Ryan Brownell The Electronic Intifada Beit Jala 21 May 2012
In the early morning of Thursday, 3 May, representatives from several human rights organizations were scheduled to have breakfast in the popular al-Makhrour restaurant near Bethlehem.
The purpose for the scheduled workshop was to discuss house demolitions and property confiscation by Israeli forces in Area C, a zone comprising 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control.
As people arrived for the meeting, though, the first thing they saw was a bulldozer leaving the site, alongside some Israeli officials. The restaurant — which is located beside the village of Beit Jala — had been demolished two hours earlier.
“It was bizarre,” said Mohammad Zeidan, director of the Arab Association for Human Rights. “The timing … we couldn’t really believe what we were seeing.”
Just before dawn on that day, Israeli soldiers surrounded and sealed off the area, and proceeded to destroy the restaurant and an adjacent building owned by the Qesieh family. The demolition was carried out under the pretext of a demolition order issued in 2005.
“The restaurant was already gone,” said Odna Copty of the Association for the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel. “It is always sad to hear about these things, and to read about them. But when you expect it to be there, and it’s gone, that’s always something different.”
For the Qesieh family, the destruction of their restaurant was a violent reminder of the complete Israeli control over their basic rights and only source of income.
“I’m still paying debt from when they destroyed it in 2000,” said Ramzi Qesieh, owner of al-Makhrour. “How am I to rebuild when I can’t make any money? When they can destroy it again at any time?”
No explanation given
Qesieh explained that a number of men in plain clothes came to him before dawn. Speaking in Arabic, they told him that his restaurant would be destroyed. No explanation was given.
“We see this really often,” said Copty, who campaigns for Palestinians whose property was confiscated during the Nakba, the systematic ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment in 1948. “The State [of Israel] wants them to feel like it’s their own people who are doing this to them. It adds to the despair.”
Beit Jala is bordered by the Jewish-only settlements of Gush Etzion and Har Gilo.
Al-Makhrour lies within Area C. Under the Oslo accords, Israel was only supposed to have control of Area C on a temporary basis. Yet 19 years after the accords were signed, Palestinian residents of Area C are still subject to the arbitrary persecution by Israeli forces in everyday life.
After two weeks, the rubble of the old restaurant remains where it fell. The family explained that there is no one to aid them in rebuilding or affording the costs of construction. “Even as Christians, there is no one to turn to,” said Ramzi Qesieh. “The people of Jesus have left the Holy Land. How can we live here, how can my children, when life is like this?”
The Qesiehs’ experiences provide a stark contrast to recent comments by the Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren. Appearing on a recent episode of the CBS program 60 Minutes, Oren blamed Christian flight from historical Palestine on inter-Arab tribalism and infighting.
According to the Arab Association for Human Rights’ Zeidan, Oren’s claims reflect a larger divide-and-conquer mentality, utilized by Israel to weaken Palestinian identity.
“Israel views any solidarity between Palestinian communities as a threat,” he said. Zeidan emphasized that Israel behaves aggressively towards Palestinian organizations based within present-day Israel who coordinate with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. “By fracturing the Palestinians into Muslim, and Christian and Bedouin, and Israeli, the state tries to control these smaller groups and turn them against one another.
“It is a reality that Palestinian organizations are automatically viewed with suspicion, whether in Israel or the [occupied] territories. For us to cooperate with [Israeli and Jewish] organizations that support this cause, not only will we gain a different perspective, but stories like this will be received with more credibility, from a wider audience. That’s the way it is,” Zeidan added.
The Qesieh family also emphasized that they cannot rebuild without protection, in terms of both legal aid and also an immediate human presence.
“There was definitely a feeling of helplessness,” Copty told The Electronic Intifada. “And we were only the observers. It’s difficult to feel like you’re doing enough.”
According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, 2011 was a record year of displacement as a total of 622 Palestinian structures were demolished by Israeli authorities. Of these, 222 — or 36 percent — were family homes, while the remainder were livelihood-related (including water storage and agricultural facilities), resulting in the displacement of 1,094 people, almost double the number for 2010. Since 1967, Israel has demolished more than 26,000 Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza (“The Judaization of Palestine: 2011 displacement trends,” 12 January 2012).
An everyday occurrence
“It [the demolition] was a shock, and it was very sad. And the timing was just weird. But when it’s over, then you remember that this is happening every day,” said Copty.
For Ramzi Qesieh, with debts piling up and his livelihood in a dusty heap beside him, the options are few and the future more unclear than ever. “I love this place, and I love my land. Before, you could not take me from this place,” he said. “But my children have already seen too much suffering. What father wants to give this debt to their child?”
The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released its latest report on Israel in March, and in refreshing contrast to its characteristically tepid language, stated that it “urges the State party to take immediate measures to prohibit and eradicate any such policies or practices … of racial segregation and apartheid.”
Specifically, UN-CERD was “appalled at the hermetic character of the separation of two groups,” [Palestinians and Jewish settlers], and “increasingly concerned at the State party’s discriminatory planning policy, whereby construction permits are rarely if ever granted to Palestinian and Bedouin communities and demolitions principally target property owned by Palestinians and Bedouins.”
This policy of forced displacement has “emotional and socio-economic effects on the displaced families especially considering a large proportion of the community have the added vulnerability of a history of displacement, being made refugees in 1948,” stressed ICAHD’s 2012 report to UN-CERD. “Symptoms range from dependency on humanitarian aid to a deep psychological trauma especially in children, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder” (“Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territory parallel report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,” February 2012 [PDF]).
The Qesieh family explained that no building permits have been granted to Palestinians living in the area since 1967. The owners of these lands, which are both residential and agricultural, have no choice but to develop and build on it “illegally” under the constant risk of demolition.
About 70 percent of Area C is off-limits to Palestinian construction, as it is allocated either to Israeli settlements or has been closed on military orders (“Humanitarian factsheet on Area C of the West Bank,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, July 2011 [PDF]).
“I have one daughter in university, and another in school,” said Qesieh. “No one wants to build an illegal building. But it’s impossible to get a building permit. So you have to risk it. I don’t know what to tell my daughters.”
“For people everywhere, but especially for Palestinians under occupation, a home is the connection for a family to the land,” Zeidan explained. “The Israeli policy of house demolition, and particularly of businesses like this, is [Israel’s] strategy to cut this link to the land, destroy self-sufficiency and remove hope from the Palestinian people.”
For Ramzi Qeiseh’s son, Jihad, watching his father try to repair what may be destroyed at any time, it is difficult to imagine building a life, or anything else, in the place where he grew up.
“They destroyed the restaurant in one hour,” Jihad said. “We can never know if they will also destroy our home. Maybe tomorrow, it’ll be gone. The stress, it’s too much to live with. If I find a way to leave, I will leave.”
Several Palestinian and Israeli organizations are working to mobilize legal aid, financial support and physical security for the family. For now, the Qeiseh family search for the support to rebuild and start again.
“After some time, we had leave to find another location for the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to meet. There was work we had to get done,” said Odna Copty. “But the family just wanted to cook for us. Their restaurant was destroyed, and they wanted us to stay and eat. They told us, ‘come, let them see the smoke of our barbecue in the sky. Let them see that we are still here.’”
Ryan Brownell is based in Nazareth; he can be followed on Twitter @ryanbmn. To learn more about how to aid in the rebuilding of al-Makhour, please send a direct message to Ryan on Twitter.