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News > Home Demolitions on the West Bank (Palestine)


Also see: Joan Chittister on Israel / Palestine (Article)

UPDATE - 14 January 2004: Rabbi Arik Ascherman (Rabbis for Human Rights), Shai Eliezer Zvi and Omer Ori APPEAR IN COURT TO ANSWER CHARGES OF OBSTRUCTING BULLDOZERS DEMOLISHING PALESTINIAN HOMES

(Jerusalem, 14 January 2004): Several months after their arrest, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, (director of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization that has collaborated with the Peace Council) and two co-defendents appeared in court to answer charges of obstructing bulldozers at the site of home demolitions on the outskirts of Jerusalem. (See the story of his arrest, There is a Kippah In the Rubble, below.)

A crowd of rabbis, activists, diplomats and journalists was forced to wait outside an overflowing Jerusalem Magistrate's Court as the trial opened. The lawyer representing Rabbi Ascherman and his co-defendants outlined the points which he would attempt to prove, emphasizing the central claim that protesting home demolitions is legitimate given that the policy of home demolition is an unjust and discriminatory policy which prevents Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who cannot attain permits, from building homes legally. He also argued that Palestinian homes are more likely to be demolished than Jewish homes that have similar violations. He cited the Or Commission report that establishes links between Israeli land policy towards Arabs, "illegal" construction, and home demolitions. He also quoted from the report the fact that there are police officers who refuse to take part in demolitions, strengthening the argument that the order to demolish a home is illegal. He quoted from the Bible, “You shall not oppress the stranger” (Leviticus 19), and argued that a state that wishes to be Jewish and democratic must not allow itself to implement such policies. Finally, he also stressed that far more violent acts taken by settlers often don't go to court.

As expected, the prosecution attempted to argue that the arguments presented by Rabbis for Human Rights were not germane.

The court granted the defense 20 days to submit evidence and material pertaining to the demolition of homes in East Jerusalem. The state will reply within 15 days after that. The date for the next court hearing has been set for March 24th.

The policy of denying building permits to Palestinians living in Area C (the areas on the West Bank that are under Israeli army administration) or in Jerusalem's suburbs, and of destroying houses built without permits, has been widely condemned by human rights organizations. To protest this policy the Peace Council (along with Rabbis for Human Rights, the Palestininan Land Defence Committee, and the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions) intervened in a trial before an Israeli military court that began in 2000 and only recently concluded (see Update, below) For more information on human rights in Israel and the occupied territories, see the web-site of Rabbis for Human Rights.

Also yesterday (13 January 2004) over 400 Rabbis from North America released a statement condemning the Israeli policy (of not granting building permits to Palestinians and destroying homes built without permits) and the trial. Rabbi Ascherman made the following statement when his trial opened this morning:

Statement by Rabbi Arik Ascherman:

This week Jews around the world are reading parashat Shemot, the first chapters of the Biblical book of Exodus containing what is perhaps the first recorded example of civil disobedience. Thousands of years ago, two women defied the orders of all powerful Pharaoh. Jewish commentators debate whether or not these two midwives were Israelites or Egyptians. It is entirely possible that they were Egyptian, but had come to realize the ultimate truth, much more powerful than the most powerful potentate, that all human beings are created B’Tselem Elohim, in God’s Image.

This week we also remember two modern heroes who knew how to speak to power. We mark both the birthday and the Yartzeit (anniversary of death) of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel, the descendent of a long line of Hassidic rabbis, lost his entire world in the Holocaust. He was one of the first to speak out about the Jews of the Former Soviet Union and stood up for Israel when he detected double standards and anti-Semitism. However, he too realized that all humanity is created B’Tselem Elohim, leading him to protest the Vietnam War and march with Reverend Martin Luther King, whose birthday we also celebrate this week.

