Checkpoints and house demolitions

A journey through Israel and the occupied West Bank

By a special correspondent

Inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

It was cold when we arrived at Tel Aviv airport – extremely cold. This was not what most of us expected. And, we were told, it was not the norm for the time of year.

It set the tone but it didn’t spoil the trip. None of us intended to lie sun-bathing on beaches. We were on holiday, taking a break from the daily grind. We wanted to see the sights, but we also wanted to learn a bit more about the political situation. We weren’t disappointed.

Within 36 hours, we saw an ambulance being turned back at a military checkpoint, as well as rows of Palestinian men made to stand for hours at that checkpoint with their faces to the wall and their hands behind their backs.

We saw many of the holy Christian sites during our trip and we met with several peace groups, human rights organizations and charities. But what shocked me most was the scale of the Apartheid Wall.

Israel has already built 160 kilometres of the wall – which is actually not just a concrete wall. Few people realize that it also requires a barrier between 60 and 100 metres wide. The concrete section is 9 metres high and costs 1 million US dollars per kilometre to build. There are also regular watchtowers. On the other side of it there is a patrol road for armoured vehicles, an electronic fence, sensors, cameras, barbed wire, razor wire and an empty buffer zone. When finished, the wall will be 750 kilometres long.

The Western Wall, near Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem

The Western Wall was among the religious sites Lilian visited. Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank by the Apartheid Wall and settlements.

The Israelis are building it at the rate of 1.5 kilometres per day. It cuts deep into Palestinian land. Before the wall, the Palestinians had 22 per cent left of what was Mandated Palestine. They will now be left with around 11 per cent.

We discovered that many Israelis think the wall is for security – they think it is being built along existing borders. Many just do not realize that it cuts deep into Palestinian land and that it is being built to facilitate settlement activity. It is being built to isolate the Palestinians from one another and to separate them from Jerusalem.

The Israelis are deciding what size and shape a Palestinian state will be. They have decided it will be a cage for around three million Palestinians. There will be five Bantustans, connected by roads and perhaps a tunnel

Jerusalem will be completely separated from the West Bank by the settlements and the wall. There are already 100 kilometres of wall around Jerusalem. Without Jerusalem, it is hard to see how there can be a Palestinian state. It’s about moving people by making life impossible for them. The old people may stay but the young ones and educated ones will leave to look for a better life elsewhere.

I saw the wall at Abu Dis, as well as at several other points. It cuts right through Abu Dis.

It is worth noting too that, because of the wall, there is now only one way in and out of Qalqilya. All goods that enter are transferred from vehicle to vehicle at the checkpoint. The costs of goods and materials are rising due to the extra transport costs – at exactly the same time as poverty and unemployment are rising. Unemployment levels in Qalqilya have reached 80 per cent. So, around 8000 people have already left the area to live elsewhere.

There are already walls on three sides of Tulkarem. It will be same story there.

Aparheid at Abu Dis, near Jerusalem

The Apartheid Wall cuts through Abu Dis

The United Nations has repeatedly condemned the Israeli occupation as illegal but the Israelis continue to create facts on the ground. For example, I learned that a total of 36 groundwater wells will now be separated from the communities they usually supply. Sixteen Palestinian villages will be trapped between the wall and the green line and thousands of people will be isolated from their friends and family. Farmers will be cut off from their land and children from their schools.

There will be gates and, we are told, they will be opened three times a day. However, the Israeli soldiers will still control the gates and who passes through. Should we believe the movements of people will be any easier than they currently are at checkpoints? Of course not.

Plus, the Israelis are demolishing anything that gets in the way of the wall. Around 15000 dunams of land were expropriated just for the footings and foundations  and one dunam is 1000 square metres.

My journey also took me past scores of demolished Palestinian homes. People just do not realize that it is not only the homes of suicide bombers that are being demolished. Palestinians are rarely, if ever, given permission to build homes. Then, when they are forced by population pressures to build to create somewhere to live, the Israeli occupiers come along and demolish them at very, very short notice. They are in a completely no-win situation.

It is not just the homes of suicide bombers that are being demolished

I had a meal at the house of a family whose home had been demolished four times and rebuilt five times. It was not demolished because anyone had done anything violent. They weren’t suicide bombers or anything. It was the house of an ordinary man, his wife and six children.

Each building application had cost this man 5000 US dollars. Each time, he was told that permission would be given to him the next time he applied. On one occasion, two public authorities said everything was in order. The third said two signatures were missing. He asked which but the administrators could not tell him whose. Then they said they had lost the paperwork.

The vast majority of houses that are demolished are knocked down by the Israelis because they say they were built without authorization. However, Arabs and Bedouins are only very, very rarely granted permission to build. These people apply, send off their money, but are refused time and time again. In the end, because of the growing population and sheer pressure on living space, they are forced to build to keep a roof over their heads.

