It is the beginning of their nightmares. Many Palestinians go to bed every night without knowing if their homes will be bulldozed during the night by the Israeli police. According to Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), house demolitions are one of Israel’s main weapons of occupation of Palestinian land.
The destruction of homes is similar in most cases. Police, and sometimes the military, arrive at dawn while families are sleeping. They surround the house and call for the family to come outside. If the family resists, they will be forcefully removed and the bulldozers will begin their tragic task of destruction. Only sometimes are families allowed to take some of their possessions with them.
At other times the homes, because of their size, are wired with explosives and blown up, rather than bulldozed. When that happens, the police form a human barrier in front of the street leading to the house, to block the residents from any resistance when seeing their homes wired with explosives and destroyed. An Amnesty International report states that house demolitions are many times carried out without prior warning and the home’s inhabitants are given little time to evacuate.
From 1 January to 18 August 2015, the Israeli police demolished 331 Palestinian structures in Area C (not including East Jerusalem) and 457 people, including 263 children, lost their precarious homes, according to data from the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation.
According to the Israeli government, homes are destroyed because they have no building permits. Therefore, the house is illegal and subject to demolition. What the government doesn’t say, however, is that for Palestinians building permits are practically impossible to obtain, which makes the building of any new homes illegal.
“The destruction of Palestinian homes, agricultural land and other property in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, is inextricably linked with Israel’s long-standing policy of appropriating as much as possible of the land it occupies, notably by establishing Israeli settlements,” states Amnesty International.
The practice of home demolitions originated under the British Mandate. The government gave the military commanders authority to confiscate and raze “any house, structure or land…the inhabitants of which he is satisfied have committed… any offence against these Regulations involving violence”. In 1945, the authorities passed the Defence (Emergency) Regulations. Regulation 119 made this practice available to the local Military Commander without restrictions or appeal.
In 1968, after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, Theodor Meron, who was a legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, advised the Prime Minister’s office that house demolitions, even of suspected terrorists’ residences, were ‘legally unconvincing’ and violated the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in war. This view is shared by most scholars of international law, including prominent Israeli experts.
Several human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the ICAHD oppose the practice, and argue that it violates international laws against collective punishment, the destruction of private property and the use of force against civilians.
Even the use of the practice of home demolitions as a deterrent for violent actions by Palestinians has been questioned. In 2005, an Israeli Army commission to study house demolitions found no proof of effective deterrence, and concluded that the damage caused by the demolitions overrides its effectiveness.
International human rights groups accuse the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of carrying out demolitions as a form of collective punishment, and as theft of Palestinian land by annexation to build the Israeli West Bank barrier or to create, expand or otherwise benefit Israeli settlements.
There is something gruesome about the most powerful army in the Middle East, and one of the most powerful armies in the world, attacking innocent civilians and destroying their homes and possessions. Cruelty is not a human right.
Dr Cesar Chelala is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award