Tag Archives: B’tzelem

Feeling demolition in your fingers

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Wadi Ejheish, June 25, 2016

It is one thing to look at pictures of demolished homes. It is another to feel the rubble with your fingers. It is one thing to see a photograph of the wreckage of a building left by a bulldozer and another to pull the twisted wreck apart with your hands. It is one thing to cast your eyes on documented destruction and another to put your back into repairing the damage. These are two things, two different types of experience. Perhaps neither is better than the other, but they feel quite different.

btselem.reportTwo buildings in the hamlet of Wadi Ejheish were demolished by the (un)Civil Administration, a branch of the Israeli military government ruling over Area C of the West Bank, of Palestinian Occupied Territories. The demolitions are part of an undeclared process of creeping annexation of Area C, part of a pattern of dispossession and displacement of Palestinians, especially Bedouin. As part of that pattern, the demolitions in Wadi Ejheish were routine, although in this case they broke understandings about refraining from executing demolition orders during Ramadan.

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Detail from B’tselem map

 

Visual and written documentation of the destruction is also routine, notably by B’tselem which shares the information in the hope that it will halt the expulsion that is designed to follow from repeated demolition. Other anti-occupation groups and organizations supporting Palestinian human rights, such as Rabbis for Human Rights, have worked actively for the preservation of communities in Area C, such as in the high-profile campaign to Stand with Susiya. Wadi Ejheish is known as “south Susiya,” somewhat separate from it. While the activists of Ta’ayush do also take part in the sharing of the documentation of destruction, they share experience with the inhabitants of Wadi Ejheish in more tactile, physical ways.

I accompanied the activists on their weekly work in the South Hebron Hills area on June 25th, during which we went to Wadi Ejheish not to look but to touch. The sight is certainly distressing, poignantly marked by the remains of clothing and toys caught in the rubble. Yet as we tried, along with the people who live there, to clear away the mess and salvage the building materials that could be reused, I was struck by the heavy materiality of the destruction. Heavy both literally – the concrete blocks that are thicker for external walls, thinner for internal ones, that had to be sorted separately – but also heavy mentally. No doubt it was easier for we Israelis to regard the work as a job to be done without having to overcome the despair of those whose homes had been destroyed. But still, we were working with the men whose buildings had been crushed days before.

The materiality of demolition is not only about what is found among the ruins – I chanced across the ID card of the wife of the Palestinian man working next to me – but the material of the ruins themselves. To disentangle the tangle of metal poles, rope, tarpaulin, concrete blocks, stones, plastic pipes, electricity cables, corrugated metal is to linger in the violence of demolition. This is a stage between witnessing destruction and the defiance of rebuilding, maybe something like a stage of mourning in which you begin to get through the devastation and, with the help of friends or relatives, start putting a life back together.

But it’s not quite so pat. There are different ways of working together. For some time we worked without much conversation, as men do, coordinating actions by observing what others are doing. After a while two Israeli women came back from accompanying a shepherd elsewhere, and there was more chatter and verbal coordination. It also became more necessary to coordinate as we worked further into the tangle of rubble and it was less easy to pull out individual poles, tarps or pieces of corrugated metal. In any case given that some of us can’t speak Arabic or Hebrew well, some of the cooperation had to rely on gestures. Nonetheless, it was working together, the partnership that Ta’ayush embodies.DSC00205

It’s an odd partnership, not one of equals, but one in which equality is valued rather than achieved. Urban, middle class, and often intellectual Israelis doing Hebrew-Arab labour as if redefining Zionist halutziut (pioneering) alongside poor Bedouin shepherds. For all our privilege, what we offer is what anybody could volunteer. In the shade of a broken down cart, a couple of mathematicians burble away to each other incomprehensibly  (to the rest of us) about zeros while I can’t converse with the guy next to me as he doesn’t speak Hebrew and I don’t speak Arabic. As his son works with a couple of us later, I can only gesture to where he should cut string binding metal grating to corrugated metal. And then a thought flashes into my mind about the common Jewish Israeli saying about Arabs sticking a knife in your back. This work in common, a boy eager to help adults, shows how silly such thoughts are. But I don’t know what he’s thinking. They, the Jews, come with guns and bulldozers to demolition his home, then some other Jews come almost empty handed to help clear the rubble. It’s hard to make sense of that.