King is best known for his leadership in the civil rights movement in the US, and seriously debated whether or not to oppose the Vietnam War, fearing that such opposition would weaken his ability to advocate for civil rights. Ultimately, however, he did so. One of his great teachings is that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Heschel taught that God is not distant and removed, but rather a God of pathos, who passionately cares about what we humans do. Prayer and religion must make us wake up and take notice and work to right injustice, or they are of no consequence. He also taught us that “In a democratic society some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Omer, Shai and myself would not be so audacious as to put ourselves in the same category as Heschel and King, as Shifra and Puah. However, we believe it to be our obligation to honor their memories by honoring the moral inheritance which they have bequeathed to us.

That moral inheritance tells us that the policy of home demolitions is immoral. It may be technically legal according to Israeli law narrowly interpreted. However, not everything that is “legal” is “just.” The policy is certainly illegal according to international law and tramples on the Torah which I as a rabbi am sworn to uphold – The Torah which commands us to love those different than us, not to have double standards and to have one law for all. I would also argue that, according to Israeli law, the order to demolish a home or protect the demolition is an illegal order over which a black flag flies, making it a civic, Zionist and Jewish duty to oppose by standing in front of bulldozers, having tried over the years to stop the policy by other means. I do not believe in civil disobedience for the sake of civil disobedience and getting my picture in the paper. During the recently completed olive harvest, RHR worked very closely with Israeli security forces who were largely doing their job to protect harvesters. However, in this case, we have been left with very little choice. The Municipality and the State continue to enforce a catch-22 policy in which, if you are a Palestinian in Area C or Jerusalem, you can have a clean security record, uncontested title to your land, and stand on your head, but a politically motivated policy will make it practically impossible for you to get a building permit without paying a bribe or agreeing to be an informer. The homes they are forced to build without permits are “illegal” and subject to demolition.

Therefore, we welcome our day in court. There are those of our supporters who would like this trial stopped. Frankly, I would only agree to stopping this trial in the context of a commitment to stop home demolitions. The time has come to stop the lies and the disinformation. Let all those who think that this indefensible policy is defensible come and face us in court. Let all the advisors who are hiding behind glossy reports like this one, to which the Municipality of Jerusalem contributed NIS 60,000, come out and face us. Let them explain why the Or Commission concluded that you can not understand the policy of so called “illegal” building and demolitions outside of the context of the discriminatory land policies directed against both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. If they can do so, I will be the first to admit that I was wrong.

In all likelihood the prosecution will do everything in their power to prevent this from happening. They will insist that the context is irrelevant and attempt to deny us the right to defend ourselves in this manner. And so Judge Feldman, you must make a choice. The easiest thing for you to do will be to hide behind a narrow interpretation of the law. We will then find ourselves convicted by a court of law, but not a court of justice. And so our legal system is also on trial here. Will the very same legal system which has been party to the policy of demolitions over the years by upholding the demolition of home after home by focusing on the letter of the law and ignoring the context continue to be an accomplice to this immoral policy, or will you rise to the occasion, honor the highest precepts of your calling, and take the brave and bold action which is required?

We fully intend to argue our case before this court, but make no mistake about it, this case is being tried elsewhere as well. Over 300 Diaspora rabbis, some of the most prominent leaders of world Jewry, have already written to the Israeli government, calling upon it to cease this immoral policy. Standing with us today are Sufian Maswadeh and Ahned Musa Dari, the owners of the two homes we are accused of defending, as well as other Palestinians who have been affected by the demolition policy. They too are watching and judging what this court does.

Thank you to those of you gathered here to stand with us and with Palestinian families. I want to acknowledge the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. It is as founding members of ICAHD that Rabbis For Human Rights has engaged in the struggle against home demolitions. I want to especially thank the RHR rabbis who are here. Without RHR’s backing, we would not be able to mount this defense. Rabbi Simkha Weintraub is also here, representing RHR-North America which has done so much to make the Diaspora rabbi’s letter a reality. Finally, I want to acknowledge my family. Even with all the backing from others, it is they even more than myself who will pay the price should I actually be convicted and sentenced to serve jail time. I can’t even bare to think of what it would mean to miss watching my 1.5 year old son and 4 3&Mac218;4 year old daughter growing up. If this happens, I hope that in addition to the inevitable anger they will understand that it is a civic, Zionist and Jewish duty to stand up to injustice.

