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Demolishing More Than Just Palestinian Homes

IT'S quite a spectacle, a Palestinian home being blown apart. Furniture, dishes, and clothes, hastily removed, are deposited helter-skelter in the path or road. Villagers stand by, silent and grim. Heavily armed soldiers are massed to prevent any disruption. And confused, awed children turn sullen.

Americans are not accustomed to seeing Israel's "demolitions policy" at work. Most recently, this policy has been aimed at the families of suicide bombers. But all Palestinians, from toddlers to the elderly, are familiar with it. Perhaps it's happened to a neighbor or someone else they know, or perhaps they've experienced it themselves: They're hauled out of the house in the early morning and told by a soft-spoken Israeli officer, with his troops all around, that he has his orders. The entire town is aroused. Neighbors join in the frantic rush to save something because they know it's useless to protest.

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The silent frenzy of losing a home this way has no parallel. It's not like a flood or a fire; it's more like a lynching. There is no one to call for help. Hundreds of soldiers surround the house and village, making sure nothing or no one interferes with the bulldozers and the dynamite teams.

Legalized destruction

It's all done legally too. That is to say, a paper, written in Hebrew, is presented to the householder spelling out the order to blow up or bulldoze his or her home, or to seal it. Typically a family has two hours' notice. Often the order charges that the house lacks a building permit.

In a village near Hebron in 1991, I saw the remains of a mosque that was flattened weeks before. The land had been "cleared" because of some building infraction, villagers said.

At other times, families have been told, particularly during the intifadah (uprising), that their son had been caught (not convicted but simply picked up and charged) for throwing a Molotov cocktail, or that he was captured in an attack on an Israeli. In some cases, only the family orchard (the family's livelihood) is leveled. Again, the family is notified when the machines are already in place, waiting nearby on the road behind the soldiers. Orchards have been destroyed simply because of a report that a group of Palestinian children were hiding from soldiers among the trees, or because local Jewish settlers said someone they were pursuing had escaped and was heading in that direction.

During the first three years of the intifadah, when communal punishment was the norm for civil disobedience, the Palestinian Human Rights Information Center recorded 1,726 demolitions or sealings of homes. On average, there are nine Palestinians living in a home. That represents about 15,000 men, women, and children, forcibly made homeless in those three years. Often the dwelling is not even the family's original home but rather a shelter built with the help of United Nations funding inside a crowded refugee camp.

Today Israel says it demolishes certain houses because they are the homes of "suicide bombers." By remaining silent and nonjudgmental, the news media are, in effect, sanctioning this policy. So conditioned are we that whatever is done to an "Islamist terrorist" seems justified and is publicly endorsed. Yet are we right to stand by silently and accept this? Should not Israel seriously reconsider its policy?

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Given the level of terror now directed against Israelis, Israel should reexamine the expulsion and demolitions policies it has pursued for many years. Did these tactics prove to be an effective deterrence in the past? What were the benefits?

Consider this: The demolitions are acts of retaliation that strike deep into the core of Palestinian identity. They are bound to have some traumatic effect on children. In the short term, this devastation may quell opposition, but the long-term effects may be very different. People may become more embittered and hostile toward Israeli authority. Blowing up the home of a family may in fact move the brothers and sisters of a dead man into closer identification with his actions.

These acts are specifically designed for and executed against Palestinians. Israel does not respond in this manner to all heinous acts. Look at the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Israeli law student Yigal Amir. Look at Baruch Goldstein, the Hebron mass murderer. Their actions repelled most Israelis, yet their homes and families remained unharmed.

Palestinians' view

Palestinians see this type of punishment as one more way to "clear the land," to deny the existence of their people. To Palestinians, Israel's reaction to the suicide bombings is another excuse to implement its "cleansing" policy. People deprived of a home have one less link with the land.

Surely Israel knows this kind of punishment is unlikely to have any deterrence value. With its battalions of terror experts and its long, unhappy history with the Palestinians, Israel should understand the political consequences of its actions. Children witness their homes, the places they were born, blown apart. They see their fathers and other male relatives helplessly held at gunpoint. They see the horrified reaction of their mothers and grandmothers.

The house as the center

Because this form of punishment is so rare, few others can imagine the impact of a house being blown up in front of its owners. First, we have to understand how central the house is to Palestinian life. Even today, most Palestinians are born at home. This is the place for daily prayer, for all the meals, for weddings, for homecomings from jail, and for funerals. This is where everyone gathers to pass the evening. It is not a shelter; it is a community. It is the place for consolation and joy, the haven and the refuge.

The mother is the manager, so home is unequivocally associated with her power and protective role. Harming the house is like violating the mother. Many children will feel they must avenge this injustice. Especially with the world community standing by seeming to sanction the destruction, family members may feel more responsibility to seek justice. Anyone who understands this would advise Israel to cease this practice for these reasons, if not for moral ones.

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