By the time we stopped work I’d been close to calling it quits for myself, my strength drained by the hard physical work under the unrelenting sun. I was deeply fatigued, but not in terms of the compassion I could feel by looking at yet another photo or video of Israeli occupation forces demolishing Palestinian homes and work places. I was deeply fatigued by the sheer effort of undoing destruction, and I wish that the photos could convey just a fraction of that difficulty to the Jewish Israelis in whose name the demolitions are executed. For all the sensuous power of visual experience, perhaps you have to feel demolition in your fingers to experience how cruel occupation is.

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Women, a child, arms and a man in Nabi Saleh.

Palestinians scuffle with an Israeli soldier as they try to prevent him from detaining a boy during a protest against Jewish settlements in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah. Reuters

Palestinians scuffle with an Israeli soldier as they try to prevent him from detaining a boy during a protest against Jewish settlements in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah. Reuters

When camera images “go viral” it speaks to their resonance with their publics, and their power to command the attention of viewers. They also declaim loudly about the situations they depict, echoing resoundingly the events framed by the lenses through which we see them at a distance. Such are the images of the attempted arrest by an Israeli soldier of 12-year-old Mohammad Tamimi near the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh on Friday August 28th 2015. Attempted, because women from Mohammed’s family struggled with the soldier to prevent the arrest.

The images did not go viral because it is unusual for Israeli soldiers to arrest Palestinian children. According to a UN report on human rights in the Palestinian occupied territories, “on average, around 700 children are detained and prosecuted per year, most commonly on charges of throwing stones,” which could have been Mohammad’s fate. Nor is it especially unusual to see still and moving images of these arrests. In one example about which I wrote in July 2013, Israeli soldiers from the Givati Brigade stationed in Hebron detained Wadi’ Maswadeh, aged five years and nine months, after he allegedly threw a stone at an Israeli car. Wadi’s arrest was documented on video by Palestinian field researchers for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.

It was also not unusual that there were images of a demonstration at Nabi Saleh. The village is now famous for its weekly demonstrations in which its residents protest the confiscation of their land and the appropriation of the spring (owned by the Tamimi family) by the nearby Israeli settlement, Halamish, in 2009. As the villagers march towards the spring, the protests generally become violent, as Israeli forces block them. Palestinians throw stones and Israeli forces break up the march with skunk water, teargas and live fire, as a result of which two of Mohammed’s relatives, Mustafa (in 2011) and Rushdi (2012), were killed. Events are recorded regularly, appearing on the Nabi Saleh Solidarity blog, local Bilal Tamimi’s YouTube channel and Israeli artist David Reeb’s YouTube channel. Both David and Balil were arrested without ground on Friday August 21st, then released by the court.

The difference between David’s and Bilal’s videos filmed last Friday indicate why some of the images went viral. In David’s video we see the “routine”: beginning with marching and chanting, the road blocked by Israeli troops who fire teargas, then other rounds, Palestinian youths using slingshots for stones and to return the still smoking teargas canisters. There is a shot of a lone soldier running at full pelt after a youth in a blue shirt, then as one of the youths is bound and detained by four other soldiers, we hear some shouts and women shrieking out of sight of the camera. Nothing exceptional here to go viral.

