Action is needed to protect them and tens of thousands more who risk losing their homes under Israel's devastating home demolition policies.
Tears streaming down her face, the little girl in front of me crawled over the ruins of her home looking for toys and school books that could be salvaged from among the rubble and destruction. The night before, the Israeli army had evacuated her family from their house, set explosives, and destroyed their home.
It was 2001, and it was the first time I witnessed the devastation wrought by Israel’s decades-old home demolition policy. During the nearly two decades since then, I’ve talked with hundreds of Palestinians who have been forced out of their homes by the Israeli government. Their stories are all unique, but the result of Israel’s home demolition policy is always the same – destruction and suffering within families and communities.
Just last week, the Israeli High Court ruled that the government can move forward with the demolition of 60 buildings in Jerusalem that are home to over 500 Palestinian families. Demolitions have already begun, and thousands of Palestinians will be left without homes if this move is not stopped.
The Israeli government justifies these demolitions by claiming that the homes in question were built illegally without permits from the city. But for decades, the city has refused to approve zoning plans for Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, making it impossible for Palestinian residents to obtain permits and leaving them no choice but to build without permission. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, there are now over 20,000 housing units built without permits in East Jerusalem, all of which are at risk of demolition.
At the same time, the Jerusalem municipality is moving to retroactively approve construction carried out by the settler group Elad in the same neighborhood from which these 500 Palestinian families will soon be displaced.
This forced displacement will not just traumatize families, it will destroy a whole community. During the seven years I lived and worked in the West Bank, I saw this happen over and over – and I documented the harmful impacts. In 2008, I received an update from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that a home was being demolished in East Jerusalem, near the office where I worked. I traveled to the scene of the demolition and saw devastated family members break down as they watched the walls of their home fall.
At the time I was managing a program to assist Palestinian families whose homes were destroyed by Israel. Through our interviews with families, it became clear that the demolitions had deep, long-term negative impacts on family structures – increasing poverty and unemployment, raising levels of domestic violence, disrupting education, and leading to severe trauma for all those impacted.
The demolition of 60 buildings in Jerusalem that was recently approved is unusual in its scale, but it is not unique. In the West Bank, tens of communities – including Umm Al-Khair, Susiya, and Khan al-Ahmar – remain under threat of complete destruction.
Destruction in communities also is not limited to the West Bank. After years of resistance, the Bedouin community of Umm Al-Hiran inside Israel will soon be destroyed and replaced with a new community designed for Jewish Israelis.
The Israeli government continues to justify the demolitions of homes and communities by claiming that they were built without proper permits. But in a situation where permits are not given, Palestinian residents have no other choice but to build without legal documentation.
The denial of permits and the refusal of the Israeli government to pass development plans for Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and the 60 percent of the West Bank controlled by Israel is not accidental. Limiting growth and restricting building guarantees Israeli control and helps push Palestinians out of areas desired for the building of settlements.
Action is needed to protect the 500 families who may be forcibly displaced over the next weeks and the tens of thousands of Palestinians who risk losing their homes. But action can’t simply be reactive.
The international community must oppose Israel’s home demolition policies and its ongoing occupation and denial of Palestinian rights. Cutting of military aid, trade conditionality, and targeted sanctions can be effective tools to push for this change until there is freedom, justice, and equality for all people in Palestine and Israel. In the face of mass depopulation, words are not enough.