Sahar Vardi is the Israel Program manager at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Taylor Donaldson is the Summer 2021 Religion, Conflict, and Peace Fellow for AFSC’s Palestine Activism program. They spoke on June 29, 2021. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TD: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me about the ongoing forced displacements and demolitions in Area C of the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. For those who may be less familiar, can you provide a bit of context before we dive into your experiences over the past several months?
SV: The vast majority of demolitions I’ve seen in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank are administrative demolitions; demolitions that are, according to their legal reasoning, against structures that are built illegally. To understand that, though, we need to understand what “built illegally” means.
In East Jerusalem, and even more so in Area C, there are no building permits for Palestinians. For example, the house that was demolished this morning in Silwan is in an area where residents have been trying to get zoning plans for years. The municipality keeps rejecting them and not accepting any form of zoning for the area. Eventually, people do build because they need to—because they need a home. That house then has a demolition order.
In Area C, where I have been spending a lot of time, entire villages are completely unzoned. People who have literally been living in these areas before the state of Israel existed cannot build, and once they do, they will receive a demolition order.
TD: That context clarifies how and why these demolition orders come about. Turning toward your own experiences, can you share what you have witnessed and what the past few months have been like for Palestinians living in the South Hebron Hills, Area C of the West Bank?
SV: I will start with just one day as an example. It was mid-February—the middle of winter—and while the South Hebron Hills is a rather desert-like area, those months do have snowstorms. We were told there was a convoy: vehicles from the civil administration (the military wing that is responsible for demolitions), bulldozers, trucks that load and take confiscated materials, military personnel, and border police escorts.
They started in a small village called Tawamin. It is one family, three or four caves that the family lives in and has been living in forever. Just the month before, they experienced a series of settler assaults in the middle of the night.
That day in February, the military arrived to confiscate a bathroom. If we think about living in a cave, the bathroom, usually donated by the UN or another international agency, is not located inside but is instead outside. That is what the military came that day to confiscate. An entire convoy arrived at a place that is not accessible via a paved road—you need a 4x4 to get there—and they confiscated and loaded the portable bathroom onto a bulldozer. They took it to the main road, loaded it on a truck, and continued to the next demolition site.
Next, they went into a village near Susya onto agricultural lands. Someone had constructed a temporary tent to work their lands in better weather conditions. The landowner negotiated with the military, saying they would help take it down but did not want the materials to be taken. They both agreed, the tent was taken down, but the military did not leave the materials. Instead, everything was added to the confiscation pile in the truck.
The convoy continued on to a third village called Rakeez. This village saw a young Palestinian man shot in the neck while trying to prevent a generator from being confiscated just a month and a half prior. There, a protest tent in honor of Haroun Rasmi, the Palestinian man left paralyzed, was confiscated, along with another bathroom and tent.
From there they continued to a Bedouin village further north on the road, Um ElKheir, and confiscated a gas station. To say a gas station sounds like a large structure, but we are just talking about a gas pump that is the livelihood of this family. The justification for its removal was that it was a safety hazard—the community should be thankful. In reality, they uprooted a gas pump from the ground, leaving the hole of petrol in place. You would imagine that had it been a safety concern, the fire department or, at the very least, an engineer would need to be involved. However, the pump was uprooted, placed on the confiscation truck, and that is it.
Continuing to yet another village, the convoy confiscated several more agricultural tents. In total, six locations were impacted in that single day, and for every one of these families, this was crucial and ridiculously normal.
The owner of the gas station is some five months later, still struggling financially and trying to figure out how to cover those losses. On the day of the confiscation, though, he had a “this is life” expression on his face. I think that’s part of the idea.
Just last week there was a demolition of a road, again, in this same area of the South Hebron Hills. We always talk about house demolitions, but there are many other forms of infrastructure that have been demolished. The entire village of Msafer Yatta is deemed a “training zone” or “firing zone” by the military, called 918 by the military. There are three roads that lead there, none of which are passable without a 4x4, making life there extremely difficult. Two weeks ago, and then again last week, two of these three roads were demolished. The Israeli Supreme Court is in conversation about the future of this area as far as demolitions are concerned, but the military demolished the roads and the water lines connecting these roads.
