n the first hours of dawn, Nader Elayan was woken
by a call from a neighbor warning him to hurry to the house he had almost finished
building. By the time he arrived, it was too late: a bulldozer was tearing down
the walls. More than 100 Israeli security guards held back local residents.
The demolition, carried out four years ago, has left Mr Elayan, his wife, Fidaa,
who is now pregnant, and their two young children with nowhere to live but a
single room in his brother's cramped home. It is the only land he owns
and he had invested all his savings in building the now destroyed house.
Over the past few years, the Elayans' fate has been shared by two dozen other
families in the Palestinian village of Anata, on the outskirts of East Jerusalem.
Hundreds more families have demolition orders hanging over their homes. "Not
one person in my neighborhood has a [building] permit," Mr Elayan, 37,
The problem of house demolitions affects Palestinians throughout the occupied
territories. But according to Hatem Abdelkader, an adviser to Salam Fayyad,
the Palestinian prime minister, the situation is particularly acute in the East
He noted that Israel's policy of refusing building permits to many of the
250,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem has resulted in the classification of
20,000 city homes as illegal since the occupation began in 1967. Last year alone,
the Jerusalem municipality issued more than 1,000 demolition orders for "illegal
dwellings." It is believed that three out of every four Palestinian homes
in the city are now built without a permit.
"Illegal building is simply a pretext for destroying Palestinian families'
homes and lives," said Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against
House Demolitions (ICAHD).
"The demolitions are part of a policy to stop the natural expansion of
Palestinian communities in and around Jerusalem, freeing up the maximum amount
of land for use by Israeli settlers," Mr Halper said. "The demolitions
increase the pressure on Palestinians to move into the West Bank, so that they
will lose their residency rights in the city."
In an act of defiance, Mr Halper's organization and 40 international volunteers
helped the Elayans to rebuild their home this week in an attempt to highlight
what the committee calls the "quiet ethnic cleansing" of East Jerusalem.
The work was carried out during a two-week summer camp funded by the Spanish
government. Madrid also paid for 18 Spanish volunteers to participate.
"This is the first time a government has supported the rebuilding of an
'illegal' Palestinian home demolished by the Israeli authorities,"
Mr Halper said.
The issue of house demolitions is back in the spotlight now after two separate
incidents in July in which Palestinians, both of whom were residents of Jerusalem,
rampaged through the city in bulldozers, killing three Israelis and injuring
many more. Although the two Palestinians were shot dead at the scene, Israeli
officials, including Ehud Barak, the defense minister, are calling for their
homes to be destroyed, making their families homeless, to deter others from
following in their path.
Such punitive destruction of homes was stopped in 2005, under the threat of
legal challenge, but not before some 270 homes were razed on security grounds
in the first years of the intifada.
According to Mr Halper, however, the use of demolitions against Palestinians
accused of illegal building is a far more significant problem. "We estimate
that there have been at least 18,000 homes destroyed during the four decades
In fact, Mr Halper said, he believes the true number of demolitions is likely
to be double the official figure. Many razings are unrecorded, carried out by
Palestinians themselves fearing a heavy fine if the Israeli army enforces the
"Most demolitions are of multistory buildings that are home to several
families, meaning that well in excess of 100,000 Palestinians may have been
made homeless by Israeli administrative policies," he said.
Since its founding a decade ago, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions
has rebuilt 150 Palestinian homes as part of its campaign to bring the issue
of demolitions to the attention of Israeli Jews and the international community.
It has been an uphill struggle, Mr Halper said. The European Union, which recently
upgraded its relations with Israel, announced this month that it was withdrawing
But this year's work camp may make the continuing demolition of homes in
Anata a little harder, Mr Halper said. "It's one thing to destroy
a home supposedly built illegally by a Palestinian, but another to destroy one
built with money provided by the Spanish government."
Mr Halper also believes that, by exposing such groups as the summer camp volunteers
to the Palestinians' plight, public perceptions may begin to change.
Alonso Santos, a 21-year-old architecture student from Madrid, said he learnt
much from seeing at close hand Palestinian life under occupation.
"It was an eye-opener to realize that the principles of urban planning
we are taught at the university are being used by the Israelis, but for exactly
the opposite purpose from the one usually intended. The planning rules here
are designed not to improve the Palestinians' lives but to make them more miserable."
The volunteers were hosted at a peace center in Anata erected on the site of
Salim Shawamreh's home, which was demolished four times by Israeli authorities.
Known as Arabiya House, after Mr Shawamreh's wife, the building is decorated
on one side with a mural depicting the death of Rachel Corrie, a US peace activist,
by an Israeli bulldozer that had been demolishing homes in Gaza.
"Imagine your children leaving in the morning for school and returning
later in the day to find their home, their whole world, has disappeared while
they were gone," Mr Shawamreh said. "It's happened to my children
four times. It's cruelty beyond words."
Mr Shawamreh, whose family were refugees from the northern Negev in 1948, said
he and ICAHD established the peace center to highlight the plight of the Palestinians
in Anata. Today the house is overlooked by an Israeli police station across
the valley, part of the advance growth of a large Jewish settlement, Maale Adumim,
that Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups believe is cutting the West
Bank in two.
The peace center is also close both to the snaking route of Israel's separation
wall and to a new bypass road part of what critics call an apartheid
road system being built to ensure that Jewish settlers can drive separately
from Palestinians across the West Bank.
Arabiya House is under a temporary reprieve from demolition while Israeli courts
determine its status.
Mr Halper said the judges have been reluctant to confirm the destruction order
because his group has threatened to take the case to the International Court
of Justice if the ruling goes against it.
This article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.