Israelis rebuild Palestinian houses on the West Bank
The house of Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh has been demolished three times by the Israeli army over the past 14 years.
The Palestinian couple, with the help of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), have rebuilt the house three times. The last occasion was in 2001, when the house was designated as a peace centre. It remains standing.
Salim takes up the story of the struggle, he, his wife Arabiya and their six children have had to establish a home in Anata, East Jerusalem. “I went by the book, applying three times for a building permit between 1990 and 1994. First, I was told I was outside the zone and planning area for the village,” said Salim, who revealed how the Israeli authorities continually push to keep Palestinians in the designated village areas so that the rest of the land is open for Israeli settlers.
The second time he applied, he was denied the permit because the authorities said the land sloped. “I could have flattened the area out very quickly with one of the bulldozers that they use to knock down our houses,” said Salim.
The third denial was because the authorities said there were two signatures missing on the application for a permit. A solicitor tried over several months to get details of the names but without success.
Every time Salim applied for the permit, it cost US$5,000. In the end Salim just got on and built his house. Things were ok for a while but then on 9 July 1998, there was a big commotion outside. “They had brought 300 soldiers to demolish our house. We were given 15 minutes to get out before the bulldozers moved in,” recalled Salim. “I protested and got kicked to the ground. My wife and children stayed inside the house and were attacked with teargas.”
The Red Cross gave the family a tent and the ICAHD came along. The family decided with the ICAHD to rebuild the house. The shell was up inside a month but then the army arrived again. “The soldiers came at 4 am in the morning with machine guns and bulldozers. The house was demolished for a second time and the tent taken. We were told we had to have permission for the tent from the Israeli authorities,” said Salim.
Israelis and Palestinians came together again to rebuild the house. It was completed on 9 July 1999. Two months passed and no demolition. The Shawamreh family moved in to the house. Then on 4 April 2001, they woke to find it once again surrounded by soldiers with two bulldozers. “The area was surrounded, the furniture thrown into the street and the house demolished,” said Salim.
The house was then rebuilt for the third time. It was agreed with the ICAHD that it would be used as a peace centre. It was completed in July 2003 and has remained standing since that time, though a demolition order was placed on the property in June 2009.
Arabiya recalled the problems that the children endured as a result of the demolition. “The children regressed at school. They had psychological problems, waking up in the night crying and screaming,” said Arabiya. The children who were young at the time of the demolitons were most severely effected, with her younger children doing better later at school. “I wish there could be peace and we could live normally,” said Arabiya, who looks to God for help.
The housebuilding programme is a political act of defiance by the Palestinian people against the denial of their most basic human rights by the Israeli authorities. Salim is now fully involved with the ICAHD in rebuilding houses. “They destroy the houses to make life miserable for the Palestinians and as a lesson,” said Salim.
The Israeli authorities have overseen the demolition of 24,000 homes, making 160,000 people homeless, since 1967. “Only 8 per cent of the demolitions are anything to do with security,” said Linda Ramsden, the director of ICAHD UK. “It is about dispossessing the Palestinian people, putting them into Bantustans.”
Linda explained how the ICAHD formed in 1997 from the peace movement in Israel. It was made up of those Israelis appalled at the way its government was treating the Palestinians. They went to the Palestinians and asked how they could help. The rebuilding of houses was agreed upon as the best thing they could do.
Linda explained how in the early days, the ICAHD would get notice of a house demolition and people would go to chain onto the building. “Now though the Israeli forces cordon off the street so we can’t get near to the houses, though we try to block the way,” said Linda, who revealed how this slowed the demolitons down and helped bring the actions to the attention of the international community. “They bring vicious dogs, it is horrible for anyone to witness.”
“The actions of the Israeli government in destroying these homes has built anger and resentment among Palestinians over the years,” said Linda, who told how demolishing the home is such a direct attack on the family. “For the Palestinian woman particularly the home is her domain, the centre of her life. The children often never recover from the effect of house demolition. They lose their motivation and school grades plummet. Bed wetting is a major problem,” said Linda. “The demolition of the home is a demolition of the family.”
The ICAHD has managed to rebuild 162 houses in the West Bank and east Jerusalem area over the past 13 years. Just 12 of these houses have been demolished by the Israeli authorities.
There have been casualties on the way with US citizen Rachel Corrie among those killed while undertaking the work.
The houses are rebuilt all of the time but the ICAHD has a focus on a summer camp that takes place over two weeks in July each year. At this time people come in from across the world to help with the work. Last year, some 43 Spanish people took part with the Spanish government paying for the whole project. Another year, churches from Minnesota in the US sent volunteers and funded the work. This year there are people coming from the UK, US, Ireland, Spain and Switzerland for the camp. “The summer camps offer the opportunity to come and join with Israelis and Palestinians in rebuilding a house over two weeks. Then the house is handed over to the family,” said Linda.
The ICAHD were able to rebuild 100 houses in 2007/8 due to a big donation given by a holocaust survivor.
Salim explains the house rebuilding programme very much in terms of political resistance. “We tell the families that maybe they will get their home, maybe not. They and us maybe arrested. The promise is that we will not leave them. If we have to rebuild the house ten times we will,” said Salim, who says the Israeli authorities think twice before attacking the area if they know there are people from other countries there supporting and doing the work. Salim recalled how the Israeli criticised the Spanish government over the housebuilding last year. “They have also tried to close down ICAHD and stop people sending money,” said Salim, who wants people in the UK to help the Palestinians to get justice. “We need to get this occupation off our backs. We would ask people to boycott Israeli goods because they are coming from the settlements. They are coming from stolen land, from the blood of the people,” said Salim.
Pax Christi has worked closely with ICAHD and supports its work. “We greatly value the work of ICAHD and promote it in the UK and internationally. We particularly value the challenge they make to the illegal settlements and the house demolitions,” said Pat Gaffney, the general secretary of Pax Christi. “It is admirable the way they seek legal routes to challenge the illegality of occupation. They also assist us when visiting, with guidance and assistance in getting to see the settlements and separation barrier.”
The coming together of the ICAHD and the Palestinians to attain justice is a cause for hope in a region that continues to yearn for real peace.
Photo: House on top of Nablus Hill, Westbank. [Photo credit: Michael Ramallah]