First a revelation: This morning, out of curiosity and because I could, I threw the phrase “Home demolition as collective punishment” at Google. It yielded the return of “about 3,360,000” references. I went through the first one hundred links. Without exception, they all dealt primarily if not exclusively with Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes.
You would think that much attention would get Israel to reconsider. But no, it seems few in Israel notice that the whole world is looking over the shoulder of their planners and policy makers. Building permits for new homes is the parallel mechanism for control of urban space: In East Jerusalem only 2% of requests for building permits from its Arab residents are granted by the city administration. But they are not full citizens. When Israel annexed their city after its occupation in 1976 they were granted only residency. Israel does everything at its disposal to encourage them to relocate out of its “united eternal capital.” Over 14,000 have had their residency revoked since 1976. In Area C, the 60% of the West Bank’s total area, which is under full Israeli control, only 6% of requests for building permits have been granted in over a decade.
Within the Green Line, in ‘Israel proper,’ master plans of Palestinian towns and villages take many years to be drawn by the engineering firms to which the Ministry of the Interior assigns them, at the expense of the villages, of course. Then they linger for decades under fitful deliberations by the many responsible governmental agencies. After the approval of such plans, any amendments meet with similar lengthy processes. In the meanwhile the Palestinian citizens of Israel keep on with their unchecked high reproductive rates, high enough not only to overtake that of the Jewish majority but also to more than make up for the assisted and welcome immigration waves from Ethiopia, Russia and France and for the constant trickle of fanatics that the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency can bribe to relocate to “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The cumulative effect of the never-ending planning process adds up to the status quo where one fourth to one third of all Palestinian citizens of Israel live in illegally constructed homes lacking building permits. The dynamics of Israeli politics with its sharp turn to the right and the gradual takeover of fascist settlers of the executive powers of the state, including within the Green Line, has brought the issue to the current boiling point: Today a settler, himself residing in a home lacking a building permit in an illegal settlement in the West Bank, is in charge of Building-Law enforcement leading to the recent wave of home demolitions of Palestinian homes in such locales as Qalansawe and El-Araqeeb. His latest act of enforcing the law in the Bedouin village of Im-El-Heran led to the death of one resident and one policeman and the wounding of, among others, the lead Arab parliament member. Other Arab towns in Galilee have just received notices of impending demolitions by the same authority. More violence is sure to be in the offing shortly. For us, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, Im-El-Hiran is shaping into our symbolic Standing Rock. Except that liquefied hate is to flow in its planned pipeline.
This latest turn of criminality is too fresh, still too hot for me to handle rationally. But bear with me while I try to ferret out some of the underlying issues between the state of Israel and its Bedouin citizens in the Negev, el-Naqab to them: In the 1950s, while under military rule, many tribes were dislocated from their native ancestral lands to make space for an Israeli military airport. They were assigned to new locations in the Negev. In recent years, on the initiative of the Jewish National Fund, the state, lacking the decisiveness of a military government, is pussyfooting with the Bedouins, advising them to move again. Their new spaces are now needed for a national park (in the case of El-Araqeeb) and to build a new Jewish settlement with the name of Hiran (in the case of Hiran). Guarding against miscegenation necessitates throwing out the Bedouins who don’t object to sharing their half-century-old village with Jewish guests. In one particularly memorable case one tribe was displaced from a scenic hilltop to make space for a cemetery as per the request of a particularly religious Zionist Christian multi-millionaire from Colorado as I recall. The catch was that the cemetery was for his dogs.
The chronic dispute between the Bedouins in el-Naqab and their state of citizenship is based on the state’s claim to their ancestral lands. The process of formal registration of land ownership initiated under the Ottoman rule and continued under the British Mandate never reached the Negev in an orderly manner. Besides, traditional mores and intertribal relations recognized the boundaries of each other’s land holdings and dominions. Israel and the JNF now claim all traditional tribal lands as state lands. Hence 51 Bedouin villages are considered “unrecognized villages”. In reality most of them were de-recognized after the fact and hence all government services to their residents and such basic amenities as water, electricity and paved access roads are denied them. Overall, this alienation process has undercut the Bedouin community’s wellbeing to such a degree that their infants die at three times the national infant mortality rate. In similar fashion, over 70 Palestinian villages elsewhere in Israel were bypassed by the Zoning and Planning Law promulgated in the 1960s thus rendering them all illegal though many among them predated the state. This entire swath of citizens live in illegally constructed homes with the threat of demolition hanging over their heads.
No new Arab town or village has ever been built in Israel compared to over 500 new Jewish settlements. (Funny! That also is the approximate number of Palestinian towns and villages emptied and destroyed in the Nakba.) But wait: No fudging of figures or mixing of the races. In the Jewish State, you have to guard the Jewishness of the Jews. That is at the bottom rung of Israeli reality. Let us then start with residential segregation; “We are here and they are there,” as Rabin put it in a different context, that of justifying the Apartheid Wall. But we have mini-Apartheid walls within ‘Israel proper’ as well. In some of the so-called mixed Israeli Cities, plush Jewish neighborhoods are separated from neighboring Arab slums by walls with barbwire.