Salem's rebuilt house

This family’s house was demolished four times and rebuilt five times

The first time this particular man’s house was demolished, he opened the door to find 300 soldiers and bulldozers outside. He was given 15 minutes notice of demolition. They started to beat him. His wife was so afraid she locked herself and the children inside. So, the soldiers broke a window and threw in tear gas. She needed medical and psychological help as she didn’t speak for three months afterwards due to the shock. He had bought the land after working for many years as a guest worker in Saudi Arabia. It was his home village.

West African sub-contractors carried out the demolition. A total of 53 fruit trees that he’d planted were also destroyed and the wall around his home was demolished. The following day, this family set up a new home in a tent.

This family now get help from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. This house is rebuilt every time it is knocked down as a challenge to the unfair and oppressive Israeli policy. Many, many families get no help at all.

Things are also bad for the Palestinians living in Jerusalem. They are allowed to build only in areas in which their families have lived for generations. They were 22 per cent of the population but have now grown to 33 per cent of the population. Israeli restrictions on building, combined with an aggressive campaign of house demolitions, have confined them to just 6 per cent of the urban land. Without new land for them to expand into, many, many people live in homes built without authorization. What can they do? They either move away altogether or build without permission.

Mural depicting the rebuilding of houses demolished by Israelis

This mural depicting the demolition of Palestinian homes appears on the side of the house that was demolished four times and rebuilt five times.

At the moment, around 2000 Palestinian homes within the Jerusalem area are condemned every year, but only between 30 and 50 of these are actually demolished. Why is that?

Is it because the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions is preventing that many demolitions happening? No. Is it because this is not a priority because it costs so much to demolish a home in terms of police time, army time and bulldozers? Maybe. Or, could it be that the

Palestinians’ homes are a source of leverage? It is very easy for the Israelis to say “behave as I say or you’ll lose your home!” or “tell me about your neighbour’s political activities or you’ll lose your home”. I don’t need to phone a friend. I know which answer seems more likely.

Around 14000 homes have been demolished since 1967. Obviously, not all are the homes of suicide bombers. But, even where they were, international law declares this kind of collective punishment illegal.

Israeli toxic waste pouring over Bedouin village

This industrial plant is built right next to a Bedouin village in the sparsely-populated Negev Desert

I also saw a very new Israeli housing development being built on Bedouin land in the Negev Desert. These are termed “neighbourhoods” rather than “settlements” because they are within pre-1967 borders. However, this does not get round the fact that the Bedouins have lived there, farmed there, built their villages and even their cemeteries there. It is their home. Within a couple of weeks, the portakabins had received street lights, pavements, water supplies, a public noticeboard, rubbish bins and a children’s playground. The latter was donated by Canadians. The rest came courtesy of the Israeli state. The Jewish families living in these “neighbourhoods” were so confident the land would be expropriated that they were even building gardens.

Although the Bedouins were preparing an appeal, they weren’t optimistic. They had to appeal to the state – which had just invested so much in the new development in terms of utilities and amenities.

The Bedouins had paid taxes for years, but their villages had none of these civic amenities. In fact, all they had seen and experienced was house demolitions. They had brought many legal cases against Israel over the years but had never found true justice.

Bedouin shacks, February 2004

Bedouins are falling ill and suffering miscarriages. There are fears that this is a result of toxic waste and industrial pollution.

Near Bethlehem, we travelled along one of the new apartheid roads. I cannot imagine that there is anywhere else in the world where only people of certain ethnic origins, and vehicles with certain registration numbers, are allowed to use particular roads. Yet, we saw this with our own eyes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Villagers told us that they had to go miles out of their way to find a point where they could physically cross these new roads in order to get to the other side. This is another example of how the Israelis are fragmenting society. It makes it hard for Palestinians to visit family members, go shopping or travel to school or work.

Our visit to a hospital which helps to rehabilitate people shot and disabled by Israeli soldiers also revealed the hardships of daily life under military occupation.

In the past, in discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the one thing that was always thrown at me was how did I know because I had never been there. Well, now I have been and I would encourage anybody else to go and see for themselves what is actually happening. The situation was far worse than I had expected.

Via Dolorosa, occupied Jerusalem, February 2004

Chris carried his cross down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. What happened to goodwill to all men?

I saw so much. There is so much to say. I could go on for hours, but I could not do it justice. What is happening is truly dreadful. I hope some of these photos will prove to the world what is really happening.

The only real hardhsip we had to endure was the cold weather. It would be an understatement to say who could blame the Palestinians for feeling cold and unloved.

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