Destroying Houses and Lives An Interview with Salim Shawamreh and
April 5, 2000
(When Quoting Attribute To MERIP and PIN#)
Salim Shawamreh is a Palestinian living with his family just outside
occupied Jerusalem, or not really living, he protests, because “you are
always in fear” of the Israeli soldiers marching to “your house hauling
your belongings out the street and bulldozing your house.” As terrifying
and humiliating as it is to suffer this experience once in a lifetime,
Salim and his growing family have seen their house bulldozed on two
different occasions. The Shawamrehs are among the 16,700 West Bank and
East Jerusalem Palestinians whose homes have been demolished since 1987—in
all 2650. Home demolition is not a cruelty of the far past, but is alive
and well today in Israel, a country that American and Western officials
describe as the only democracy in the Middle East. In 1999, partly on
Prime Minister Barak’s watch, Amnesty International reported that “at
least 39 Palestinian homes, of which over 20 were in Jerusalem” were
demolished leaving more than “140 Palestinians, including 70 children,
homeless.” Salim, a Palestinian Authority driver and others, have called
this an arm of Israel’s policy of “ethnic cleansing.” B’Tselem, the
Israeli Human Rights group, reports that “while Palestinians are
responsible for less than 20% of the illegal construction in [Jerusalem],
nearly two thirds of the demolitions are carried out on Palestinian
houses.” Palestinians and their houses are targeted, Amnesty states,
“simply because they are Palestinians,” and the policy is geared to secure
Israel’s grip on Palestinian land. Amnesty’s press release (December,
1999) reports that “currently, more than one third of the Palestinian
population of East Jerusalem [about 65,000] lives under the threat of
having its houses demolished.”
Ghassan Bishara, Media Director, interviewed Jeff Halper, Coordinator
Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and an anthropology
professor at Ben Gurion University and Salim Shawamreh during their recent US
speaking tour about Israel’s home demolition policy and occupation policy in
general. Our thanks to Anja Zueckmantel for transcribing the interview.
Q- Can you describe the mechanics of demolishing a house? How
is it actually
Salim: You are basically sitting in your home with your family, not
living because you’re always in fear of the Israeli soldiers surrounding your
house and giving you 15 minutes to carry whatever possible of your belongings
out to the street before they begin to bulldoze your home. Any resistance is
met with beating, kicking, shooting, and arrest. A 16 year-old boy who came to
help lost his left kidney to a rubber bullet, which also damaged part of his
Jeff: Demolishing a home—in the West Bank and Gaza—is considered a military
operation. The law requires a 72-hour notification before demolishing an
Israeli home. But, as a military operation in the West Bank, security
considerations dictate the reaction, and any attempt to resist will be
considered a threat to the safety of the soldiers. Repeated court appeals for
an advance notification were rejected because they give the Palestinians a
chance to defend themselves, which endangers the soldiers’ security. Sometimes,
there is no notice at all. Salim’s house case was unusual since his was the
fifth house to be demolished that day—at times they demolish up to twenty and
thirty houses a week. It was the middle of the day and they thought they could
demolish another house. Salim and his family were having lunch when the team
arrived. Because they resisted, it gave us time to organize and call others.
This was a breakthrough case, where we took many pictures for a later use.
Normally, however, they come about 6:30 AM, when all men have left to work, but
because no one knows when they may come, people live in constant fear and
anxiety. Some Palestinian men have opted for night jobs so as to be home if and
when demolition teams show up.
The whole operation whereby soldiers surround the house or the neighborhood
evict the family is very violent. There is also a body language to this
operation, when aggressive soldiers bring themselves very close to the angry
Palestinians and if a Palestinian tries to push away the soldier it triggers a
violent response of shooting and beating up people. For Palestinians, it is a
no-win situation. They cannot be passive at the prospect of their house being
demolished and when they react they are arrested, beaten, and shot at. It is a
set-up kind of a situation, which dictates whether or not they will give even
the 15 minutes. In many cases, houses were demolished on top of everything,
furniture and all.
Q- The government issues the order to demolish the house. Is the
then liable when they destroy the furniture?
Jeff- No. Although we have tried to press the case when furniture,
systems, lighting, and other things that are not part of the demolition order
are destroyed, the answer is that “security considerations require evacuation of
residents quickly.” In the name of security, “the sacred cow,” you could do
Q-Two known reasons for destroying houses are to punish a family of
“terrorist” before any due process and at times before the accused is even
caught, and to destroy a house that was built without an Israeli government
permit. Is that correct?
Jeff- Since the intifada, there have only been a handful of cases of
This should be clarified since most Israelis believe that only houses of
“terrorists” are being destroyed. We are talking about apolitical people here,
such as Salim, who has never been arrested and built on his own land to shelter
Q- Why don’t Palestinians ask for permits in the first place?
