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House Demolitions Continue Under Barak Government

From Israel's newspaper Ha'aretz--Thursday, October 28, 1999

A Three-minute Drive from Here

By Meron Benvenisti

The pile of rubble in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina and the International Red Cross tent that has been set up alongside it and which provides temporary shelter to the three families evacuated from their now-demolished home have become a familiar sight. We have seen this picture hundreds of times before on our television screens.What makes this particular scene so shocking, so abominable and so infuriating is that this house - with the pathetic remnants of the inhabitants' personal possessions, some of which can be seen through the rubble of twisted concrete and iron - is only a three-minute drive from the desk on which these words are being written. Only a three-minute drive separates civilization from barbarism, separates a learned study of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the pained cries of a family transmitted in the fluent Hebrew of a father waving before the television cameras receipts for the payment of municipal taxes on his "illegal house," which has now been destroyed by a court order.

The office of Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon, in charge of monitoring Jerusalem affairs in the prime minister's office, a liberal person who conducts a friendly dialogue with his counterpart in the Palestinian cabinet, Faisal Husseini, is separated by a three-minute drive and three light-years from the site of a demolished home that is symbolic of the endless struggle over Jerusalem. Ramon was asked why the demolition order was carried out despite the fact that the Jerusalem municipality had reached an agreement with the Beit Hanina neighborhood committee that there would be a freeze on all demolition orders issued for houses in that part of the city. His office responded that the "minister is involved only in matters of principle." Apparently, the destruction of the world in which three families have been living is not a matter of principle.

The principle that was the guideline for Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who authorized the demolition order, is his belief, so it has been reported, in the need to maintain law and order. Ben-Ami, who prides himself on being such a liberal and on his support of the peace process, did not even bother to step out of his office, which is only a three-minute drive from Beit Hanina, in order to personally observe this barbaric act, committed under the watchful eye of members of the Border Patrol and the Israel Police, two agencies that are under his direct ministerial jurisdiction.

In his previous incarnation, Ben-Ami was a professor of history who, like all his colleagues in the academic community, was engaged in a process of soul-searching over the issue of finding the solution to an enigma: How can cultured individuals traverse the three-minute distance separating civilization from barbarism, how can they commit inhuman acts and then return to their homes, to the comforting hearth of civilization, to the norms of morality, to the guilt cleansing supplied to them by society, and to their psychological process of denial? The demolished house in Beit Hanina is perhaps too weak a peg on which we can hang the major insoluble questions that so deeply concern the historians, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers, one of those questions being: Are acts of destruction as natural a component of human society as acts of construction?

In comparison with the barbaric acts that were carried out here and in other parts of the world only last year, the demolition of this house can be considered an almost negligible event, although it is certainly not viewed as such by the victims. Nonetheless, we should maintain a certain sense of proportion.

Notwithstanding that statement, this act of destruction is symptomatic of the situation with which we have been living for so many years. In fact, we have been living with this situation for so long that the violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has become an excuse for its perpetuation, while we have forgotten the reasons for its existence. Perhaps, despite our cheap talk concerning "peace", we agree with the Cretan quoted by Plato who said: "Peace is always 'over there.' The truth, however, is that every city-state is continually engaged, in accordance with the laws of nature, in a perpetual, but undeclared, war with every other city-state."

How else can we explain the demolition of the homes of Arabs? How else can we explain our need to "counterbalance" the evacuation of Jewish outpost settlements in the territories with the destruction of the homes of Palestinians? How else can we explain the fact that barbaric acts that are totally pointless (after all, the house can always be rebuilt) are carried out without our giving any thought to the very meaning of those acts? How else can we explain our "understanding" of the action of a young Israeli soldier who shoots an unarmed Palestinian in the head near Rachel's Tomb? How else can we explain the instinctive support that this soldier has received from his commanding officer?

When we kill others, or when we destroy their homes or torture them within the context of the value system set up in the wake of an ongoing "conflict," society gives us a medal or at least extends to us its protection. When such acts are committed in peacetime, the offenders are sent to prison or hanged.

True, the three-minute drive that separates the desk on which these lines are being written from the rubble of something that was once a home raises thoughts that could be regarded as belonging to the category of self-righteousness. Nonetheless, those who give the orders for barbaric acts must seriously consider the extent to which they are contributing to the spread of barbarity over the face of the civilized world and must come to the conclusion that all of their rationalizations are nothing but a psychological process of denial.

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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