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Israel Destroys `Unlicensed' Houses

Critics call practice collective punishment; villagers say building permits are unobtainable. WEST BANK CATCH-22

SITTING under a tree as her children played in rubble that had once been their home, Sahima Baradieh told how troops and bulldozers arrived and ordered her family outside. ``They gave us five minutes,'' she said bitterly, her infant on her lap. ``What can I move outside in five minutes? I could take my children or my furniture. I took my children and left everything.''

Like many Arab villagers, the Baradiehs, squeezed into homes with extended Muslim families, had tried to get a permit from Israeli authorities to build on their land. After years, they gave up and built without the permit. The house was built two years ago. The demolition order arrived in January. They appealed. But bulldozers razed the building before the appeal was heard, they said.

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The crumbled blocks, dented water tanks, and twisted wire of the Baradiehs' destroyed home have become a common sight in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule drags on into its 19th month.

In the scenic hills of the Judean desert, rolling villages are dotted with destruction - and nearby white Red Cross tents - that, in many ways, seem to symbolize Israeli frustration in trying to quell the Palestinian intifadah, or uprising.

Israeli authorities deny that demolition of illegally built houses is part of a pressure campaign to force Palestinians to abandon the intifadah. But others disagree, including observers who have been tracking developments in the territories since their capture by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

``They are using the unlicensed [house] demolitions as an added method of coercion,'' says Meron Benvenisti, director of the West Bank Data Base Project, an independent research agency on the territories. ``It's a form of collective punishment.''

Before the uprising, Arabs and research groups say Israelis rarely destroyed a house built without a license and therefore such building became widespread. House demolitions against families of Palestinians accused of ``security offenses'' also averaged fewer than 70 a year.

Since the outbreak of the uprising, authorities have bulldozed some 550 ``illegal'' houses, human-rights groups say. Also, the Army - following 1945 British emergency regulations - dynamited about 220 homes of Palestinians accused, but not convicted, of offenses against Israelis. Before the revolt, only Arabs suspected of murder or equally severe crimes saw a family home blown up. Now, authorities destroy as punishment homes of those suspected of throwing stones.

Israeli authorities, however, describe demolition of illegal houses as law enforcement, not an invention of the uprising. ``This is a legal process,'' said a spokesman for the West Bank military government. ``It's a very clear issue but everything becomes political in the territories.''

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One Israeli planning official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, charged most ``illegal'' Arab houses destroyed were built to defy Israeli authority.

``One of the tactics of the intifadah is to build everywhere without licensing,'' he said. ``Before the intifadah, people received licenses and much less buildings were built. Now, they don't risk anything because they are paid by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].''

Unlicensed homes, he said, violated government plans for roads, nature preserves, or other land use. However, the official conceded that Israel did not have a master plan with guidelines for development of Arab villages in the occupied zones.

He denied reports by human-rights groups that authorities have refused all license requests during the uprising, saying hundreds (half the applications) were granted.

Palestinians insist they were forced to build without permits because of overcrowding. Demolitions, they said, were meant to hit them where it hurts - at home. Each family counts financial losses in the tens of thousands of dollars.

South of Surif at Idna, residents said the Army targeted their village as a hotspot in the unrest. Already, 32 unlicensed houses have been destroyed and another 10 demolition orders issued, they said. Some 1,200 residents of the village of 7,500 have been arrested at different times.

Naim el-Khattib said he built his now-demolished home without a permit because he could no longer live at his father's house in one room with his wife and baby.

``It's the first time in our history they destroyed houses in our village,'' said Naim's father, Sulieman. ``We never heard about demolishing houses before. There is no reason but to take revenge against the people. If a person can't build on his own land, where can he build?''

What's left of Miriam Obaiateh's house lies on the edge of Bethlehem - in the rocky hills between the biblical city, neighboring Beit Sahur and a refugee camp. The area is a hideout for Arab youths fleeing after clashes with soldiers. Her unlicensed home was built eight years ago, she said. But she believes her house was chosen because the family gave activists water from their well.

In Surif, soldiers last month dynamited without warning the family home of two brothers of the Baradieh family accused of attacking soldiers. Ten family members now live in one room.

``They do this so people will stop the uprising,'' said Moussa Baradieh, standing near the ruins. ``But the opposite will happen. Now, people who lose their house will say, `I have nothing to lose.'''

Across town, Hammad and Sahima Baradieh's 12 children are divided among relatives as the parents sleep at a neighbor's. They have little money and fear building again will mean another demolition.

Hammad, a worker in Israel, said he has been uninvolved in the uprising. But, he added, ``Now, I am forced to take revenge.''

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