However, I don’t believe that will be the outcome. With the support and prayers of all those around this globe who believe in justice, deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome. To paraphrase a poet from my generation, Bruce Springsteen, ?We are goin’ out of here to win.? Zion WILL be redeemed through justice and those who return to her through acts of righteousness

There is a Kippah In the Rubble


Executive Director, Rabbis for Human Rights (Israel)

I was arrested last Wednesday. Again. Many of you know that we are experiencing a new wave of demolitions for lack of building permit in and around Jerusalem. The Shawamreh home was demolished for the fourth time and Arabiyeh (the wife) is so traumatized that she is hardly eating. [Peace Councilors visited the Shawamreh family at their home in May, 2000, after it had been re-built for the second time by Rabbis for Human Rights.]

On Wednesday the Jerusalem Municipality came to demolish four homes. The families had exhausted their legal options although they thought they had an agreement allowing them additional time to rezone their land. . They didn't. (In any case they didn't have much of a chance. All four homes are located in a part of the Issawiya which the government refuses to recognize as a part of the village, let alone zone them for building.) By the time another activist and I had reached Issawiya two homes were already lost. However, we knew which other homes were scheduled for demolition and managed to reach the homes before the police sealed them off. They fired tear gas when they saw us approaching, but that did not deter us.

The families were hysterical. The grandmother was wailing while the father of the family was clutching at his heart and others were begging us to do something. It was simply heartbreaking The police quickly arrived, but backed off - either because the families' lawyer was in court trying to get a stay or because they agreed to give the families time to get their belongings out of the houses. Friends and family set out to act as quickly as possible, even chipping away to remove the iron bars on the windows.

We received word that the lawyer had not been able to receive an injunction. I was determined to stay with the family in the home, hoping that would buy time for something to happen. However, the head of the local council had seen the violence which had taken place at the first two houses and persuaded the family to leave. He told me that adults were free to do what they wanted - after the children and elderly were out of the way.

We watched helplessly as the pneumatic drills tore into the final remaining home. To officer after officer I read off chapter and verse from various international conventions which Israel is a party to. Commanders ordered their people not to listen or take the paper. I have to be careful in describing what happened next, as this may come to trial. The charge sheet against me claims that I ran in front of the bulldozers, interfering with the work of security forces and endangering myself. I can say that I lost my kippah (the Jewish skull cap) in the ensuing moments.

There isn't much in the rubble of those houses, as the families succeeded in removing most of their belongings. It is not like some of the demolitions where we find children's toys, clothes and schoolbooks among the rubble. However, there is a kippah and I feel that it means something. Perhaps it symbolizes the trampling and burial of the Jewish Values I grew up believing in. Perhaps it means the opposite. Perhaps it symbolizes the fact that their were Jews who stood against this injustice in the name of Torah.

What is clear is that we have work to do in the face of rising demolitions. For those of you in Israel we need your help to lobby, to attend court hearings and to defend homes with our bodies. Had we been 20 activists the outcome might have been different. For those of you abroad, we need you to write letters. We know how letters influenced former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Allbright and we have even heard complaints about Colin Powell’s anti-demolition positions. Letters help.

UPDATE: 14 January 2004: Ahmed (Abu Faiz) Shamasneh found guilty by Israeli military court but is assessed a nominal fine of 500 shekels. No other cases have been brought to trial.

by Rabbi Arik Ascherman

Remember Abu-Faiz Shamasneh. Some three years ago he was arrested for "illegal building." This was a period where the government had decided not to demolish homes, so they were looking for other ways of intimidating people. Abu-Faiz had lost all of his land in 1948, but saved up until he could by some land and build for himself and two of his sons. All the homes were demolished, and his sons rebuilt.