Yes, of course, they have all been built illegally. This is a firing zone on which no building is allowed; therefore, there is no water connection, road connection, or any form of infrastructure. However, people need water to survive, so water lines and roads have been constructed. These demolitions do not look as dramatic—it is not someone’s home being demolished—but it means hundreds of people in these communities literally do not have water to drink.
It is extremely normalized—the concept of knowing you live in a house that could be demolished every day; knowing tomorrow you may wake up and there may not be a bathroom there. It is terrible to say that people can normalize almost anything, and I think in these areas that is really what you see. These are just examples from one day earlier this year. I can think of dozens of demolitions that have happened over the past few months as I have been in and out of the area. There is not a specific one that has a story, because the story is about the dozens of demolitions. At the same time, every specific one has a story—everyone has a story of their house, path to school, or agricultural land or livelihood that has been destroyed.
TD: There is a sense of normalization that, in essence, it is hard to pick one example out of the series. But also, each family—each person—has their own unique experience with this violence. Following the most recent May bombardment in Gaza, what Israel calls Operation Guardian of the Walls, and the ongoing violence in East Jerusalem, has there also been an uptick in settler and military violence against Palestinians in Area C?
SV: At least in the South Hebron Hills, but I know it is also true in the Jordan Valley—yes. There were quite a few very violent incidents, and even within Israel there were lynch mobs. This same energy is present in the settlers in the West Bank, but their actions are even more allowed. We have seen quite a few shootings during the attack on Gaza itself. Within that first week alone I saw two, maybe three, instances of settlers using live ammunition against Palestinians. A case in the South Hebron Hills resulted in a Palestinian being shot and killed by settlers, his body having been mutilated in a terrible, terrible way.
Since then, every Saturday we have seen a pogrom—I do not have another word for it—specifically from one outpost, in particular. From throwing stones at Palestinian houses to burning agricultural fields or doing all of those together. We have seen an increased use of live fire by settlers against Palestinians. When the military arrives, they may tell the settlers to back up, but far more often, they go into the Palestinian village with stun grenades, tear gas cannisters, and continue the violence. This is how every single one of these events ends, and never with any settlers arrested.
TD: These first-hand accounts are extremely helpful in understanding the daily realities for Palestinians. Part of HR 2590: Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, speaks of the use of U.S. funds toward home demolitions, forced displacements, and annexation of the occupied Palestinian territory. Is there anything U.S. lawmakers, in particular, should understand about the realities in Area C?
SV: Trying to connect U.S. money into what is happening is extremely difficult, but we do know that the bulldozers used to demolish roads and houses and the tear gas that is used if there is any resistance to a demolition is American-made, most likely purchased with U.S. military aid. A few years ago, we found a box of tear gas canisters that were left behind. The box included the invoice that said, from the American company, that it was bought with military funding. U.S. taxpayers are paying for this, and we know this is where it is going.
Obviously, we can never connect a specific year’s budget with each unit received, but the point should be, first, that the fact we cannot connect that is an exception. For the most part, the U.S. has end-user tracking. Why doesn’t the U.S. have end-user tracking on arms sold to Israel? We should be able to answer that question. It is too convenient for people to say they do not know what happens to this funding, but the bottom line is the responsibility should not be shifted.
It does not matter if it happened to be Israeli-bought tear gas this one time, because the fact is that the U.S. is supporting this system financially in a huge, huge way. It is always important to remember that this is not just an Israeli interest—the reason this support continues—it is also because of the U.S. military-industrial complex that pushes for this support to continue. It is the interest of weapons manufacturers and tear gas companies that this aid continues, but it should not be the interest of American taxpayers.
TD: I cannot thank you enough for your time, insights, and willingness to share your experiences.
To find more information on demolitions and forced displacements, check out these organizations working in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel.
Al-Mezan - http://www.mezan.org/en/posts/41/Statistics
Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions - https://icahd.org/2020/03/14/categories-of-home-demolitions/
UN OCHA - https://www.ochaopt.org/data/demolition
The “Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act” (HR 2590) seeks to ensure U.S. taxpayer funds are not used by the Israeli government to detain and torture Palestinian children, destroy Palestinian homes and property, or further annex Palestinian land in violation of international law.