Sunday, 1 November 2009

Israel demolishes Palestinian homes ... Again



Israeli authorities have torn down several Palestinian houses in occupied east Jerusalem, defying international calls to halt the demolitions in the disputed city.

Gidi Schmerling, a Jerusalem municipality spokesman, said the houses in the Shuafat, Zur Baher, Silwan and Jabel Mukabar neighbourhoods were pulled down on Tuesday because they had been built illegally.

"All the houses were demolished in accordance with a court order," he said in a statement to the AFP news agency.

Palestinians say that the municipality discriminates against them, making it virtually impossible for them to get legal permits for new homes or extensions to existing ones.

As a result, thousands of effectively illegal structures have been built in recent decades with Israel responding by destroying dozens of houses each year.

Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, had vowed to crack down on illegal construction in the city, including east Jerusalem, whose fate is one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the United Nations on Tuesday called for an immediate halt to all forced evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes in the area, which was seized by Israel in the 1967 war.

"Such actions run counter to international law and have a serious and long-term negative impact on Palestinian families and communities,” the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement.

"The UN reiterates its call for an immediate and unconditional halt to such actions and urges the state of Israel to protect the civilian population in OPT [occupied Palestinian Territories] from further displacement and dispossession."

At least 600 Palestinians ave been displaced by eveictions and demolitions since the beginning of the year, according to OCHA, and many thousands more may be at risk.

The United States, which is seeking to revive peace talks in the long-standing dispute, called the latest demolitions "unhelpful".

The forced evictions and demolitions have raised tensions in the eastern half of the city, which Palestinians see as the capital of any future independent state.

The situation has prompted a number of protests and Palestinians have attempted to challenge the municipality's actions in the courts.

'Irresponsible step'

An Israeli rights group, Ir Amim, said the demolitions were "an irresponsible step that could escalate the situation in the city and bring it to a new boiling point".

Palestinians and human rights groups have condemned Israel's demolition policy, accusing it of using the demolitions to shift east Jerusalem's demographic balance.

"International bodies and the United Nations Security Council should intervene to stop Israeli authorities from carrying out these criminal actions," Adnan al-Husseini, the Palestinian-appointed governor of Jerusalem, said.

A UN report in May showed that 1,500 demolition orders issued by the Jerusalem municipality were pending for illegal Palestinian dwellings.

The report said that if the orders were implemented, about 9,000 Palestinians would be displaced.

There are about 200,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem, alongside an estimated 250,000 Palestinians.

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During a swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem last Thursday, two soldiers held up a banner that sparked a wave of condemnation by soldiers and civilians alike. The slogan on the banner – "Shimshon [Brigade] does not evacuate Homesh" – referred to the prospect of the soldiers being ordered to evict settlers from an illegal outpost on the site of the former Homesh settlement.

Homesh was dismantled during the disengagement of 2005 but since then settlers have repeatedly returned to the site and erected makeshift homes, asserting their claim of a God-given right to live there, as well as throughout the rest of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

On the surface, the IDF's decision to jail the protesting pair suggests a refusal to bow to insubordination within the army's ranks. But set against the wider context of army collusion and co-operation with settler activists, it is hard to regard the verdict as ushering in a new dawn of tough love towards the settler movement. It is more likely that army chiefs disapproved of the troops' particularly public display of support for the settlers, rather than the underlying sentiment they expressed.

Given that the resettlement of Homesh has taken place under the benevolent gaze of the IDF, there is no doubt that the military authorities are still prepared to turn a blind eye to the disobedience of settlers and their supporters – so long it happens in the relative obscurity of the West Bank, rather than in the heart of Jerusalem in full view of both press and public.

I was part of the initial evacuation of Homesh during my army service, and our unit was split by many of the religious members of my brigade refusing to participate – a stance that the Shimshon soldiers this week threatened to repeat. However, instead of standing up to the mutiny, our commanders gave them the kid glove treatment. Their anxiety to avoid an internal confrontation overrode their adherence to army guidelines.

Likewise, every time I witness settlers assaulting and abusing Palestinians in the West Bank, soldiers are always on hand to provide armed cover for the attackers, refusing to intervene on the victims' behalf, and revealing the true level of support the army continues to offer to the settler camp. Such actions speak far louder than the words spouted this week by Major General Avi Mizrahi, who said: "We must ensure that the IDF is not dragged into the political discourse and guard against the creation of factionalism in the military, which is the people's military."

Not only is the IDF dragged into the political discourse day after day, but the army has also been riven by factional splits for years, largely as a result of the infusion of religious dogma into what was, and should remain, a secular institution of the state. As noted by the leader of the New Movement-Meretz party, "instead of religious Zionism adopting the values of the IDF and the country, the IDF and country are adopting the values of religious Zionism, in its nationalist and orthodox version. If this trend continues, the IDF may be transformed from an army of the people to Phalangists carrying religious artefacts."

Furthermore, a Guardian interview with army judge Adrian Agassi reveals in even more detail the influence of religious-nationalist politics on the IDF when it comes to the military's treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Agassi, who has a long history of supporting land confiscations from Palestinian owners, declared that the ancient land of Israel was "given to us by the Bible, not by some United Nations", and that "if we would have named it the State of Jews [rather than the State of Israel], the Arabs would have understood that this land belongs to the Jews".

In his eyes, implanting Jewish settlers across the West Bank is more important than all other biblical commandments, and only when it is done can they have "a promised land and a promised life". With lawyers and judges such as himself at the helm of the military legislature, settler leaders are unlikely to be losing much sleep over the prospect of any serious threat to their wave of illegal construction and land-grabs, despite the slaps on the wrist for the two banner-wielding Shimshon soldiers.

While the rest of Israel fiddles, the West Bank continues to burn – both literally, in the scores of cases of settlers setting fire to the crops and homes of Palestinian farmers, and metaphorically, as the prospects for peaceful resolution go up in smoke the longer the settlers are given free rein to thumb their noses at the law and run riot in the area. On ground level, as well as in the political arena, the authorities seem perfectly content to offer the occasional fig leaf to international pressure to clamp down on the settlers, while never implementing concrete measures to end the overall injustice. Who this charade is fooling is anyone's guess, but the longer it continues, the more certain it becomes that the state's kowtowing to the settlers is driving yet another nail into the peace process's coffin.

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