Abu-Faiz begin to rebuild as well when he was tossed out of the rented house he was living in. His lawyer agreed to admit the facts of the case in return for dropping the charges against a third son. However they didn't know that the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions and the Peace Council were going to bring international experts and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire to the military court (in June, 2000) to prove that Abu-Faiz had no choice but to build "illegally." [The photo shows Máiread Maguire with Abu Faiz and his family in June, 2000.]

The confused court halted the precedings and eventually said that we could only bring witnesses at the stage of sentencing. A few weeks ago Abu-Faiz was pronounced guilty. The judge said he couldn't understand why Abu-Faiz did what he did, knowing the consequences. We reminded the judge that we would be bringing our witnesses to the sentencing hearing on June 8, 2003 to explain this conundrum.

(Updated 14 January, 2004): The sentencing resulted in a nominal fine of 500 shekels (about 113 U.S. dollars), vastly less than the fine that had been proposed by the military prosecutor as part of a plea bargain on the first day of the trial in June, 2000. Ahmed Shamasneh's house is still standing, although it remains under threat because, after all, he has been found guilty of building it without a permit.

The high profile that this court case got from the intervention of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Palestinian Land Defence Committee, and the Peace Council has prevented other such cases from being brought before the courts. For that, and for the hightened awareness of the Israeli public and growing opposition to the Israeli policy, we can be thankful, though homes continue to be demolished by administrative order.

For the background to this story, please see below:

[From Report from the Peace Council, Fall, 2000]

In May, 2000 the Peace Council met in Israel and Palestine to support groups that are building bridges of trust and understanding between Arabs and Israelis. When we went there, we did not know what we might be asked to do to promote peace in the region. But less than a month later we were back, asked by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions to help publicize Israeli policies that prevent Palestinians from building homes in the West Bank. This issue is not well-understood by Israelis even though it is a major obstacle to peaceful relations with Arabs.

On very short notice Peace Councilor Máiread Maguire agreed to attend the June, 2000 trial in an Israeli military court of Ahmed (Abu Faiz) Shamasneh, a Palestinian grandfather accused of illegally building a home for his family, and the result was a flood of stories in Israeli, Palestinian, and European newspapers, television, and radio about the case and about the plight of Palestinians who are not able to provide legal housing for their families. [The photo shows Máiread Maguire being briefed by Phil Halper of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. Eetta Prince-Gibson, author of the following article, is in the foreground.]

This was the first time that the issue of home demolitions had been raised in a judicial proceeding. Peace Councilor Máiread Maguire and Executive Director Daniel Gómez-Ibáñez represented the Peace Council at the trial. The resulting publicity highlighted the Israeli policy of demolishing Palestinian homes built in the West Bank without permits, a serious threat to peace that is little known even among Israelis. The following interview, by feature writer Eetta Prince-Gibson, appeared in the Jerusalem Post two weeks after the trial. The trial has been recessed several times since then and Ahmed Shamasneh's home is still standing.

From Northern Ireland to Israel and Palestine

by Eetta Prince-Gibson (Jerusalem Post)

Two weeks ago, Maíread Maguire, 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Northern Ireland, visited Israel and the Palestinian territories as a representative of the Peace Council.

Invited by Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, she came to observe the trial of Ahmed Shamasneh, who was charged with illegally building his home.

It was Maguire’s second trip to Israel. Ten years ago, she came to fast and pray in repentance for what Christians have done to Jews in Jesus’s name.

She admits that she does not know much about the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and says that this time she came to learn.

"I don't come from a political background," she says, "and I don't understand deeply complicated processes. But I have been living in violent conflict for over 30 years now, and so I know a lot about pain, and something about reconciliation and hope."

Maguire, 50, grew up in strife-ridden Belfast, Northern Ireland, where some 3,500 have been killed just in her lifetime. Among them were three of her sister Annie's children, who were run over in August 1976 by an IRA man who was shot in the head by a British soldier while driving. Her sister was seriously injured in the accident.