Salim- Israeli law is geared to make permanent the Israeli occupation
land and force us into a narrow area. They want to fit us within their master
plan for the area, which is to strengthen their hold on our land. I will not
receive a permit as long as it does not agree with their master plan; only few
permits are granted. The more Palestinian houses are built, the less land is
left for settlements.
Q- Is it part of the master plan to minimize the Palestinians’ presence
Jeff- Yes, but in 1981, an efficient bureaucracy was set up to cast
military occupation as a civil administration. It is important for Israel
to present itself as a democracy and a country of law, and the zoning code
is an important façade to market that image. They cannot destroy
Palestinian houses and say, “We are destroying them in order to confine
Palestinians into fixed areas.” Therefore, they developed this Kafkaesque
system of going through the motion of permit applications and fees
collection, but the intention is to deny permits. Playing out the game
makes Israel appear just like any other country. When a complaint is
lodged, bureaucrats can show that a permit was not issued. Complying with
the law means demolishing the house. The whole thing is laid out in a
watertight fashion to make the process look legal. A very few permits are
granted, because if none were then no one would play the game. So one
always has hope—like Salim, who thought, “maybe I’ll get the permit.”
The permit is very expensive also. It could cost $6000 in parts
West Bank, but in East Jerusalem it goes as high as $30,000 to $40,000 in
various fees. Being denied a permit is like throwing money away.
Construction in the occupied areas must suit the master plan and no
Palestinian building does. The proof is that all house demolition is done
to Palestinian and none whatsoever to Israeli homes. Although the
Israelis may show figures of demolished Jewish houses, they are false.
Rarely they may demolish an illegal porch or a swimming pool in West
Jerusalem… but never, ever have they demolished a whole Israeli house.
Q- Are you saying that no Israeli houses were demolished even when no
permits were granted?
Jeff- Eighty percent of the building violations are in West Jerusalem
eighty percent of the demolitions are in the eastern side. While in East
Jerusalem almost always whole houses are demolished, it is never so in
Q- How does the Israeli government explain or defend this gap?
Jeff- It does not. It provides figures that do not fit.
They say we
demolished 20 houses in East Jerusalem and 17 in West Jerusalem, but that
is not true. You will never see an Israeli (Jewish) family living in a
tent because its house was destroyed. If the authorities sent a bulldozer
to destroy a Jewish house, there would be a revolution—this is absolutely
Q- What is the real aim of this policy in your opinion?
Salim- The real aim is ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. “Let
the country and go find themselves another place to live.”
Q- Do you agree with this assessment, Jeff?
Jeff- Pretty much. They certainly try to confine Palestinians.
told Salim after a lecture here, “Demolishing your house is like telling
you, ‘you have no place to return to.’” It is not that they are forcing
anyone out now. True, ethnic cleansing is a loaded term, but essentially
that is what we are talking about. As far as I know, Israel is the only
country that systematically demolishes houses of a particular population.
Q- How does the legal community in Israel feel about this subject?
the high court heard the issue?
Jeff- We have taken many cases to the court; Salim’s case was one.
legal department of the civil administration has closed all loopholes.
After 33 years, there is no legal challenge that has not already been
made. The whole thing is pretty much watertight. The court’s answer is
that Palestinians should have permits.
Q- Is your house in Jerusalem, and what did the court tell you when
case was presented there?
Salim- No, it is in area C (Anata), just outside of Jerusalem.
I took my
case to the court only to gain some time. I knew that my home was going
to be demolished. I was just hoping that something could happen in the
meantime. Nothing did.
Q- Your house, Salim, was destroyed twice already. Couldn’t it
destroyed again and again?
Salim- Yes. According to the occupation authorities, my house
and it may be destroyed any time. We have to live with this fear. I hope
that my presence here and appeal to the American people and government and
the UN may help end this demolishing policy. The experience of soldiers
beating my family members, my wife losing consciousness, my children
scattered, tear gas and arrests has traumatized and destroyed, not only
our homes, but our lives and many families’ lives forever.
Q- If they destroy the house again, will you rebuild it again?
have nowhere else to go. I will rebuild it a hundred times.
Q- For you as an Israeli activist, what would constitute a viable solution
with the Palestinians?
Jeff- Had you asked me four years ago, I would have said a two-state
solution. Today, the only option is working out a binational state for
both peoples and equal citizenship for all. This matrix of Israeli
control of people and territory has created this new reality that makes
territory impossible to detach.
Ghassan Bishara Director Media Outreach and Policy Analysis Project Middle
East Research and Information Project (MERIP) 1500 Massachusetts Avenue,
NW Ste. 119 Washington, DC 20005 Phone: 202/223-3677 Fax: 202/223-3604