Al-Ahram Weekly – 13 March 2003
In the struggle for what little is left of world attention when all eyes are on Iraq, one Palestinian’s suffering must compete with another’s, one tragedy overshadows the next. The pain of each is seen in isolation, a separate case crying out for more or less sympathy, with a stronger or weaker claim on our compassion. Some instances of such suffering are not even understood as Palestinian.
Last week the media reported that the UN children’s agency UNICEF had criticised the Israeli army for demolishing a home in Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on 3 March that led to a building collapsing on a pregnant 37-year-old woman, Noha Sabri Sweidan. The mother of 10 bled to death under the ruins.
The men in military uniform who sent the explosives experts into the camp were doubtless driven by the same blinkered logic that the day before, 2 March, prompted other men, this time in suits, to send bulldozers into the village of Kafr Qassem to demolish 18 cinderblock houses, wrecking the lives of 18 families. The incident went almost entirely unnoticed.
Kafr Qassem is in Israel, though only a few hundred metres from the West Bank, and the inhabitants are all Israeli citizens. What connects Kafr Qassem and Bureij camp is that both are Palestinian communities, albeit on different sides of the Green Line.
Two days later, on 4 March, a different group of men in suits sent a fleet of helicopters into the Negev, the belly of each aircraft filled with pesticides.
Over fields next to the Bedouin village of Abda, they spilt their toxic loads.
Like the villagers of Kafr Qassem, the Bedouin of Abda are citizens of Israel but the pilots did not hesitate before releasing the chemicals over the villagers’ crops nor did they worry that the fine mist was falling to earth where 10 young children were playing. This incident also went largely unreported.
The men in suits from the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) had not told the villagers of Abda that they were coming to destroy 1,500 dunums (375 acres) of crops, or that they would be sending helicopters armed with pesticides.
The Bedouin residents, who claim rights to the land their tribe has farmed for generations, live in one of several dozen villages the 55-year-old state of Israel refuses to recognise. The Bedouin themselves are recognised: they must pay taxes. But they have no right to build homes on or farm their historic lands. The villages of tents and huts in which they live are not entitled to local services, including water and electricity, or to schools and doctors. The threat of demolition hangs constantly over the house of every one of them.
This was not the first time the Israel Lands Authority, a government agency that owns and controls most land inside Israel, has sprayed Bedouin crops. Last year, on 14 February, a group of its planes sprayed a total of 12sq km of Bedouin lands in the Negev.
That action was carried out shortly after the ILA sent a letter to the Adalah legal centre for the Arab minority in Israel promising that it would not use such tactics to try to pressure Bedouin to move off land to which the state says they have no rights. Apparently the ILA’s word not only meant nothing in 2002; a year later it was just as worthless.
Israel’s liberal laws do not apply to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Legal codes designed to offer protection to civilians can always be overruled, annulled or postponed in favour of a more pressing military order, or in the name of security. Israel’s judges readily uphold such exemptions, as the family of Noha Sabri Sweidan will discover if it seeks accountability, or compensation, for her death in Bureij camp.
For Palestinian citizens of Israel, these laws do apply, formally providing the same protection offered to Jewish citizens. But somehow in the planning, implementation and enforcement stages, different criteria are used. The difference of outcome experienced by Jewish and Arab citizens is rarely challenged successfully in Israeli courts.
Fifty-year-old Souheil Taha did not see the destruction of his home, into which he had pumped 20 years of his savings and in which he was living with his wife and eight-year-old son. He was arrested as some 200 policemen flooded the outskirts of Kafr Qassem at 3am on 2 March and taken to nearby Petah Tikva police station.
His wife and son were also spared. “By chance they were staying at her uncle’s for the night,” he said. “I didn’t want the boy seeing the destruction so I rang from my cell to tell her not to go back home.
“I’ve spent $60,000 on the house and was starting work on the second floor to give to my son when he marries. How do I tell him that nothing of the house now exists?”
Taha built his home on land that has been owned by his family for generations and on which the olive trees his ancestors planted still grow. The land is included in the masterplan of his village of Kafr Qassem. So why was it illegal for him to build?