Netanyahu has just ordered and his police force has recently overseen a well-planned military style double-digit series of home demolitions in Qalansawe, apparently to focus attention on the monstrous act and away from the media’s latest fracas with him over his likely infringement of the law and shady financial dealings. A certain added gain is the appeasement of the unruly settlers in the West Bank so they give him and his allies time to work out a deal to legalize the likes of their illegal settlement, Amona, built on private Palestinian property in the West Bank. “You see,” he seems to say, “I dare act against unruly Israeli citizens. You better hold your horses and give me time to do the needed political maneuvering so Amona and others like it are legalized after the fact and I don’t have to demolish them.”
At a deeper level we are speaking of a vengeful and chauvinistic man who sees his most threatening contender for the premiership of the country, Naftali Bennett, overtaking him on the right. With one masterstroke he vents his anger, albeit at his Arab whipping boys, while at the same time appeasing his many fascist supporters threatening to abandon him for Bennett with implementing the ill-wish of Yukhreb Beitak—may your house be ruined—only a cut below the standard slogan of Mavit La’aravim—Death to Arabs—shouted at soccer matches and political rallies.
Notice, though, that this swift act of vengeance is of the same genre and has the same twisted logic as the infamous ‘Price Tag’ attacks. They are standard anti-Palestinian retribution vandalism and racist attacks that fascist settler gangs often commit to vent their anger and to express their displeasure at acts taken or planned by the government. Except that here the entire system and the clear majority of “the nation” are complicit in the atrocity. The current Israeli administration carried it out based on laws enacted by the Israeli legislature with a clear nod from the Israeli Supreme Court. And it seems to be cleverly timed not to attract too much attention: Who in the international media would take the time out of covering President Donald Trump’s swearing-in ceremony? Remember the timing of Israel’s attacks on Gaza?
So, go back a little! Where is this Qalansawe hellhole and who are its lawless residents? The first thing that comes to mind is strawberries. A combination of fertile sandy soil, the right Mediterranean temperate climate, and traditional farming practices relying on the daily toiling of all the members of large families made strawberries the mainstay of this agricultural village. The delicate fruits from the fields of Qalansawe and its neighboring villages in the mainly Arab area known as the Triangle were picked at dawn, ferried to the nearby airport by helicopter and flown over to European capitals to be on their markets by the time they opened for business. The income from the swift agribusiness was enough to swell the bank accounts of the Jewish middlemen and to lift the heads of the Palestinian farmers out of the dirt of their fields, enough in fact for them to send their children to universities at home and, more often, abroad. That is why Qalansawe ranks right after Arrabeh, my hometown, in the number of its sons and daughters with MDs. We had our olives, watermelons and the more profitable plastering skills of our men in construction and they had their strawberries and chrysanthemum exports. One can only imagine how much better off they would have been, perhaps enough to push them to first place in the desperate higher education competition, had they not lost so much more land to the Zionist masters in the underhanded swap between Israel and Jordan after the Nakba, the agreement apparently negotiated at some intimate rendezvous between Golda Meir and King Abdullah (the grandfather) of Jordan.
But I digress. Neither strawberries nor honeypot philandering are at the heart of the matter here. The curse of home demolition as a collective punishment to teach the ‘bloody natives’ a lesson was first brought to Palestine by the British in 1945, a means of coercion they had practiced in North Ireland. Faced with the rebellious indigenous Palestinians objecting to the implementation of the Balfour promise they had made to Zionist leaders, the British masters needed to convince those locals of the disutility of their stand. First, the British troops took to breaking into the homes of rebel sympathizers where they would wreak havoc and thoroughly trash the contents. They would dump all the stored food supplies on the dirt floor in one heap: wheat flower, barley, sorghum, broad beans, lentils, etc. They would spill over it the stored olive oil, the pickles and cured black and green olives, any fresh milk, any kerosene and any poisonous material they could find in the house. Then they would mix it all together and leave. When that seemed not to have the desired effect, for the villagers took care of each other, the British thugs changed tactics: Someone in the top echelon of the Mandate system must have heard the natives use the ultimate Arabic ill-wish curse of “Yukhreb Beitak!” That was when they remembered their evil practices against the Irish. They started blowing up private homes, sometimes even a whole village, as a collective punishment.
Israeli governments, under the enlightened guidance of such Nobel peace laureates as Shimon Peres, seemed glad to inherit the home demolition atrocity from the British Mandate. Of course, in the Nakba and under the guise of war, most Palestinian communities were deliberately erased. Then later on, under the military occupation of Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, it became the standard means of retribution for punishing “armed resistance,” internationally downgraded to “terrorism” in line with Israel’s redefinition of it. Within the Green Line it became a ‘collective punishment’ of a different sort, not to punish armed resisters and their families and supporters but to settle accounts with civilians. They used it to keep ’Israel’s Arabs’ in line on the most basic and highly contested issue between the two peoples, land. On occasion, the simple tool of erasure of individual homes is extended to an entire community, witness the case of the Bedouin village of Araqeeb in the Negev. Over a hundred times the state would knock down all of the tribe’s homes and every time the residents, Israeli citizens since day one, would pick up the pieces and erect them again as homes. The state and the Israel Land Authority never provided them with an alternative: Just get the hell out!
