I Have Nothing Left To Be Afraid Of

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Palestinian Laments Israel's Razing of His Home

By Barton Gellman

Washington Post Foreign Service

Sunday, August 10, 1997; Page A18

The Washington Post QATANNAH, West Bank -- A few minutes past noon the other day, an hour after the frantic call that told him an Israeli convoy had arrived, Mohammed Diab Faqieh, 46, stamped his car to a halt outside a broken sandwich of concrete and building stone. He stood speechless, jaw trembling, where his front door had been. Then he leaned heavily on a waist-high slab that, on closer examination, turned out to be his roof. The Israeli demolition team -- five jeeps of soldiers and border guards, an armored ambulance, a dump truck and a bulldozer -- was long gone. Faqieh's oldest son, Hani, 19, stood weeping silently against a gnarled olive tree. "We are like cockroaches to them!" the family patriarch finally said, as relatives wrestled him away from his car for fear of what he might do. "Is this a peace process or a surrender process? What can I do with my family of 12? I can't take it anymore! That's it. I have nothing left to be afraid of." Nearly every day since the twin suicide bombing in a Jerusalem produce market on July 30, Israeli forces have torn down two or three Palestinian homes. Their owners are not accused, or even suspected, of any connection to the market attack. But Israel regards their homes as unlawfully built, and the demolition orders are among the punitive measures imposed by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the bombing's aftermath. For months it has been a high priority for Israeli officials most closely involved in the tribal struggle for real estate -- Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and Interior Minister Ely Suissa, among others -- to resume the campaign of demolitions, independent of the opportunity for government action presented by the bombing. Once a staple of Israeli control over Arab building in the occupied territories, the demolitions were halted late last fall as peace talks foundered and Israel grew more isolated diplomatically. Israeli policy for many years has limited Arab building permits in East Jerusalem to a trickle, fewer than 100 a year, while new neighborhoods for tens of thousands of Jews have sprung up. In the more than two-thirds of the West Bank that remains under Israeli military rule, the Netanyahu government has issued no permits at all. Sensing Israel's fear of international backlash, Palestinians began erecting new homes anyway, especially in Jerusalem and its vicinity. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority encouraged the Arab building as part of a race to influence demographics before negotiations on the city's future begin. Arab builders sometimes covered their work with tree branches in a largely futile effort to hide from Israeli aerial reconnaissance. They favored working at night, especially on the Jewish Sabbath, when building inspectors do not work. "These building crimes in East Jerusalem have ceased to be a marginal problem," Mayor Olmert told reporters in June. "This is a cancer that directly threatens Israel's sovereignty in Jerusalem. . . . It is my intention to prepare for massive enforcement, including intensive execution of demolition orders, and I don't plan on compromising anymore on anything." Israeli hasbara, a Hebrew word for public relations directed abroad, portrays the home demolitions as part of any orderly society, applicable to Jews and Arabs alike. In practice, there is rampant building without permits among Israeli Jews. Authorities, if they act at all, nearly always allow the builders to obtain permits after the fact. Suissa, the interior minister, said in an interview that there is a "war over Jerusalem" between Jews and Arabs, and "any means that will help me achieve the goal, I'll use." "If one person builds illegally," he said, "I'll destroy one building. What if 10,000 build illegally? I'll destroy 10,000 houses." Qatannah is not in Jerusalem, exactly, but the village has the bad fortune to abut the edge of a belt of Jewish settlements aimed at extending the holy city north, east and south in the West Bank. Qatannah, five miles northwest of the city limit, can be reached only by a narrow road that winds through a biblical landscape of olive orchards and grapevines on a hilltop over crisscrossing valley floors. Faqieh's grandfather bought a parcel of land and made his home here before the modern state of Israel was formed. After Israel captured the village in the 1967 Middle East War, it drew boundaries that excluded much of the village's agricultural land. On Israeli maps, the Faqieh property ended up about 40 yards outside the village. After that war, Faqieh joined Fatah, Arafat's faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and became a fighter, he said. Israel caught and expelled him to Jordan in 1970, and he remained there as a science teacher until Israelis and Palestinians reached mutual recognition in their first accord in 1993. Since then, he has lived with his wife, four daughters and six sons in three underground storage rooms belonging to a relative. At night, they place their mattresses edge to edge on the floor. But Faqieh had a pension from his Jordanian teaching post, and he saved as much as he could of his electrician's salary here. Two years ago, he started building a fine stone house, the one he had dreamed of since inheriting the land. Like many Palestinians, he put everything he had into the project. "Every time he managed to save a little money, he would come and add something to the house," said Abdel Nasser Faqieh, 30, the owner's brother. Most male relatives pitched in. His brother placed the facing stones. Faqieh blocked out the bedrooms and laid electrical lines. Hani, his son, dropped out of school in the ninth grade to work full time on building the new family home. One day more than a year ago, a white jeep drove into town. A man from Israel's Civil Administration, the military government of the West Bank, took photographs and left a stop-work order. Faqieh made repeated trips to plead for a permit from Israeli authorities, but they told him his land was outside the village plan and could not be built on. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the military government, said Faqieh's home was illegal because "it was an area with an Israeli interest involved. I cannot elaborate." On Thursday morning, Hani mixed up a wheelbarrow of mortar and began laying stone walls for the kitchen, the house's last unfinished room. The family expected to move in next month. "I was stacking bricks, finishing the kitchen wall, when I heard a bulldozer coming," he said. "A guy with a camera got out and told me, `We're going to demolish the house.' He told me I had a few minutes to take all the equipment out. I refused to get out. Five soldiers came and pulled me into a patrol car." Inside the car, he said, the soldiers mocked him. "Have you ever been in the Russian Compound?" one of them asked, referring to a Jerusalem interrogation center. The bulldozer, meanwhile, made three efficient thrusts. The first two knocked down the east and west retaining walls of the house. The third simply pushed the house over, from south to north. It fell with a buckling crash into a cloud of cement dust. A baby screamed inconsolably nearby, amid the shouts of neighbors and the amplified commands of soldiers to keep away. "It doesn't mean a thing to me," one soldier said in Hebrew when asked what he thought of the scene. Villager Yusef Mustafa Diab, 70, was so angry he was actually spitting as he shouted at the soldiers. Incongruously wearing a green cap he once found bearing the emblem of Bnei Akiva, the pro-settlement Jewish youth movement, he screamed his hopes that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would arise again to launch missiles at the Jewish state. Faqieh, abject in defeat, blamed the Palestinian self-rule authority as much as Israel. "The authority told me to build, it's no problem, we will come in soon and include your house in the plan," he said. "I spent everything I had, everything. I am at less than zero. The humiliation from Israel, the uselessness of the authority, I don't know where we are. Are we just going to stand here clapping and shouting and not doing anything?" Nearby, Fayes Shamasneh, 32, watched with a growing knot in his gut. He moved four months ago into a house that he, too, built without a license. Panicked by the bulldozer that morning, he and his wife, by a long-rehearsed plan, "got the children out first, and then the beds, and then all of the cupboards. All the guys from the village came and helped me." This time it was a false alarm. But Shamasneh said the blow is coming and he is helpless to ward it off. "We are afraid," he said. "I am just waiting for my house to be destroyed." @CAPTION: Palestinians in Qatannah surveyed the remains of their home Thursday after the Israeli army demolished it, allegedly because it was built without proper permits. @CAPTION: A Palestinian in the Bir Nabala area of the West Bank screamed at Israeli soldiers Thursday after they ordered his family to leave their home because it was slated to be demolished. In the end, the house was not destroyed because of a legal technicality.