Bilal’s short video begins as the running solder changes direction to capture Mohammad in a choke hold and force him to the ground, fends off a young woman activist (he calls her “leftist trash”) who pulls at Mohammed’s right arm (the left one is broken and in plaster), and calls for back up. A little over a minute later, Mohammad’s sister Ahed arrives, tugging determinedly at his arm as she yells in English to leave her little brother alone, shortly followed by his mother Nariman and another Palestinian woman, and a small crowd of locals, activists, and cameras. The three women grab hold of the soldier, smacking him on the head, pulling of his net balaclava. The soldier fends them off with his hands and keeps hold of Mohammed until, some 2 minutes after he grabbed the boy, the soldier’s commander arrives, pushes one woman in the face, and then has the soldier let Mohammad go. As he is helped away by another soldier, his parting gift for the people left around the boy is a stun grenade. According to the +972 blog, both Ahed and Nariman were hurt in the tussle, needing hospital treatment, which went unreported in the Israeli press, at first, until a subsequent report by Amira Hass.

Perhaps, though, the video images of the event, including this shorter video clip that appears on the Ramallah City Facebook page and has had more than 2.2 million views, would not be so arresting without the still images. The shaky, hand-held filming and the confusion of voices in the videos certainly have a raw documentary power, but they do not quite hold the viewers to the intensity of the event. There are several stills which can be seen in this report by Ha’aretz that reflects the army’s version of events and this dismissive one by the right-wing Daily Mail. I will focus on just one image.

Palestinians try to prevent Israeli soldier from detaining a boy during a protest in the West Bank village Nabi Saleh, August 28, 2015. Reuters

Palestinians try to prevent Israeli soldier from detaining a boy during a protest in the West Bank village Nabi Saleh, August 28, 2015. Reuters

There are four faces in the frame. The soldier’s is central, Mohammad’s below him, his sister Ahed to the left and his mother the other woman closely bracketing the soldier. It is a scene of struggle, an image of power relations. There is a Zionist literary and cinematic trope of being “the few against the many.” The soldier is besieged and outnumbered, his hand bitten, his neck and shoulder pulled in different directions. The soldier also seems vulnerable, having emerged for the chase without a helmet or body armor. Yet, the trope doesn’t work in this context. He is the one with the rifle. The soldier’s father told Israeli army radio that while his son had been attacked, he was subject to a provocation, perhaps planned in advance, and was proud of the restraint he’d shown. No question for him, then, of who was really in control. Mohammad’s father Bassam tells a different story: fearing the consequences if the Palestinian youths ran to the soldier who might then start shooting, setting off a bloody chain of events, he shouted for the commander to come over.

The photograph evokes most clearly all a scene of women and a girl defending their child and relative, pinned in fear and pain under the armed man. The adult women are marked by their traditional dress that leaves only their faces and hands exposed. Ahed appears unthreatening in her pink T shirt with its Tweety Pie cartoon, her bite that of a child without the strength to combat a grown man. The pulling in different direction symbolizes the pulls between different laws, reminiscent of Sophocles’ play Antigone. The soldier claims possession of the boy according to the law of the father, of the state, and the occupation. If the boy threw a stone, he has become a weapon, and the state brooks no infringement of its monopoly on the use of force. The boy is subjected to force, to violence. The women claim the boy, Mohammad, son and brother, according to the law of familial bonds. Their hands, arms (and Ahed’s teeth) weigh against the force of the armed man. And according to the same law of human bonds, Mohammad’s mother judges the soldier to be a child too, a victim of policies that he ought to question. On this occasion the struggle between the law of the father state and the law of the family ended well relatively for the sons. To say the incident ended peacefully would be untrue, but at least it ended without any mothers keening for the dead sons.

