Group Trails Israeli Bulldozers, Rebuilding Razed Palestinian Homes

Dec 21, 2002 12:40 PM EST

ANATA, Israel - About 30 Israelis and internationals broke the Sabbath last Saturday.

Not to mention the civil law.

It looked innocent enough: A line of graying women, a few paunchy middle-aged men, a gaggle of Israeli and Swede twenty-somethings, all passing cement blocks down a rocky hillside to the door of Salim Shawamreh's half-finished limestone house on a bluff just outside Jerusalem.

The house has been demolished by the Israeli army three times. The government says it was built in an agricultural zone.

The house in Anata is close enough to Jerusalem to be in earshot of the rhythmic chanting of the Muslims' call to prayer at city mosques. The sound is interrupted by the clanging of bells around the necks of sheep owned by Bedouin herders and by the braying of a donkey.

The scene is peaceful, literally pastoral. One would never suspect that Anata is where the volatile Hebrew prophet Jeremiah got his start. This group, like Jeremiah, is objecting vociferously to practices that it believes are offensive to God.

"This is a political, not humanitarian, act," says Jeff Halper, the coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a fan of Jeremiah. "If this were a humanitarian act, we'd just pay to put this family in an apartment. But this is resistance."

Resistance to what? Halper would say to the policies of his own government that make life so miserable for Palestinians that they trickle out of the country. Those who have skills to succeed somewhere else disappear, leaving the poor and less-well-educated to huddle in enclaves like little islands in a sea of Israelis.

Palestinians who own land are refused permits they need to build on it, Halper says, and those who put up houses anyway often must stand by while Israelis tear them down.

And zoning is used to keep the Palestinians off undeveloped land. Halper points to Har Homa, a huge settlement overlooking Bethlehem: It was zoned as a nature preserve to prevent Palestinian development, then rezoned to accommodate a massive concrete Israelis-only housing complex.

"What the government is saying to Palestinians is: 'You can't go home, and you aren't allowed to go back to the place where you came from as a refugee, either,'" Halper says. "The message is: 'There is no place for you in this country.'"

ICAHD tries to counter that message by recruiting Israelis to help rebuild demolished homes. It also sends delegations to try to stop demolitions by having Israelis get in the way of the army's bulldozers.

"For us to build a house as Israelis (is to say), 'You have the right to exist here,'" Halper explains.

"We are rebuilding peace," says Shawamreh, the Palestinian owner of this home, who thinks his house will be finished in about 45 days - finished for the fourth time in the past 14 years.

ICAHD is paying about 80 percent of the $40,000 cost.

"I worked 10 years in Saudi Arabia to buy this land go build a house," says Shawamreh, most of whose family lives in a nearby refugee camp. "What to do? I don't have any other place to go.

"I could leave the country, but I think that is the goal - a quiet transfer where the Israelis don't tell you to leave, but they make life so hard that you have to go."

Transfer is a nicer term for deportation-by-dozer.

In West Jerusalem, it's not unusual to see bumper stickers bearing such messages as "Deport the" and "250,000 already gone."

After years of explosions and bloodshed, the deportation of Israeli Arabs is a subject of open conversation.

For those on Halper's work crew, "deportation" conjures up bad memories from Jewish history.

"It is unpopular to compare what is happening here to what the Nazis did, but it is the same," one older Jewish woman says, wiping tears from her eyes at the memory of the European ghettoes of the 1930s. "The Nazis didn't kill six million Jews in one day. They did it slowly, slowly."

On a typical day, newspapers here contain stories about the killings of three to 10 Palestinians.

"What I am trying to say is that the occupation is corrupting us terribly," she goes on. "People don't know what is happening here - and they don't want to know. But we must push this information into their salons."

She says Jewish resistance in Europe was no less violent than Palestinian resistance is today.

Halper estimates that about 10,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967 - in addition to those in about 400 villages bulldozed when the state of Israel was established in 1948.

He admits that he's guessing. The government doesn't announce the demolitions, and most Israelis know nothing about what goes on in Palestinian areas.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli Civil Administration, the agency that coordinates house demolitions, told the Presbyterian News Service that statistics aren't available.

She said the army also has demolished some Israeli buildings, saying: "Illegal is illegal."

Shawamreh says the repeated demolitions have taken a toll on his family, especially his children, one of whom went through a bout of trauma-induced temporary blindness.

"They're scared," he says. "Scared of soldiers. Tanks. Helicopters."

He says he was challenged by one of his daughters: "How can you protect me? I saw what the soldiers did to you."

They had pinned him to the ground, broken the windows of his house, tossed tear-gas canisters inside to flush out his wife and children.

"Can you imagine hearing your child say this?" he says. "It is killing me inside."

Shawamreh's neighbors on this barren hillside expect their houses to be demolished, too. The Bedouin nomads camped nearby have been ordered to leave.

Halper says the bulldozers are dispatched randomly, "so the Palestinians here never know when they're going to come. And that spreads the fear and anxiety."

So far, he says, ICAHD has helped to build 12 homes. He says its most effective technique has been putting bodies in the bulldozers' paths.

ICAHD is now trying to raise $1 million to fund its work.

"This is really meaningful stuff," Halper says, as Israelis and Palestinians work at putting a house back together. "It is illegal to rebuild demolished houses. This is resistance, not just protest. That's important."

By Alexa Smith