My plan for this issue was to write about the closure, but this past week was full of incidents that I needed to change it. I realized that in light of unpredictability of the situation in Palestine/ Israel, it probably is a better idea to keep the topic unannounced.
The week started with a curfew on the city of Hebron. It was imposed in response to a shooting of Jewish settlers by some Palestinians. While the settlers were only slightly wounded, the city's 45,000 Palestinians were collectively put under the punishment of house arrest for several days. I had to cancel my visit to the city. On Tuesday, a young man from Bethlehem drove his car into a group of Israeli soldiers, wounding 11 of them. He was killed at the scene by the soldiers. The next day on my way to work I saw his portrait, which honored him as a martyr, posted all over Bethlehem. Another shooting of settlers occurred near the city of Jenin on that day, causing a friend of mine visiting from the area to be stuck in the traffic for hours as the area was put under a total military closure by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Arafat and Barak met this week but the negotiation to implement the Wye Agreement (which is already delayed for 9 months) is once again stalled.
The most disturbing incident happened on Wednesday in a small Palestinian village of Wallajah, in outskirts of Jerusalem. While everyone was preoccupied with the solar eclipse, houses were demolished by the Israeli military.
Israel has been carrying out the policy of house demolition ever since it captured and occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip in the 1967 War. In order to expand Israeli control over more land, the government has been building numerous Jewish entities in the territories, such as settlements, roads, industrial zones, etc. Whatever that gets in their way has to be cleared - thus, Palestinian land is confiscated and their houses are demolished. The number of house demolitions has increased in the recent years as the Israeli government aims to capture as much land as possible before reaching the final status negotiation of the peace process. At least 2,200 homes have been demolished since 1987, leaving tens of thousands of Palestinians homeless. The government makes it illegal for Palestinians to build, even on their own land, by systematically denying them issuance of a building permit. Thus, many Palestinian houses in the Israeli-controlled area are illegal and eligible for demolition.
Early in the morning on Wednesday, two bulldozers and a platoon of Israeli soldiers arrived to the houses of Ahmed and Mohammed Khalifa in Wallajah. The two brothers, who live right next door to each other, were told that their homes were built illegally (although they have a land deed to prove their ownership for generations) and were going to be demolished. Family members and villagers protested in a desperate attempt, only to be crushed by violent forces. Five family members were injured. Right in front of their eyes, the houses were mercilessly reduced to rubbles (See a report on the web).
A thirteen-year-old boy from the village was arrested for 'endangering the soldiers.' His parents had to post a 1000 shekel bail (approx. $250) to release him.
The Khalifas were determined not to give in. They immediately took a courageous decision to rebuild the houses, by taking a risk of arrest and of going through another traumatic experience of the demolition. The message was spread around by Jeff Halper (email@example.com) of Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, a coalition of Israeli peace activists. The committee called for support to resist the occupation and to show that there are Israelis who care about justice. On Friday morning, about 25 of us (Israelis and internationals) were on our way to the village to help rebuilding the houses.
Wallajah is nestled on a beautiful hillside of the West Bank. It is surrounded by rolling hills, ancient stone terraces and olive trees - a typical Palestinian scenery. The tragedy of the village is that its jurisdiction is split between the West Bank and Jerusalem as a result of Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war. Jerusalem is where Israel wants the most control over, as the city is its self-claimed eternal capital. In this quiet village of about 200 homes, residents live under constant fear of losing their homes any given day. Currently almost all houses in the Jerusalem half of the village, about forty of them, have standing demolition orders.
As we were unloading our cars, I saw two IDF jeeps coming our way. We faced soldiers as all six of them got off the jeeps and glared at us with Uzi swung across their shoulders. Although they only questioned us what we were doing and drove off, it clearly was for a warning and intimidation. There was this we-know-what-you-are-doing-here look on their faces.
What used to be beautiful houses had only foundations and enormous piles of rubbles left. Next to the houses were two tents, temporary housing for the two families including their seven children. It was a painful sight to say the least.
Our task was to remove the rubbles off the foundations- the first step for rebuilding their homes. Men of the village were already at work. We joined in.
We picked up, carried, and threw off the foundation numerous concrete chunks and rocks, shattered bathroom tiles, pieces of water hoses and electric wires, sections of wall with a light-switch still attached, twisted window frames and metal rods, smashed water tanks and solar panels, and lots of unidentifiable rubbish that used to be a part of the Khalifa family's everyday life. We threw rubbles over a destroyed tomato garden. There was no construction machinery but only few buckets and shovels. We worked in pairs and in small groups, in the heat and dust. Conversations broke out. Cold drinks were passed around. Grandmother of the family came out with a warm smile and a tray of Arabic coffee for a group resting in the shade. I noticed several little children watching the adults working- they were from the family. "The kids were crying and screaming as theywatched their houses destroyed," one of their neighbors told me. "We thought Barak will be better but he is just the same as Netanyahu. What kind of peace is this if we have to live like this?" I was also told that the soldiers, upon finishing up the demolitions, pointed to another house right next to the Khalifa's and announced, "We will come back for that one next time."
As we left the village after the lunch the family and neighbors showered us with appreciation, that our visit meant much to them. Yet, I couldn't help but feeling helpless knowing that these children will never forget the terror that turned their lives upside down, and that another violence is likely to strike them. I feel hopeless knowing that the soldiers and bulldozers will keep coming back until they are finished with all the forty houses in Wallajah and some 2,000 houses in the West Bank and another 2,000 houses in East Jerusalem with demolition orders --- UNLESS we start moving the mountain instead of piles of rocks.
The house demolition is illegal under international laws, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, of which Israel is a signatory. It is a violation of the Oslo Accords, the very peace agreement Israel signed. Needless to say, it is an outright violation of human rights.
What you can do to help stopping this inhumane policy is to put pressure on the policy makers (Pres. Clinton: firstname.lastname@example.org, PM Barak - email@example.com). Tell them that the house demolition is a cruel and illegal act, and Israel MUST cease it immediately. You can also access to sample letters and electric petition at [expired link...but try searching for something similar... -ed.]. Remember, one-third of the total US foreign aid goes to Israel every year, and our tax money is funding this policy.
I am sore from the physical labor but doing well, thanks to a packet of Japanese food from my mom. Let me know of your feedback and how your summer is going.
All the best,
PS: As I was about to send this message, Jeff received a call from Mohammed Khalifa. IDF came to their re-building site today. They received an order to cease the construction immediately, or they will be arrested. We know they will continue to build. Please email Barak and Clinton today. Thanks!!!