The direct line between Susiya and Duma

Hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli and international activists march into the Palestinian village of Susya, demanding that Israel not demolish it, Suysa, South Hebron Hills, July 24, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli and international activists march into the Palestinian village of Susya, demanding that Israel not demolish it, Suysa, South Hebron Hills, July 24, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The mobilization of international and Palestinian-Israel pressure to support Susiya and prevent the demolition of half of the village was remarkable. The US State Department and EU foreign ministers warned Israel against further destruction and expulsion, and the demonstration on July 24th in support of the village was the most significant Palestinian-Israeli rally for years. That so many eyes were on, and bodies in, Susiya is testament to the determination of the people of Susiya to remain steadfast on their land, and of the support they receive from the Palestinian Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, Rabbis for Human Rights, B’tselem, Breaking the Silence, Combatants for Peace, Ta’ayush, and others. News came that the “Civil Administration” of the military occupation decided to hold back on the demolition, and that the High Court hearing to appeal the demolition was being delayed while some other arrangement for the villagers to stay on their private land is considered. So for once there was some good news. Susiya remains to live another day, and the Occupation is held at bay.

But the news didn’t stay good for very long. It was a spark of hope in what remain dark times. The same week the Israeli security apparatus shot dead three unarmed Palestinians when soldiers went on arrest raids. Palestinian lives matter. The settlers did not let up on their efforts to grab the land of Susiya for their own use. In any case, Susiya has not yet been saved, merely given a reprieve.

A photograph of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh who died in the attack. Irish Times

A photograph of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh who died in the attack. Irish Times

Then the news became horrific, with the burning to death in an arson attack on his family’s home, apparently by militant settlers, of 18-month year old Palestinian Ali Dawabsheh. At the site of the attack in the village of Duma, graffiti was painted, including the word “revenge” under a Star of David. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ya’alon and President Rivlin were quick to condemn the attack, even to call it Jewish terrorism, and to promise that the criminals would be brought to justice. They were also quick to draw a clear distinction between such extremism and the regular practices of the security forces and state without which the settlements, which are illegal according to international law (and some by Israeli law) could not exist. Palestinian President Abbas however saw the connection between them. And so he should, although it would also be good to see the resources of the Palestinian Authority put to use in support of the harassed Palestinians living under full Israeli military and civil rule in Area C.

The village of Duma, near Nablus, has not been forced to relocate itself as Susiya did in 1986. Nor is it facing any immediate danger of dispossession and dispersal. But the military-bureaucratic post-Olso occupation regime, as reported here, has left the village of Duma isolated among settlements and army bases, restricted movement with roadblocks, limited access to most of its land that is located in Area C, ordered the demolition of homes built in the part of the village located in Area C without the required permits that are almost never given, confiscated land for roads that connect Israeli settlements, and failed to protect it from numerous settler attacks.

"Revenge" graffiti at Duma. Photo from Rabbis for Human Rights

“Revenge” graffiti at Duma. Photo from Rabbis for Human Rights

The revenge attack is made to seem exceptional, its violence impassioned, whereas the routine structural violence of occupation that Netanyahu and Ya’alon practice is made to seem proportionate and justified. Homes of the Dawabsheh family were slated for demolition by the occupation authorities in 2013. Ali Dawabsheh’s murder (and that of any other members of his family who may not survive their severe wounds) is indeed exceptional in its viciousness. But to treat it as a homicidal exception to the politicide of occupation is an alibi for the viciousness and extremism that is the daily practice of governing people without rights whose lives simply don’t matter to their rulers. Occupation is a revenge attack for no crime that was committed by the people of Susiya or of Duma. Occupation is a revenge attack that condemns both those who can find no salvation in vengeance and those who are the target of their misdirected fear and hatred.

Without Palestinian Susiya, what would be Peace?

I cannot imagine what any sort of peace in Israel-Palestine would look like if the planned demolition of the Palestinian village of Susiya by Israeli occupation forces and the displacement of its residents to outside of Area C of the West Bank goes ahead. The case of Susiya is by now well known and has been a focus of sustained legal and grass-roots campaigns by Rabbis for Human Rights and B’Tselem (click on the links for detailed information). But it is astounding that the village is now facing its third destruction and dispersal. It began with the establishment of the Israeli settlement of Susiya in 1983 on Palestinian land, followed in 1986 by the eviction of the villagers after their land was declared a Jewish archaeological site. That says a lot about how occupation works – the justification of Jewish presence of the land in the past comes at the cost of Palestinian presence on the land (documented since Ottoman times) in the present. The Israeli settlement project in the West Bank (and elsewhere) entails an exclusive Jewish right to settle on the land, and hence the dispossession of the Palestinians who are already settled.

