/ 21 April 2008

Watching as their homes crumble

In the end it came down to a single-page letter, written in Hebrew and Arabic and hand-delivered by an Israeli army officer who knocked at the front door. The letter spelt the imminent destruction of the whitewashed three-storey home and small tree-lined garden that Bassam Suleiman spent so long saving for and then built with his family a decade ago.

It was a final demolition order, with instructions to evacuate the house within three days.

If Suleiman was in any doubt about the Israeli military’s intentions he had only to look outside his back door where large piles of rubble and broken concrete mark the remains of seven of his neighbours’ houses that were demolished in the same way last year.

”How would you feel when you’ve spent 20 years finishing your life’s project?” said Suleiman (38), a teacher.

He began moving his furniture out after the letter from the civil administration of Judea and Samaria, the Defence Ministry Department responsible for the Israeli-occupied West Bank, came on January 31. Now there are just a couple of plastic chairs in his front room and in the hallway the carpets are rolled up ready to be moved. Clothes are piled on the floor and the shelves are empty, save for a stack of documents charting the story of the impending demolition.

His brother, Husam, has already left the ground floor flat but the new washing machine and fridge stand still wrapped in plastic. Suleiman, his wife and two children wait for the bulldozers.

”Everything I did in my life was for what’s now inside this house and now it’s going to be destroyed,” said Suleiman. ”It’s very hard for me to find somewhere else to live.”

The Israeli authorities argue that Suleiman’s house was built in a part of the West Bank known as area C, a designation from the era of the Oslo Accords, which means Israel has full military and administrative control. To build, a Palestinian must apply for a permit from the Israeli authorities. If there is no permit — as in Suleiman’s case — the building is liable for demolition.

Area C covers 60% of the West Bank, home to about 70 000 Palestinians. It is also the area in which most Jewish settlements, all illegal under international law, are built. Compelling statistical evidence shows that while it is extremely hard for Palestinians to obtain building permits, settlements continue to grow rapidly.

Research by the Israeli group Peace Now found that 94% of Palestinian permit applications for area C building were refused between 2000 and September last year. Only 91 permits were granted to Palestinians, but 18 472 housing units were built in Jewish settlements. As a result of demolition orders, 1 663 Palestinian buildings were demolished, against only 199 in the settlements.

”The denial of permits for Palestinians on such a large scale raises the fear that there is a specific policy by the authorities to encourage a ‘silent transfer’ of the Palestinian population from area C,” Peace Now said.

This year there has been a marked increase in demolitions. There were 138 demolitions between January and March, mostly in area C, compared with 29 in the past three months of last year, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

This year 400 Palestinians have been displaced as a result. At a time of a renewed peace process to create an independent Palestinian state, the reality in the West Bank is that Jewish settlements are growing and demolitions of Palestinian homes are on the increase.

The problems of the village of Far’un, south of Tulkarem, are complicated by the vast West Bank barrier, which here runs away from the 1949 ceasefire line that divides Israel and the Palestinian territories. The wide, steel fence, which passes just a few dozen metres from Suleiman’s home, cuts off the village from a slice of its agricultural land and underground water reserves and has turned this area into a dangerous no-go zone: in December 2006 a 14-year-old Palestinian girl playing nearby was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.

Suleiman’s house and that of his neighbour Emad Hassahsi, which has also been ordered to be demolished, were built before the barrier arrived, in an area they were told — and they have letters that appear to support their claim — was area B, in which Palestinians have administrative control and therefore somewhere they thought they could safely build. Only later did the Israeli military announce it was in fact area C.

There are similar disputes about the exact delineation of the different areas elsewhere in the West Bank.

Israel’s civil administration offered no explanation for the rise in demolitions, but said: ”The procedures that are carried out before the materialisation of a demolition order include: issuance of an order to cease building that is usually issued in the early stages of the construction of foundations; numerous deliberations at the high planning and zoning committee and of course an open door to the Supreme Court of Justice.

These procedures are valid for both Palestinians and Israelis alike.” It said the buildings demolished in Far’un were ”built illegally without the required licences”.

One effect of the strict planning curbs is to limit the growth of Palestinian villages. ”If you look at the way the Israelis are enforcing planning and construction regulations you see they are being enforced in a one-sided way,” said Avi Berg, research director of the leading Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, which has worked on the Far’un case.

Settlement growth continues apace despite the fact that the current peace talks are based on the United States Road Map, under which Israel is required to freeze settlement activity. In another report Peace Now said that since the talks began at Annapolis last November, Israel was still building 500 homes in West Bank settlements and had issued tenders for 750 homes in East Jerusalem settlements.

Reports suggest another 1 400 homes will be built in two settlements in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

The Israeli government defends the continued settlement construction, particularly in the major settlements which it calls ”population centres”, saying it will not build new settlements or expropriate more land. ”In the population centres and in Jerusalem the reality on the ground will not be the same in the future as it is today,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last month. ”There will be more additional building as part of the reality of life and this is something that was explained … ”

Not all the cases of demolition involve homes. In January Israeli forces uprooted 3 200 trees, destroyed water cisterns and stone terraces in fields near Beit Ula, close to Hebron, in the southern West Bank. Again this was in area C. The civil administration said the demolition was an ”enforcement activity” carried out after legal warnings.

But in this case the target was a â,¬64 000 project from the European Commission which began two years ago to provide a livelihood for the villagers, several of whom also put their own money into the planting.