Demolition of Palestinians’ homes: Israel’s dirty open secret

When I was growing up, women whispered about men who beat their wives. “she must have done something to deserve it,” the women used to say.

And then there was the old teaser, “How many times have you beat your wife?”
“I only do it when she does something wrong,” came the answer.

Today when the media sometimes bleats about Israel demolishing Palestinian homes in the West Bank or in Jerusalem, liberal Canadian Jews prefer to think Israel’s 55-year occupation of Palestine is “too complicated” to discuss. But sometimes a Jewish child in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver could notice the headline or the photo, and ask his or her Jewish parent why – why did Israel destroy the Palestinian family’s house – “What did they do wrong?”

A B’tselem photographer captures a Palestinian man with his household effects right after his house was demolished.

Good question: what did the Palestinian family actually do wrong. Usually they are a multi-generational family with four or six children, grandparents and grandchildren living in a bungalow or two-storey house in the West Bank, or more recently in east Jerusalem: what did they do to deserve to have their home destroyed by bulldozers of the Israeli state army, the IDF. Or, worse yet, to be told to destroy their own house or else be forced to pay the cost of Israeli bulldozers. Yes, of course, it happens all the time.

When we speak of the West Bank, we’ve been told for decades by the IDF that if one of the sons, or even the father of the household, was a terrorist, a member of Hamas, or anyone active against the Occupation the whole family will be punished. Immediately after the father or brother was killed or captured by Israel, the Israeli occupying authority destroys the family home or seals off the room the alleged miscreant slept in. In the last thirteen years, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) more than 8275 Palestinians homes have been demolished either because some family member fought back, (or mistakenly was thought to be involved) or because Israel wanted to Judaise the area, and to evict entire Palestinian communities. More than 12,256 Palestinians have been left homeless.

There are three kinds of house demolitions according to B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories:

“About sixty percent of the demolitions were carried out in the framework of what Israel calls “clearing operations.” Some twenty-five percent were destroyed because Israel claims they were built without permit. The remaining fifteen percent were demolished as a means to punish the families and neighbors of Palestinians suspected of involvement in carrying out attacks against Israelis.”

B’tselem, on punitive house demolitions

Evictions due to “clearing operations” and Jewish settler community needs are what is happening, day in and day out in Sheik Jarrah, a 75-year-old Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem. Ten years ago, when I visited Sheik Jarrah on a study tour of Israel and Palestine, every Friday there was a demonstration of Jewish Israelis and international supporters who went to Sheik Jarrah to defend Palestinians in their own homes. That Friday afternoon, we met a family of eight, sitting in their lawnchairs on the front patio of their home. Jewish settlers had invaded the bungalow and taken it over; this is not unusual. Settlers claim they own titles to the land – prior to Jordan bestowing it to the Palestinians. So the Palestinians whose home it was for 50 years, sat outside in protest. The IDF were there pointing their weapons at us. Aside from meeting the family and talking with them, we brought placards and picketed the street that led to Sheik Jarrah. And that was a decade ago.

Since 1967, more than 60,000 Palestinian homes and structures in the Occupied Territories– including the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem –have been destroyed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Inside Israel, more than 2586 homes were demolished in 2020 alone. Jerusalem’s municipal government doesn’t want the fuss and the altercation between the illegal settlers and the Palestinian homeowners. Instead the Israeli courts have declared the families are not entitled to their homes, and they have to move out. The Palestinian families’ crimes are that they continue to live in houses they built on land over the Green Line. The land was granted to Palestinians by Jordan in the late 1940s.

So in fact the Palestinian families have done nothing except to live and to breathe the air and yet they become homeless, and have to live in squalid tents, or stay with relatives indefinitely.

So as for the question of what did the Palestinians do to deserve to have their homes and all their possessions destroyed – what is the answer? The establishment Canadian Jewish community insists that all the houses demolished belong to “terrorists”. The Canadian Jewish establishment tends to ignore the fact that most houses are destroyed because the Palestinians can’t get permits to build onto their homes. As the Municipality of Jerusalem points out,

“In East Jerusalem there is significant difficulty in proving ownership or a connection to private land, which constitutes the primary obstacle to obtaining a building permit,”

Palestinians, generally, can’t register their properties, can’t get mortgages and still have to pay high taxes and levies to the state for building permits. As Jeff Halper of the ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) notes, about 90% of demolitions are due to Palestinians not able to afford building permits — or being denied them — and building “illegal” additions to their homes. It is not the same for Jewish Israelis because the state, the contractors, and the home owners share in paying the fees and levies– which can add up to more than $250,000 (US), and another $78,000 as a road levy.

My Canadian friend Steve Berube points out, “In 2020 Palestinians submitted 2,550 requests for construction permits and a grand total of 24 were approved for a rate of 0.9% according to information obtained through a freedom of Information request from Bimkom, an Israeli organization of Planners for Planning Rights. Here is the link to their site.” 

“In the Jewish sector the levies are paid by the state or the contractors, who then roll them over to [many] buyers, while the Arabs are building for themselves. …People just give up,” he said.

Attorney Sami Arshid

So Is the answer to why the house demolitions: “They are bad people,” or “their son (husband, uncle) is a terrorist, so they all must suffer?” or is it “Israel needs Lebensraum and it’s taking whatever it wants.“

Featured Image above: A B’tselem photographer took this photo of demolished homes in the West Bank which used to house 44 Palestinians, including 22 children. Photo was taken the day after their homes were destroyed by Israeli bulldozers in November 2020. The homes of 900 Palestinians were destroyed in 2020, compared with 677 in 2019. For facts and figures see here.

One comment

  1. Thank you, Judy, for this wonderful article, thank you for support and your work to defend human rights around the world, especially Palestinian human rights and struggle. This practice of demolishing homes was also happening continuously in Gaza before the disengagement of Israeli army in 2006 in the same way as West Bank as described in your article. Growing up in Gaza, I had seen many homes destroyed by Israeli army if one of the family member is suspected to be involved in the fighting against the occupation, I wanted to add the homes are destroyed regardless if the family owns or rents the house. Demolishing of homes continues in Gaza from the air by Israeli F-16, Apache helicopter and other warplanes.


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