I recall the first house demolition incident in my home village in Galilee. The Helou brothers, stonecutters and house builders of Arrabeh, had built a modest stone home for themselves in their land at the edge of the village. At the time, no sane villager bothered with building permits. This was in the early 1950s more than a decade before the Israeli legislators promulgated the Planning and Zoning Law. But the Helou’s new home was an exception, a clear physical outlier beyond the perimeter of the old village, an eyesore in the midst of the olive fields at the side of the only paved road to Arrabeh. When the police arrived with the bulldozer at dawn that morning someone in the family cried out for help and within minutes the whole village woke up to the booming voice of Ammu—Uncle—Fayez, the blind town crier, calling from the mosque’s minaret on everyone to come to the aid of the Helou’s. Alas, by the time everyone arrived wielding their sticks and stones, the two-room residence was already a pile of rubble and the police and their horrible machine had departed. Not long after, a new and outlying home in the neighboring village of Deir Hanna, that of a hapless widow and her children with no land to build on inside the village, was also demolished in a predawn military-style operation. The lesson was clear from these and similar cases: Stay within the traditional limits of your village or else!
But Palestinians are a hardheaded lot. In Arrabeh, that same Saturday, our newly enforced day of rest, Ammu Fayez let out another early-morning call for help from the minaret of the mosque asking all skilled construction workers in the village, which meant nearly all its able bodied men, to donate their labor that day to the ‘bereaved’ Helous. Before sundown the house was up again and the concrete roof fully in place. A festive meal was enjoyed by all and the Helous went on to beget a veritable clan at the center of a new neighborhood in Arrabeh with many illegally built residences. A similar fate awaited the poor widow in the neighboring village.
Over time, house demolition became the parallel tactic to the never-ending wait for village master plans and the legally required detailed plans for each neighborhood. Local planning committees are under the thumb of officials of the Ministry of the Interior. The land is too valuable to the state for its owners to use it at will. It is the reserve the State of the Jews needs for its ‘real citizens.’ Soon it would all become clear. In another and more thoroughly considered turn of the land acquisition (read: theft) process, planners sprang to action. Such lands, outside the now formalized and constricted Palestinian village limits, minus what the state has confiscated for the ‘public good’ were placed under the control of the invented “Regional Councils” of Jewish settlements. Now, even if the Palestinian residents of Arab villages like Arrabeh formally own the land, its destiny, future plans and tax revenues revert to neighboring Jewish settlements. That is how, as of 2004, the Misgav Regional Council in Galilee, for example, had a population of 18,000 residents and a land reserve of 180,000 dunams , while Sakhnin, one of several Palestinian towns enclosed on all sides by Misgav, had a population of 23,000 and a land reserve of only 9,000 dunams. I own a couple of Acres of Misgav’s land reserves. And I know the ultimate fate of that property of mine. And I don’t trust all of my liberal Jewish neighbors in Misgav who like to hobnob with me and my Arab co-villagers over beer and hummus.
Well, how does one deal with such an impossible situation, especially in “The Jewish State” with its commitment to maintaining a ‘demographic balance?’ Israel’s founder and first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, set the limit for the Palestinian Citizens of Israel, or “Israel’s Arabs” as the country’s officials, journalist and academicians insist on calling us, at 15% of the total citizenship of the country. Then Yitzhak Rabin, no less a credible authority on the matter, pushed the upper limit to 20% to no avail. Policy makers, planners, academicians, journalists and politicians, in short the whole ‘Jewish nation,’ look at that tipping point and see red. They explain, advise, lecture and threaten to no avail. They build a consensus against the monstrous reality by calling it “a ticking demographic time-bomb.” That way all bets are off. They tighten whatever screws they can and hope the Palestinians would get the message: LEAVE!
Except that in his “Passers Between the Passing Words” Mahmoud Darwish had beat them to that one; he had read their message: Himself a refugee, he vented his anger by summing up what Zionist Israel had done to him. They had destroyed his home, taken away his land, thrown him out and were manipulating empty words to make his exile permanent, in death as in life. They even tampered with his “memory of memories.” Ultimately they would deny him burial in his family’s cemetery in his erased home village of Birweh in coastal Galilee. He screamed his outrage by flinging back at them the curses they had practiced on him:
“Live where you wish but do not live among us
It is time for you to get out
and die where you wish but do not die among us.
Get out of our land
our continent, our sea
our wheat, our salt, our sore
our everything, and get out
of the memory of memories.”