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A Ruinous Policy

By Gideon Levy, 1998 Ha'aretz

A deafening cry suddenly rose up the slope of the hill. It reached us while Salim Shwamari was showing us through what used to be his house - the childrens' room, the kitchen and bedroom - now reduced to a pile of rubble. We followed the echoes of that cry to the remains of an apricot grove. Under a lone tree sat Arbiyya, Salim's attractive young wife, gazing into the ground and straining to hold back her tears. She has not eaten in two weeks, and barely utters a sound. So she mourns her demolished house, indifferent even to the hugs of her six children who surround her.

The well-tended house (to judge by the debris), the product of eight years' hard work and savings in Saudi Arabia, was destroyed on the order of the Civil Administration. Not far away sits Rubin Shawiki, a neighbor whose house has also been marked for demolition, and whose nine children are in danger of being thrown out on the street. Also nearby is 15 year-old Dia al-Atrash, still recuperating from the serious wound he sustained during a protest against the demolition. Scars have also yet to heal on the hands of Jeff Halper, the Israeli anthropologist who stood arm-in-arm with Salim in a moving display of Arab-Jewish fraternity in an effort to block the bulldozers.

Only a rose remains

Israel is systematically destroying part of Anata, an Arab village situated on the eastern approach to Jerusalem, between the desert and the capital. Six houses have been wrecked over the past few months, together with an assortment of fences and storage rooms deemed illegal by the authorities. Ruins litter the village. Additional houses have been slated for demolition, and their inhabitants placed under the constant threat of homelessness.

That was the threat facing the Shwamari family over the past two and a half years, causing them to shrink at the sight of each approaching army jeep or at the sound of the telephone ringing - a threat that eventually became reality. No amount of legal or environmental explanations can hide the cruelty and injustice that characterizes the Civil Administration's campaign of destruction.

On top of the ridge looms the campus of the Hebrew University, and one cannot help but wonder if its lecturers ever gaze out of the polished windows of the Beit Maiersdorf faculty club at the devastation taking place in the valley below. Can they see the wreckage and the damage that has been done to the village?

Salim Shwamari was born 42 years ago in Jerusalem's Old City. His parents' house was also destroyed by the Israelis, back in 1967, and the family forced to move to the Shawafat refugee camp. There the family grew, as did its misery, with eight people sharing two tiny rooms. Salim traveled to Riyadh to work in construction, and try to save some money. Upon his return in the early 1990s, he spent $20,000 on a 1500-square-meter plot on the outskirts of Anata. Four times he applied for a building permit, and four times he was refused on the grounds of the declivity of the plot, its small size, or plans for a road that, at some mythic point in the future, might pass through it.

When the family was no longer able to live within the confines of the refugee camp, and when its limited savings were running out, Salim decided to build his house. In June, 1994, encouraged by the Oslo peace process, he broke ground, and by September his family was able to move in. They spent the following years caring for every inch of the house and its garden. A single rose remains where the entrance once stood as a testament to that care.

On a Thursday afternoon two weeks ago, at a time when many Israeli televisions were tuned to the finals of the World Cup, Salim returned home from work earlier than usual. He had just entered the house when he heard the rumble of jeeps and bulldozers advancing in a convoy along the Ma'aleh Adumim road. It was the moment that they had long dreaded. "Is this house yours?" the Israeli officer asked him.

Salim answered, "Yes."

"We are going to demolish it."

At the first sign of protest, Salim was cast onto the floor. A scene that has become all too familiar then repeated itself as soldiers used violence, beating boys and pulling girls' hair, against a family trying desperately to protect its home. But the routine was broken this time by the sudden appearance of Halper, a Minnesota-born activist in the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition. He had met with Salim often in the past, as well as with other families threatened with eviction, trying to intercede on their behalf with the authorities. The two men had become friends.

Halper arrived to find the house surrounded by soldiers. "As soon as I got out of the car with my two Palestinian volunteers, without the slightest provocation from us, the soldiers started firing tear gas at us. When they finally saw that I was an Israeli, they asked me if I was a journalist. No, I told them, just an angered citizen. They didn't know what to do with me, an Israeli who had intervened in the situation."

Linking arms

The house had yet to be leveled. Supervising the operation for the Civil Administration was Micha, a kippa-wearing official who lives in one of the nearby settlements. On the bulldozer sat Sa'id, an Israeli Arab from Beit Nakuba, a village upon whose ruins rose the villas of Moshav Beit Nekofa. The eviction was carried out by workers from West Africa.

"It was a surrealistic scene," Halper recalls. "One minute we were talking with the soldiers, and the next they were beating us. I went over to Micha and asked him why they were doing that. He tried to explain that this was agricultural land that could not be built on. But the land clearly had no agricultural use. He then said that Salim had come from Hebron. Here was Micha, whose parents once lived next door to me in Jerusalem but who then moved to a settlement on the West Bank, telling me that Salim, a Jerusalem native, was really from Hebron."

