Two more houses in the village Palestinian of al-Walaje, just outside Bethlehem, were demolished by the Israeli Occupation Forces, on 31st of January, the Islamic New Year. (A new year’s present, as one resident of the village explained to me.) The bulldozers arrived at 12 noon, and were all gone by 2pm. The bulldozers were accompanied by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli Police from the municipality of Jerusalem and Israeli Border Police, who all descended on the village.
The first house to be demolished didn’t even have a demolition order on it. The inhabitants, Munther Salim, his wife Siham and their three children, hired a lawyer because so many houses in their village had demolition orders on them. They were assured by their lawyer just two weeks previously that he had received promises from the Israeli authorities that their house would not be touched. Because of their difficult economic situation, they could not afford to build a house on the land which Siham inherited from her father when he died nearly 20 years ago. Despite this, four years ago, with both financial and practical help from the community, a house was built for the family. The family were both full of shock and questions and sat on the remains of their house in tears. ‘We want to live in peace, but there is no peace here, how can we live like this? Where shall I go? To a camp? To spend all of my life in a refugee camp?’ Siham asked me. I admit I was lost for answers. Siham’s young niece asked me, ‘What would happen if I went to Jerusalem and demolished an Israeli house, where Jewish people lived. The whole world would stand behind Israel and call us terrorists, wouldn’t they? Why is it different for us? Who was this house hurting? How does this house harm the security of Israel?’
I’d like everyone reading this to, just for one moment, imagine, genuinely try and imagine what it would feel like if a foreign country’s police force came to your door and told you that they were about to demolish your house, ordered you out of the house, took out all of your things, and half an hour later started the demolition. Then left.
The second house, which was demolished immediately after the first, belonged to Mohammad Faraj, and was inhabited by his relatives: an elderly couple, their daughter and grandson, and two other relatives, one of whom is blind. The house was built in 1995, and was promptly declared illegal by the Israeli authorities because it didn’t have a building permit. (Palestinians simply do not receive building permits from Israel, so they are either forced to live in overcrowded areas, or become criminals, or of course leave the country which is exactly what Israel wants). The fine for building this ‘illegal’ house was 20,000 Shekels ($4,350) – more than an average family in Palestine earns in a year. The fine was and still is being paid in monthly instalments, and the fine still stands, and must be paid in full, despite the fact that the house has been demolished. The elderly inhabitants of their house have already had one house demolished, in the same villages, years before, and after that demolition they moved to this house. Their daughter also moved to this house after her previous house was demolished. She lived in Jenin with her husband, who was killed in the Jenin Massacre of 2002, and the next year her house was demolished, with all her possessions inside. Homeless and almost penniless she moved to al-Walaje to be with her parents. On the day of the demolition, she had been working in Bethlehem, and came home to find her possessions scattered on her yard and her house in pieces, again.
The owner of the house tapped me on the shoulder as we were assessing the remains of his home, and pointed to West Jerusalem, which you can see from the village, and pointed to the cranes building housing there. ‘You see these houses, they’re building for Jews all the time. Can I move into one of those houses? No, because I’m a Palestinian. Can I build a house on my own land? No, because I’m a Palestinian. Where are we meant to live?’ Unbelieveably, the tragic story of the village does not end there, because not only are the vast majority of the houses there ‘illegal’, but so are the people, in the eyes of the Israeli state. Because of the proximity of the village to the Green Line – the border between Israel and Palestine – when Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, it also illegally annexed half of al-Walaje village. It did, however, seem to forget to inform the inhabitants that they were now living in ‘Israel’. The inhabitants of al-Walaje had always paid their taxes to Bethlehem and received their municipal services to Bethlehem, but in 1985, Israeli authorities came to the village, demolished a house, declaring it illegal construction in Israel. It then informed the residents that they were illegally resident in Israel, and that if they wanted a Jerusalem / Israeli ID card then they had to prove that they lived there before 1967 (ideas on a postcard please?). Therefore, the residents of half of the village can be arrested simply for being in or stepping out of their houses, for being in ‘Israel’ without a permit from the Israeli authorities. Many have been arrested for this very reason. Out of the 100 houses in the annexed area, 75 were given demolition orders, and 25 of those have now been executed, plus one which didn’t have a demolition order. 50 homes are still to be demolished. The villagers of al-Walaje are waiting petrified, not knowing who will be next, or when the bulldozers will next invade their village.
War crimes, such as the demolition of civilian homes, amongst many others, occur on a daily basis in occupied Palestine. The people of this country want to live in peace, but are under a brutal military occupation. Whilst the world reflects on the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, maybe everyone should be considering why people join or vote for Hamas. What effect will the house demolitions have on the people of this village, especially the young people? Who will they grow up supporting?