this Israeli government – the entire coalition – has one goal and that is to break the Palestinians. No holds barred. No compromises.”

For some time, Palestinian and Israeli activists believed that the demolition of Palestinian homes had come to an end. International attention forced Israel to bring the policy to a near-halt. Now Halper says that house demolitions will be used to make Palestinians give in. “The idea is that if you break the resistance, people will accept a settlement.”

Israeli officials say that the series of demolitions is nothing new. “Over the last six months, we’ve carried out a number of demolitions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for security and administrative needs,” says Peter Lerner, spokesperson for the Israeli Civil Administration.

But why so many now? “There are security needs nowadays,” says Lerner. “These are administered if there is a need to build a road or protect a main road from suspicious houses.” He says the five houses in Hebron were demolished because there has been shooting nearby.

But the Palestinians that live here all say that Palestinian fire at the nearby settlements of Kiryat Arba and Har Sina comes from across the street, an area under Palestinian control.

“I have no problem with the Israelis, with the Palestinians, with the Jordanians,” Muhammad Jabari ticks off on his fingers. “So why did they demolish our room? To prevent the other families from envying us?”

The four-room Jabari home sits at the top of the hill, a plot at its side carefully planted with pink and purple spring flowers. The house is not large enough to hold his growing brood. Last year, the father of eight decided to build a one-room sitting area detached from the house.

“Seven years ago,” Jabari says, “we received a paper from the Israelis saying that this area had been under Israeli building control, but was no longer. It said that now we were free to build as we wanted.” This, and the fact that few demolitions were taking place, pushed Muhammad to expand his home, despite the impossibility of getting permission to build.

But last July 18, an Israeli inspector ordered him to stop construction or get a permit. Jabari went to court, taking along the Israeli paper that had so raised his hopes. “The court told us that the paper was not valid because it was not stamped. They denied us a permit,” he remembers.

In December, the Jabari family was notified that it must undo all the construction carried out since the stop-work order or be visited by a demolition crew. When the bulldozers finally arrived last week, everything but the floor tiles had been completed.

“The Israeli building inspectors used to come once a week to check, but they never said anything to us,” says Muhammad. “They even came three days before the demolition, but we didn’t feel it was strange.”

Now he worries for the roof over his head. His house, finished six years ago, was also built without a permit. Residents estimate that over 100 structures in this area have been slapped with demolition orders by the Israeli authorities. Some were built years ago and remain standing. Others are now only wires and dust.

“This is how [the Israeli government] makes people suspicious of each other,” says Muhammad. “They choose this house or that house, so people will say the others are spies. Also, they want people to be afraid to build.”

Across the hill from the Jabari home, down a lane past a Palestinian villa and an Israeli military camp walled with barbed wire, sits the home of Awad Zalloum.

Zalloum, a dapper man in his forties, spent nine years in an Israeli jail. He returned from prison to find new neighbors – the Israeli military camp and a row of settlement houses just across the street. The houses are surrounded by razor-sharp fencing and garbage festers in the yard.

“We don’t have much trouble from this one,” he says, pointing to one of the settlement houses. “But that one over there,” he gestures, “is a real troublemaker. Sometimes he hits my children.”

Palestinians say Israeli officials stopped giving building permits with the establishment of Har Sina, the settlement just in the distance. Looking out from Zalloum’s roof, it is clear that the Palestinian homes slated for demolition are preventing Har Sina and Kiryat Arba from joining into one settlement bloc.

“Israel is saying [to Palestinians], we are going to keep building settlements and demolishing houses and building roads until you see your country fritter away,” says Halper. “Right now, [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is offering Palestinians 52 percent of the West Bank, forget Jerusalem. Next year it will only be 42 percent of the West Bank, the year after that it will be 32 percent, until Palestinians have nothing left.”

While Zalloum’s house is not scheduled for demolition, he is sure that more houses will be leveled to the ground. “On the day of the demolition,” says Zalloum, “I was coming home from work and I saw the building inspector. I asked him if there were other houses on the list and he told me that, yes, there were.”

“See,” Zalloum points to the hillside, “the bulldozer is still here. They could start again any day.”

Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report

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