Halper continued, wondering aloud "how people are capable of committing such actions. I once posed that question to General Ya'akov Or, the coordinator of government policy for the territories. For him and the other officers, it's all a matter of planning and ordinances. They feel no sense of guilt. Planning? This is planning with a political purpose, planning that goes against the interest of the local population. If the Civil Administration has already demolished 1,800 houses over the last 10 years, and plans to equal that number during the next decade, that will result in 30,000 homeless Palestinians. What kind of planning is that? It's a war that the Palestinians have absolutely no chance of winning."

It was during his discussion with Micha that Halper was accosted by the soldiers. "It was like in some Greek tragedy," he remembered, "All of a sudden the actors returned to their roles. The soldiers took up their position, the bulldozer started rolling. They asked me to stand aside and I refused. I did the only moral thing, and that was stand alongside Salim in front of the house.

"The soldiers tried to remove us forcibly. They shoved and kicked us and attempted to push us down the side of the hill. But we locked arms and couldn't be moved. Around us, meanwhile, the violence escalated. A soldier threw a stun grenade into a crowd of neighbors that had gathered. Finally, after they managed to get us away from the house, the soldiers formed a human wall that prevented us from coming back. That's when I saw the bulldozer nearing the house, and I could no longer contain my anger. I broke through the soldiers and ran toward the bulldozer.

"They never expected that," he continued, "and they pointed their guns at me. They would have shot had I been Salim. Only an Israeli could dare to do something like that. The commanding officer ordered the soldiers to remove me from the scene. I went back to take Salim's hand, and the two of us watched that horrific scene of demolition.

"As an anthropologist I can testify to the existence of certain basic human losses. Losing a house, for example. Salim's wife is still mourning that loss. To destroy a house and all it symbolizes is to destroy a part of life. The loss is particularly painful for a Palestinian for whom house, land and family are supreme values. Holding Salim's hand and watching was for me a terribly traumatic experience."

Sa'id, driver of the bulldozer, had wanted to leave, but Micha wanted him to stay, to make sure that the house was completely flattened. The echoes of gunfire barreled down the hill where seven residents, some of whom had thrown stones at the soldiers, were injured. A busload of other members of the Committee Against House Demolition, including MK Naomi Chazan (Meretz), arrived only to witness the results of the Civil Administration's action. Even Salim's fruit grove had fallen under the treads.

This was the scene that greeted Arbiyya Shwamari, who had been struck by one of the soldiers, upon her return from the hospital. Since then, she has refused to leave the site of her former house, except to return to the hospital for daily infusions of liquids, lest she dehydrate. Try as Salim does, she is inconsolable. A faucet, a broken bureau, pieces of ceramic tile - all are being collected by Halper for an exhibition which will be put together by his committee. Salim has vowed to rebuild his house soon, but Arbiyya's sole reaction is to cry into a black handkerchief.

Walking over to the al-Atrash house, an unfinished structure barely plastered, we find the boy Dia crouched on the floor of his room, writhing in pain. His eyes are filled with tears. He returned from the hospital three days ago, his stomach crosshatched with deep scars. He claims that he had been an innocent bystander, watching the scene, when a soldier shot him at close range. Dr. Walid Alian, the surgeon at al-Mokassed Hospital in Jerusalem who operated on Dia, later confirmed that the wound, wide and ringed with powder burns, was the result of a round fired at close range. The rubber-covered metal bullet pierced his kidney and lodged in his intestines. Doctors repaired the intestinal damage, but were unable to save the kidney. The al-Atrash family of Anata are distant relatives of the Hebron al-Atrashes, whose house has been destroyed three times by the authorities.

From Anata to Qibya

The next stop was Qibya, a remote village on the western extremes of the territories. Rife with poverty and crime, the village is surrounded by prickly cacti and by the skeletons of countless cars and commercial vehicles that were stolen from Israel and cannibalized for their parts.

In contrast to Palestinian custom, the houses in Qibya are fenced in. Back in 1953, the village was the target of a vicious Israeli reprisal raid in which the commandos of Unit 101, lead by Arik Sharon, destroyed 45 houses and killed 60 civilians, including women and children. Today Israel is again destroying houses in Qibya.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine just who in Israel is disturbed by the house built by Amran Dar Hajj Yusuf on the village's western edge. The land contains nothing more than rocks and desert shrubs, and not a single Israeli settlement is anywhere in view. The entire village is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, all except for a single olive grove that has remained under Israeli jurisdiction. That is the area in which Hajj Yusuf unfortunately built. How did the demolition crew get there and why? The answers to these and other questions were not forthcoming from the Civil Administration, which has chosen to boycott this writer.

Hajj Yusuf has two wives and no less than 16 children. A shepherd by trade, he also had 22 sheep, several of which were killed during the demolition. Now he sits amid the pieces of his former house, between the scraps of furniture and crockery, and wonders where his family will live. He worries about the winter.

Yaakov Manor, a member of Peace Now and the Committee Against House Demolition, formerly an investor and now working for Co-op, recently took a day off work to bring some sweets and snacks to the smiling children who are now homeless. They received him with radiant faces. But here, on the outskirts of Qibya, as on the outskirts of Anata, in the face of the wave of destruction and the 16 homeless children, words have lost their meaning.

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