Recalls Maguire, "I didn't know what to do with my grief, but I knew that I—we—had to do something. For the memory of those poor little children, for the memory of other dead children, for the future of the children who were still alive."

She called a friend, Betty Williams, and the two began to set up meetings with Protestant women. Almost spontaneously, they began to march through Belfast. By December, hundreds of thousands of Protestants and Catholics, mostly women and children, had joined them. According to Maguire, the marches led to a 70 percent decrease in the rate of violence, which has never returned to its 1976 high.

In 1977, Maguire and Williams were awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize.

Three years later Maguire's sister Annie killed herself.

"So many people have been killed in Northern Ireland, and so many more have been hurt and traumatized, their souls and spirits broken. Some are strong enough to survive, some are not. Annie was not strong enough."

Four years ago, Maguire founded Peace People, a non-profit organization that sponsors community work with youth and families of prisoners. She is also an active member of the Peace Council, whose members include internationally renowned figures such as the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Members attempt to use their influence to aid in the resolution of ethnic and religious conflicts throughout the world.

It was as a Peace Council representative that Maguire, accompanied by a small group of peace activists from the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions and several journalists, visited Shamasneh's home in early June.

Shamasneh and the 23 members of his family live in three half-built houses on the outskirts of the village of Katanna, below the Jewish community of Har Adar. Shamasneh has been charged with illegally rebuilding his home, which was first destroyed in 1995. In addition to the criminal charges, the civil administration has issued a demolition order, but Shamasneh does not know when, or if, the house will be destroyed.

"People have a human need to provide shelter for themselves and their families," Maguire declares. "When you demolish a home, it is not only the walls of the house that you attack. You strike at the very heart of human beings' sense of dignity, self-esteem, and self-worth.

"You demolish part of their humanity, and you break a part of their heart. What man or woman has a right to do this to his brother and sister?"

"I know that I cannot deny or change the suffering," she says after attending a military court hearing in Beit El. "But I bring an international presence. In the Peace Council, we have found that when we bring an international presence, cast a spotlight on affairs that governments would rather see as internal issues, we can make a difference. I can listen, and learn, so that I might be of some help.

"And I can speak out? I can raise my voice for the Palestinian people."

What advice does she have for Israelis and Palestinians?

"First, and foremost, I call for a halt to all house demolitions, and call on the Israeli government to compensate the many thousands of Palestinian families who face high fines and the cost of rebuilding their homes."

But most of these homes have been built illegally, she is told.

"Yes, because the laws are part of a systematic process of removing the Palestinians from their land. It is practices such as these that lead to anger and frustration, and not to trust, cooperation, and coexistence—surely the only foundation stones for a shared, secure, and reconciled land.

"I believe that Israeli people know in their heart and soul that being compassionate, and giving justice and freedom to the Palestinians is the only way to create real peace in this little bit of land that you are all destined to share together."

Asked about the possibility of having to evacuate Jewish settlements, Maguire didn't answer directly, saying only that, in the end, the Palestinians and Israelis "will have to sit around a negotiating table and solve their problems in a just, compassionate, and respectful way that is acceptable to both sides."

Such a peace will have to include forgiveness, she insists, something that will also lead to personal sanity and happiness, she adds.

"In time, they will want to say, 'I am sorry,' both individually and collectively, to each other and begin the process of reconciliation. It is a long, hard process, but I have seen it happening in my own country.

"Suffering either enlarges your heart, and makes you more compassionate, or leads you to bitterness, anger, and pain. I have faith in your peoples. The Holy Land is the heart of the whole world, and they eyes of the world are upon you. You can bring hope to us all.
"I know how the Jewish people have suffered—I have been to Auschwitz and I have seen how they tried to break your spirit.

"Nevertheless, you survived and flourished. Now, you can be generous."

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