Because the state, through wholesale land confiscations from Arab villages and landholders, now owns some 93 per cent of the land — held not on behalf of its citizens but in trust for the Jewish people. The state decides what is legal and illegal, what land can be built on and what cannot, what land can be farmed and what cannot. It decides when permits will be given to Arabs and when they will be given to Jews. And if a Jew and an Arab build illegally, it decides through the ILA whether to pursue a demolition order. It also decides whether to implement that order. And if there is an appeal to the courts it chooses whether to abide by the ruling or ignore it.
Every layer of this Kafkaesque system defeated Taha and the 17 other families. His land was confiscated by the ILA in the early 1970s and zoned as agricultural rather than building land, even though it was within the boundaries of the village. Later the ILA decided that the land could be leased for 49 years — and Taha’s home made legal — if each family paid a fine of more than $100,000.
The 18 families did not have that kind of money, so the ILA took them to court in July 2002. The court in Petah Tikva agreed that the homes were illegal but did not issue a demolition order. A further hearing in December in Kfar Sava ruled that all activities at the site — both building work and the threatened destruction — were frozen until September 2003, giving time for the two sides to negotiate over the fine.
Six months early the ILA, supported by the police, decided to take action unilaterally and in defiance of the court hearing.
Claims that Israel’s laws are liberal and fair remain untarnished; in both Abda and Kafr Qassem, the policy of discrimination can be concealed in the bureaucratic procedures of implementation and enforcement.
Hanna Sweid, mayor of the Galilean village of Eilaboun, is one of only two Arabs sitting on the 32-member panel of the National Planning and Building Council, which establishes Israel’s development strategy. He says a survey carried out by the government-appointed Gazit Committee three years ago revealed that there were some 50,000 illegal structures built across the country, half in Arab towns and villages and half in Jewish areas, particularly in the agricultural communities of the moshav and kibbutz.
The reason for unlicensed building in each community was different. Jews resented buying permits and paid only if the illegal building was detected.
Although Arabs equally begrudged the permit system, particularly for land they considered historically theirs, they usually were not given then option of paying. Because the planning authorities refused to provide their areas with municipal zoning plans, they had no choice but to build illegally. All Arab development was effectively criminalised.
Sweid says there is another difference. “Most Jewish unlicensed building is either retroactively approved or a demolition order is never issued,” he said. “I am hard pushed to recall instances of the buildings of Jews being destroyed.”
In contrast, the majority of the 25,000 illegal Arab buildings — some 8 per cent of all Arab homes — have demolition orders hanging over them and a steady number are razed each year for “deterrence value”, says Sweid.
“In the mid-1990s there were tens of Arab houses being demolished each year. Then it gradually tailed off until there were some five or so cases recorded annually. But in the last three years the rate of destruction has been stepped up dramatically. Excluding the Negev, more than 50 houses are being demolished each year. Including the Negev the figures are far higher.”
More than 70 homes were demolished in the Negev over a two-month period last summer alone. Israel set a new precedent last month by demolishing a Bedouin mosque at the unrecognised village of Tel Al-Milleh. The villagers had been forced to build the mosque illegally because the state refused to provide them with anywhere to pray.
The discriminatory demolition policy, says Sweid, can be maintained because Jews dominate the National Planning Council and the next layer of the planning authorities, the six powerful Regional Planning Committees. They approve local zoning masterplans, decide on building permit policy and allocate resources.
Each committee has 17 members. The best Arab representation is to be found in the northern district, covering the Galilee, half of whose population is Arab. It has two members — increased from one after the government was taken to court.
The other districts have either one or no Arab members. The southern district which determines policy towards 140,000 Bedouin in the Negev has no Arab representative.
Sweid says the result is that Israel seeks to deal with Arab building not through planning solutions but through demolitions. Not one new Arab town or village has been approved in the 55 years since Israel was created.
“The government’s strategic goal is to use force to stop all expansion by Arab communities, to prevent us claiming any more land than the 3 per cent which has not yet been confiscated.”
He points out that Israel claims a right to extra territory to cope with the “natural growth” of the illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. “Israel wants both the settlements and the kibbutz inside Israel to take as much land as possible and for us to be squeezed.”