Since 1986 the villagers have been trapped in a Kafkaesque Catch 22. They relocated to other agricultural land and built temporary structures in addition to using caves, but the occupation authorities never approved any plans for reconstructing the village, meaning all construction was technically illegal. In 2001 the occupation authorities demolished the village as revenge for the murder of an Israeli settler in Susiya, and since then there have been a series of demolition orders, petitions to the Israeli High Court by the villagers, and temporary stays of demolition. Since 2001 the villagers and their property have been attacked repeatedly by settlers who have also blocked access to their land, Despite numerous complaints filed with the Israeli authorities, there has been almost no redress. In 2013 the occupation authorities rejected a plan for the village, proposing instead to relocate the villagers into Area A, which the villagers have petitioned against. The Israeli High Court is due to consider the case again on August 3rd 2015, but on May 4th the court denied a request for an interim injunction against demolitions, and occupation authorities announced that the destruction would go ahead between July 20th and August 3rd.

susya mapI have posted previously about how the relocated village of Susiya is itself an archaeological site that tells the story of occupation. Now it has become the site of an intensive campaign to save Susiya. As usual, there is an online campaign: the hashtags #savesusiya and #standwithsusiya; the Facebook page Stand with Susiya; a Thunderclap petition; an email campaign by Jewish Voice for Peace to John Kerry; a letter campaign by the International Solidarity Movement to EU officials and Israeli embassies; and no doubt some more. The impending demolition has already attracted international attention. Spokesperson for the US State Department John Kirby said on July 16th that the demolition “would be harmful and provocative,” and Israeli Channel 2 TV news broadcast his statement. The Guardian newspaper was among the international press that had already covered the story in June.

Yet, what will matter more than all of this will be non-violent direct action on the ground. Rabbis for Human Rights are trying a last minute intercession through their lawyer, who referred to the planned eviction as transfer. At the same time, they and other groups, such as the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee have called for action in the village, including a demonstration on Friday 24th and a constant presence of Israeli and international supporters. Maybe all together, the campaign will halt the demolition until August 3rd, but even then there is no guarantee that the court will spare Susiya from destruction.

area cWhy does Susiya matter? What difference would it make if a couple of hundred Palestinians moved a few kilometers? The case of Susiya is clearly a part of a pattern in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel retains full civil and military control, and where the “Civil” Administration’s planning powers are used cynically to enforce the creeping annexation of the area. As Area C is 60% of the territory of the West Bank, that would leave very little space for Palestinians to live, work and build on. It is not only a question of leaving no place for a Palestinian state, should the “two state” solution ever come to fruition. Whether there be one state, two states, or seven, there can only be peace if there is room for everyone to live. If there is demolition, eviction, displacement, transfer, and even if then there is no more violence as there is nobody left to oppress, but “quiet instead, there will not be peace. What follows victory is not peace but the shadow of war. The peace that might come, however, will be prefigured by the activists resisting occupation together.

As the threat to Susiya grows, so does the need for action.

This is an emergency! Stand with Susiya.

The Leftern Wall

[Graphic put together by Rabbis for Human Rights]

Between July 20th, the end of Ramadan, and August 3rd, the date on which the Israeli Supreme Court will hear Susiya’s case against demolition, there are expected to be a number of demolitions in the village of Susiya.

This is hideous news.

We cannot allow ourselves to be made drowsy or apathetic. Yes, Susiya has been under threat of demolition since 2012. Yes, there have been times when the call to action has been framed as urgent, and in the end, nothing happened (thank God and citizen-activists). Yes, the issue of Susiya, for those who follow this blog or the work of many other human rights NGOs and activists, is not a new one.

