Thursday, 28 August 2008

Breaking habitats, building resistance

A quiet ethnic cleansing continues in East Jerusalem as Israel proceeds with uncaring resolve to reduce Palestinian houses to rubble, displacing and breaking their inhabitants in the process.

Demolish their homes, demolish their spirits. That's the painful conclusion of Jill Shaw, a recent participant in the admirable Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) campaign to stop Israel's tactical expulsion of its Arab 'citizens':

"ICAHD, an Israeli group whose primary mission is to resist Israel's practice of home demolitions, states that 18,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel since 1967. Additionally, another 22,000 East Jerusalem homes have demolition orders on them. This does not include the thousands of homes with demolition orders throughout the rest of the West Bank."

The familiar excuses are trotted out: these people have no building permits, thus their dwellings are illegal and subject to removal. But, as ICAHD, the UN and multiple other legal observers have shown, Palestinians are consistently denied such building permits, leaving them with little choice but to build wherever and however they can. They live in a state of constant uncertainty and fear, knowing that a 3 am rap on the door means the probable destruction of their dwellings by dawn. As I always say to those seemingly indifferent to such suffering, just imagine for a moment what that would feel like for your own family. How can a country calling itself a civilised democracy throw people on the street in such a cruel and merciless way?

As Jonathan Cook explains, it's all part of Israel's stealthy acquisition of land, a process which sees it encircle Palestinian habitats with 'legitimate' settlements while pretending 'good faith' actions against "illegal outposts" like Migron. The main settlements, notes Cook:

"now form an almost complete ring around Palestinian East Jerusalem, cutting it off from the rest of the West Bank and destroying any hope that the city will one day become the capital of a Palestinian state.

"These settlements are supposed to be the nail in the coffin of any future peace agreement with the Palestinians," said Dror Etkes, a veteran observer of the settlements who works for the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din. "Their purpose is to make a Palestinian state unviable."

The majority of the half a million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Mr Etkes, are "economic opportunists", drawn to life in the occupied territories less by ideological or religious convictions than economic incentives. The homes, municipal services and schools there are heavily subsidised by the government. In addition, the settlements – though illegal under international law – are integrated into Israel through a sophisticated system of roads that make it easy for the settlers to forget they are in occupied territory surrounded by Palestinians.

But Migron, with its supposed links to the Biblical site where King Saul based himself during his fight against the Philistines, attracts a different kind of inhabitant."This place is holy to the Jewish people and we have a duty to be here," Mrs Genud said. "The whole land of Israel belongs to us and we should not be afraid to live wherever we want to. The Arabs must accept that."

Unlike the 150 or so official settlements dotted across the West Bank, Migron is an example of what the Israeli government refers to as an "illegal outpost", often an unauthorised outgrowth from one of the main settlements. Today there are more than 100 such outposts, housing several thousand extremist settlers."

Meanwhile, Israel's brazen expansion bulldozes on unimpeded, with a near doubling of homes under construction in the last year. As noted in a new report from the Israeli-based Peace Now group:

"the housing ministry had begun work on 433 new settlement housing units between January and May this year compared with 240 in the same period last year, despite continuing negotiations with the Palestinians for a peace agreement. The organisation said its findings were based on figures from Israel's central bureau of statistics. It said more than 1,000 new buildings, representing 2,600 housing units, were under construction in settlements. Of these, 55% are on the eastern side of the concrete and steel barrier Israel has built in and along the West Bank."

ICAHD's mission is a severe embarrassment to the Israeli authorities, hence its constant vilification. Jeff Halper, the group's leading Israeli activist is unequivocal in describing Israel's actions as "apartheid" and calling for a concerted campaign to break its system of discrimination:

"This, then, is a call for a global anti-apartheid campaign, an international response to, and utter rejection of, the “convergence plan” which Olmert has pronounced the most pressing priority of his new government, a plan that calls for Israel to “converge” into its "thickened" settlement blocs while locking the Palestinians permanently into a truncated, non-viable, semi-sovereign prison-state. While not based on the racial policies of South African apartheid, the formal institutionalization of the Occupation whereby one state assumes permanent and structured domination over another, one people permanent domination over another through a system of institutionalized discrimination, means that Israel’s form of apartheid conforms in principle, conception and structure to apartheid. While some may object to the use of the term on the grounds that it deflects debate from the issues, while “dispossession,” “ethnic cleansing,” “colonization” and other terms may be more descriptive for what is occuring in Israel-Palestine, apartheid is the only term existing that gets to the deliberately structured, permanently institutionalized form of systemic discrimination underlying Israel’s “convergence plan” that perpetuates the Occupation forever."

ICAHD members are subject to frequent arrest for helping to block the demolition of Palestinian homes. Jeff Halper has been arrested eight times, latterly for defending a house torn down by the Israelis and rebuilt by ICAHD.

Halper was also arrested and charged with 'border violations', having entered Gaza and re-entered Israel as part of the recent Break the Siege voyage. It was another telling act of political vindictiveness against a brave Israeli bearing international witness to his country's wicked persecutions.

The withdrawal of EU funding from ICAHD is yet another indication of the punitive isolation felt by Palestinians and their advocates. The EU action, part of an 'upgrading' of relations with Israel, is particularly reprehensible given ICAHD's avowed non-violent philosophy and adherence to international articles on the illegality of the Occupation, settlements and destruction of Palestinian homes.

Despite all these obstacles and intimidations, including streams of vitriolic antagonism from within the Israeli media, ICAHD continue to build and resist, both in the physical replacing of Palestinian homes and in the construction of international awareness. It's an inspiring project helping to restore broken habitats and keep an open window on the plight of a brutalised people.


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