Israel/Palestine from the Ground Up: Settlements and Housing Demolitions & The Question of Land
How can we discern the truth about the Israel/Palestine conflict? Both sides claim justice is on their side. Civilians have been killed on both sides. The Israelis claim that Arabs want to take their land. The Palestinians claim that the Israelis have already taken their land. In Obama’s Cairo speech, he focused on the question of settlement expansion in the territories captured by Israel in the Six-Days war in 1967. I want to connect the settlement issue with the issue of demolition of Palestinian homes and link these to the overall land question at the center of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Let’s examine the history and try to trace the overall trajectory of land control. In 1947, the United Nations partitioned what had been the British mandate over Palestine allotting 56% for a Jewish state and 43% for a Palestinian state (despite the fact that 1,269,000 Arabs and 608,000 Jews—most of whom arrived during the British mandate — resided within the borders of Mandate Palestine) with the city of Jerusalem declared an international zone. Zionists publicly accepted this plan, while Palestinians rejected it and war ensued. After the armistice of 1949, Israel claimed 77% of the partitioned land, Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and what came to be known as the West Bank, and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian state envisioned by the UN partition plan did not come into existence. Over 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.
Tension persisted until June, 1967 when Israel launched a preemptive attack on Egypt and Syria. By the end of the Six-Day war, Israel had captured the West Bank (including East Jerusalem which it soon annexed) from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from the Egyptians. These came to be called the occupied territories and are what is at stake in the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel remains in control of these areas. In 2005, Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip: removing Israeli settlers, but remained in control of border areas, transport, trade and aid; in effect putting its 1 ½ million residents under siege, only interrupted by the massive Israeli invasion at the end of 2008.
Since 1967, Israel has engaged in a policy of changing the ‘facts on the ground’ to its advantage by building settlements in the occupied territories and demolishing Palestinian homes. Since 1967, over 100 settlements have been built populated by close to ½ million Israeli settlers. These settlements have grown continuously since 1967 regardless of who was in charge of the Israeli government – in the last 2 decades, at a rate 3 times the rate of the rest of Israeli society. Even the touted 1993 Oslo agreements did not slow this process down.
Over 20,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967. In 2005, even the Israeli government gave up the fiction that this policy had to do with ‘security’ concerns; the Israeli army officially abandoned the policy of such “collective punishment”. These demolitions are now carried out by the Israeli civil administration. Palestinian basic rights to shelter are limited, first, by the denial of housing permits, and ultimately by bulldozing Palestinian homes, often charging residents for the cost of destruction. RachelCorrie was trying to prevent a house demolition when she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003.
According to most international law experts, these Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories are in violation of core tenets of international law, including:
Article 46 of the Hague Convention, Article 49, paragraph 6 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, UN Security Council Resolution 465 (1980-unanimously adopted), the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, among others.
The Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD has taken up the issue of the destruction of Palestinian homes – by defending them and rebuilding them — for humanitarian concerns, but also because this Israeli policy so graphically illustrates that the consistent Israeli goal is to displace Palestinians and expand Israeli territory and is therefore an obstacle to a just and lasting resolution of the conflict
The loss of a home is a traumatic and devastating blow, robbing families of their dignity, their dreams, and their individual and collective futures. As one Palestinian father who lost his family home stated simply, “The demolition of a house means the demolition of a family.”
Two stories — out of hundreds — help to put a human face on the brutal Israeli policy of home demolitions:
(1) Mr. Salman has been living in a cave with his family for eight years. The cavernous and dank hole in a hillside was their only home after the Israeli government demolished their 1260 square-foot house in 1999. The military operation was conducted after the family had spent only one night in the house.
The only reason given for the demolition was that they were too close to the Hagai settlement and adjacent military post. The Salman family has owned the land just south of Hebron for hundreds of years, long before any Israeli settlers arrived and began pushing people off their land. Mr. Salman divides his time between working as a laborer, attending to his small flock of sheep and growing flowers and vegetables. The new home is almost complete but Mr. Salman is keeping the cave ready in case the Israeli government comes again with their bulldozers.
(2) Mr. Rahman’s father built their East Jerusalem house in 1956 just a few hundred meters on the Jordanian side of the ceasefire line dividing Jerusalem. In 1967, his father was killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. He and his five brothers own the 1⁄2 dunum of land (1/8 acre) on which they each have a home.
In 1998, the Israeli municipality demolished the father’s home. The father spent $20,000 on attorneys and court costs to avoid the demolition, to no avail. The Israeli government not only demolished the house, but then charged the family 20,000 shekels (almost $4900) to clean up the rubble. The stress led to Mr. Rahman’s separation from his wife and children for 1 1⁄2 years.
Mr. Rahman explains why he would not sell to the Israeli government, who in this unusual case actually offered money for the house: “There are many reasons. From a religious point of view, it is forbidden for me [a Muslim] to sell to an occupier. From a political point of view, if I take money from the Israeli government, then Palestinians will see me as a collaborator. But the real reason is that I belong to this land. It is my place, my home. I went to the U.S. and was happy there, but I wanted to come back, to my home. I simply can’t take the money.” …“Where we live cannot be compared [to other places] – the beauty, the weather, how close it is to the city center, the quiet.”
The history is consistent; the story line depressingly familiar. Over time, Israel has seized more and more land and Palestinian land has diminished. There is no future in this policy, neither for legitimate Israeli security concerns nor for a just solution for the Palestinian people. We need to look beyond the charges and counter-charges to perceive and understand the core issues of this conflict. If Palestinians do not possess real authority over their futures; if the continuing erosion of their rights to land and decent housing continues, there will be no peace in the Middle East.