And yet: The essence of the story is that residents of a village are threatened with the their homes and medical clinics and playgrounds being demolished simply because…

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Susiya is here

"Yesha is here" sticker

“Yesha is here” sticker

In the days when Gaza was treated by Israeli settlers as  “liberated” territory along with Judea and Samaria, under the acronym “Yesha,” the settler movement used the slogan “Yesha is here” to win support among the Jewish Israeli public. The logic behind the slogan was clear: there’s no difference between Jewish settlement within the Green Line and beyond it as the right to the Land of Israel applies on both sides. But the slogan also contained a warning: if you “give up” the West Bank and Gaza, the Arabs will come after Tel Aviv too. The slogan was accompanied by claims that the post-67 settlers are not doing anything different to the pre-67 settlers, that the Zionist movement has always done what’s needed to establish and maintain “the Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.” “What’s needed” has included military force, expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians, and certainly that was the case before 1967.

The slogan’s currency has not waned since Gaza was cut off from the West Bank (and the rest of the world). The already relocated Palestinian village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills, in Area C of the West Bank, is facing immanent demolition following a ruling on May 5, 2015, by Israel’s High Court of Justice. The case of Susiya is well documented and has been a focus of sustained campaigns by Rabbis for Human Rights and B’Tselem (click on the links for detailed information) and it has also attracted a good deal of international attention, with EU and UN representatives visiting the site. The villagers were evicted 30 years ago not in the heat of battle, but to make way for an archaeological site that became a settlement, and now they face further expulsion from the private land they moved on to, to give the settlement more space. The case of Susiya is clearly a part of a pattern in Area C, where Israel retains full civil and military control, and where the Civil Administration’s planning powers are used cynically to enforce the creeping annexation of the area. The Israeli settlement project in the West Bank entails an exclusive Jewish right to settle on the land, and hence the removal and dispossession of the Palestinians who are already settled.

Demonstrators protesting against the planned evacuation of Bedouin villages in the Negev, June 11, 2015. Photo by Ilan Assayag

Demonstrators protesting against the planned evacuation of Bedouin villages in the Negev, June 11, 2015. Photo by Ilan Assayag

This is not, however, only the story of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, because “Yesha” is here in pre-1967 Israel too. Dedicated to human rights in Israel as well as the occupied territories, Rabbis for Human Rights also campaigns against expulsions and displacements of Arabs within Israel, notably the Bedouin of the Negev and most recently the village of Umm al-Hiran, which is also slated to make way for a new town for Jews. Neither on this nor that side of the Green Line is it mostly a question of extremist, fundamentalist settlers taking the law into their own hands and forcing Palestinians from their land. In each case, it is Israel’s High Court that has judged that the inhabitants of the land have no right to it, or to build on it, but the State does. “Yesha,” the State-backed project of exclusive Jewish settlement, for which the law is as much a force as its military, is indeed here.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the connection between dispossession there and dispossession here, on either side of the Green Line, is inherent to the activity of Rabbis for Human Rights, and that it is practiced under the heading of “rights” not “peace.” If “peace” signifies two states, one Palestinian and one Israeli, and the assumption that drawing a line between them is enough for there to be peace, then what would that peace be? The Palestinian State, one hopes, would allow the villagers of Susiya to return to their land, but what would peace be for the people of Umm al-Hiran? Peace can’t only be there but not here. And that is why the practice of Rabbis for Human Rights is not only about rights but also about peace, because there is no peace without justice and no justice without peace.

Documentation and Donations: B’Tselem’s cameras | The Vision Machine

B'Tselem's Facebook cover photo (Hebrew version, January 2015)

B’Tselem’s Facebook cover photo (Hebrew version, January 2015)

In this blog, I write about a fund-raising video produced by Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem in the context of their practice of giving video cameras to Palestinians the human rights abuses entailed by occupation. Even though the video avoids sensationalism, it falls into a sentimentality that is tension with its usual “raw” aesthetic.

Documentation and Donations: B’Tselem’s cameras | The Vision Machine.