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The Message of the Bulldozer

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) deplores this week’s decision by the Israeli High Court of Justice against permitting judicial review for families of Palestinians whose homes are targeted for demolition because a family member has been involved in (or even suspected of) terror attacks. True to the pattern of many years, the Court has accepted the argument of the army that such demolitions take place as integral parts of military operations. Israel’s High Court thus permits the setting aside of fundamental human rights in favor of military considerations (which are but extensions of the governmentOs political goals).

What human rights are violated by this decision?

The right of innocent individuals not to be held legally accountable for the actions of relatives. Blood ties cannot be the basis of demolition someone’s home. The notion that individuals may be punished for crimes of others without any criminal charge being made against them forfeits the elementary protection that the legal system owes to every person.

The right of every person to due process and judicial review. Punishing individuals not charged with any crime, or denying them recourse to the court if they are faced with punitive actions, constitutes extra-judicial punishment. When an entire family is punished for the suspected deeds of one of its members, this is collective punishment. Both violate the essence of both Israeli civil law and international humanitarian law.

The demolition of houses or destruction of other private property of individuals residing in occupied territories is explicitly forbidden by the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 53), as is collective punishment (Article 33).

This sad decision, which immediately effects 49 Palestinian families whose homes may be demolished at any time, represents the steady erosion of Israeli democracy as it tries to cope with popular resistance to an illegal Occupation. In its decision, the High Court itself subordinates the rule of law, not to mention human rights, to the requirements of military repression. In the simplest terms, it condones and permits war crimes. Absolute rule over another people is possible only by denying them fundamental legal protection. In the end, this must destroy the very moral and legal basis underlying democracy and law.

For the past six years ICAHD has been working on the issue of house demolitions. Every time we think: “OK, we’ve exhausted the subject, let’s go on to other, perhaps more pressing issues,” the systematic destruction of Palestinian homes returns to the center of the conflict with a vengeance. It happened in the Jenin refugee camp, where the indomitable drivers of the massive D-9 Caterpillar bulldozers labored for three straight days and nights demolishing more than 300 homes in the densely packed camp, thereby becoming the heroes of the invasion. And it is happening today as Israel demolishes dozens of houses belonging to families of terrorists, a form of collective punishment that is clearly a war crime.

Why? Why does house demolitions remain at the center of the conflict? Why has it been at the center of the Israeli struggle against the Palestinians since 1948? There are many specific reasons given: security, deterrence, punishment, self-defense, warfare, “illegal” construction, enforcement of the law and on and on. But one element remains throughout: The Message. Sharon, like his predecessors, never tire of warning that Israeli attacks on the Palestinians will continue “until they get The Message.” What is The Message? As stated by Sharon and the others (going back some 80 years to the “Iron Wall” concept of Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion), The Message is: “Submit. Only when you abandon your dreams for an independent state of your own, and accept that Palestine has become the Land of Israel, will we relent.” But The Message goes even deeper, is more sinister than that. The Message of the Bulldozers is: “You do not belong here. We uprooted you from your homes in 1948 and prevented your return, and now we will uproot you from all of the Land of Israel.” “Transfer” has become an acceptable topic of television talk shows. And that is why house demolitions remain so prominent, the bulldozer beside the tank. Because in the end this process of reoccupation is one of displacement.

The bulldozer certainly deserves to take its rightful place alongside the tank as a symbol of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. The two deserve to be on the national flag. The tank as symbol of an Israel “fighting for its existence,” and for its prowess on the battlefield. And the bulldozer for the dark underside of Israel’s struggle for existence, its ongoing struggle to displace the Palestinians from the country. For Israel has always treated the Palestinians as an enemy, never as a people with collective rights and legitimate claims to the country with which it might someday live in peace. In 1948 Israel played an active role in driving 75% of the Palestinians from the Land. Over the next four or five years the bulldozer, following the tank, systematically demolished 418 Palestinian villages. Since 1967, as Israel’s tanks suppress Palestinian resistance to the Occupation with increasing frequency and ferocity, its bulldozers (aided by artillery and missiles) have demolished more than 9000 Palestinian homes and counting. Even as I write this, a day after the Israeli High Court of Justice gave its consent to demolishing houses of families of terrorists without warning or a chance to appeal to the court, houses are being bulldozed in Bethlehem and Gaza with dozens more threatened throughout the Occupied Territories. And not only. Throughout Israel proper, in the “unrecognized villages” and Palestinian neighborhoods of Ramle, Lod and elsewhere, houses continue to be demolished 54 years later. Jews now live in Palestinian houses in Israel’s major cities and Palestinian villages have long disappeared under the agricultural fields of kibbutzim and moshavs. Amidst this destruction 150,000 housing units have been built for the 400,000 Jews living across the 1967 border.

The bulldozer remains at the center of the “action” for the simple reason that repression and control alone do not secure the country for those the Jews whose claim excludes all others. Those with competing claims the Palestinians must be displaced if the Jews are really going to take possession, or at least confined to small islands where they cannot interfere with or challenge Israeli dominion. (The announcement this week by the Ministry of the Interior that Palestinian Israelis would be stripped of their citizenship if proven “unloyal” to the State extends the work of bulldozers.)

But just as Israel cannot insulate itself from the Occupation, so too it cannot escape the ravages of its own house demolitions policy. Fear that the displaced might yet rise again and claim their patrimony prevents Israelis from enjoying the fruits of their power. The country has been seized by rising xenophobia and national–religious fanaticism. Polarization characterizes the relations between the right and left, Jewish and Arab citizens, Jews of European and Middle East origin, the working and middle classes, religious and secular. Israelis are “hunkering down,” increasingly isolated from the world. Young Israeli men and women are themselves brutalized as they are sent as soldiers to evict Palestinian families from their homes. Even the beauty of the land is destroyed as the authorities rush to construct ugly, sprawling suburbs and massive highways in order to “claim” the land before Palestinians creep back in. Aesthetics, human rights, environmental concerns, education, social justice these are the finer things of life that cannot coexist with displacement and occupation. “Fortress Israel,” as we call it, is by necessity based on a culture of strength, violence and crudity.

In the final analysis, it will be the bulldozer that razes the structure that once was Israel.

Jeff Halper is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a Professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University. He has lived in Israel since 1973. He can be reached at: icahd@zahav.net.il. New Print Edition of CounterPunch Available Exclusively to Subscribers:

War Talk As White Noise: Anything to Get Harken and Halliburton Out of the Headlines; First Hilliard, Then McKinney: Jewish Groups Target Blacks Brave Enough to Talk About Justice in the Middle East; Intimidation is the Name of the Game; Smearing “Insane” McKinney As Muslims’ Pawn; The Missing Terrorist? Calling Scotland Yard: “Where’s Atif?” They Never Booed Dylan!: Tape Transcript Shows Famed Newport Folkfest Dissing of Electric Dylan Not True. The Catcalls were for Peter Yarrow! New Shame from the Liffey Shrike

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