Six years ago, ‘Alia (Umm Omar) was preparing for the wedding of her daughter. Her family had decorated their house in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Anata for the occasion, and were preparing to celebrate. But that afternoon, Israeli soldiers appeared and ordered the family to leave: Their home of 15 years, built on land they had worked hard to buy, was under a demolition order. Umm Omar refused to leave her house, so the soldiers physically dragged her out the door, causing her to faint from shock. They beat her older married daughter, who had come from her home to try to help. After the demolition of their house, her 5-year-old son was missing. He was eventually found hiding under a piece of rubble, so traumatized that he refused to eat for a week.
Umm Omar describes the experience this way: There is something broken inside her.
But six years later, Umm Omar is beaming, surrounded by family and friends from her Palestinian community as well as Israeli activists and international volunteers who have helped to rebuild her home. Organized by MCC partner the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a summer rebuilding camp has—in just two weeks—raised a new concrete house where the old once stood.
By hiring local Palestinian construction professionals and supplying them with some 30 Israeli and international volunteer laborers, they have met practical needs while making a powerful statement of solidarity. According to ICAHD founder and Co-Director, Jeff Halper, the rebuilding is “An overtly political act of defiance. By rebuilding, we set alternative facts on the ground.”
Here, “facts on the ground” is a phrase that usually refers to Israel’s ability to do as it pleases in the occupied Palestinian territories because of its overwhelming military superiority. For example, while the international community recognizes a “Green Line” boundary between the West Bank and Israel, the Israeli government has the power on the ground to build a separation barrier [map] that snakes well inside Palestinian territory, dividing Palestinian communities, farmland, and water resources.
In terms of housing, Israel has just approved 1,600 new units in a settlement called Har Homa near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Built on land taken from Palestinians and considered illegal under international law, settlements like these continue to expand while families like Umm Omar’s are denied permission to build.
According to ICAHD (emphasis added):
Ahmed Abu Omar (46) had applied for a building permit, but was refused on the grounds that his land was zoned as an agricultural area. With a growing family, the Abu Omars had little choice but to build anyway. In 2003 they received notification that the Israeli authorities deemed the house illegally built, and in March 2005 a demolition order was posted to their door. One month later the family home was demolished within a matter of hours by Israeli bulldozers. They were offered neither alternative housing nor compensation for the demolition, which constitutes a grave violation of international law. This reflects Israel’s long-time, unlawful policy of curtailing all construction by Palestinians since 1967.
As ICAHD indicates, Abu Omar family’s ordeal is not unique. In fact, according to the UN, house demolitions have risen sharply this year:
700 Palestinians have been displaced in the first half of 2011, compared with 594 registered throughout 2010.
Israel says its demolitions of homes are based only on whether the structures in question have the appropriate permits. But the agency said the demolitions seemed to be concentrated in areas targeted for settlement expansion. “Most disturbing of all is the clear link we now see between settlement expansion and demolitions and the forced displacements that result,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told AFP. …
According to the UN Agency, it is “virtually impossible for a Palestinian to obtain a permit for construction while Israeli settlements receive preferential treatment in the allocation of water and land, and approval of development plans.”
While ICAHD’s rebuilding of one Palestinian home may seem like a drop in the ocean of this wave of demolitions, the rebuilding camp’s mission goes well beyond blocks and mortar. Each international volunteer is charged to return home and raise awareness of what they’ve witnessed.
One volunteer, who asked that her name not be used because of Israel’s practice of detaining and deporting solidarity activists, said that being part of this project “feeds her soul.” A fifty-something British Jewish woman from a family of Holocaust survivors, she is now actively involved in a “twinning” relationship between her London borough and a Palestinian refugee camp.
Another volunteer, an African American woman from New York City, plans to write articles aimed at communities of color back home. She wants to bring out the connections between the struggles in her Harlem neighborhood—such as housing and high incarceration rates—and similar issues in Palestine. She too spoke of her experience in Palestine as “food for my soul.”
ICAHD’s rebuilding camps happen every summer. We encourage you to consider this opportunity as one way that you can create some alternative facts on the ground and at the same time feed your soul.