Can you imagine heavy construction equipment arriving in front of your house, police officers telling you that you have only minutes to get your belongings out of your home, and then watching while your house is demolished in front of your eyes? This is exactly what happened to the Castero family in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Hanina this past Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013. Perhaps you have seen a picture in the international media of a screaming young boy returning “home” from school, only to find his home being destroyed by bulldozers and other demolition equipment.
While I was busy with other work Tuesday afternoon, my teammates were called to this house demolition. When they arrived, the demolition was well in progress. My teammates reported that it was a very upsetting event, with children and adults crying, some people screaming, news media personnel milling around, police trying to control the scene, and humanitarian workers gathering information and seeking to assist the family. Through it all, the construction equipment continued to literally destroy the family’s 2 storey concrete home.
A you tube video of the demolition can be found here
Two days later, I was one of the EA’s who went to check on the family. As we drove to the neighbourhood, I mentally prepared myself for what we would find. But nothing could prepare me for the scene in front of us. It was awful. It was beyond horrible – something you might expect from a natural disaster, a tornado perhaps. But this had been done by men and machines. All that was left was a massive pile of rubble.
Young men were digging through the rubble in an attempt to locate the water pipes of the bathroom, hoping to access water. A white tent stood on each side of the rubble. As I tried to take in the scene, I realized that my stomach was heaving. A young woman came up to speak with me. I asked if this had been her family home. Nodding her head, she quietly said “yes.” Instinctively, I reached out to touch her, to place my hand on her shoulder. My voice broke as I tried to say to her how sorry I was that this had happened. She seemed to sense that in some way I felt the horror of this brutal act, that somehow I shared, in even a small way, the burden of her pain. But this story isn’t about me….it’s about the ongoing horrors of this occupation, the ongoing suffering of innocent civilians.
The young woman is Iman, the oldest daughter of the Castero family, a very articulate 18 year old first year law student who speaks excellent English. In a voice full of pain and emotion, she said, “Come, come and see what the Israeli’s have done to us.” I followed her around to the side of the rubble. She explained that the house had been a 10 year old, two storey concrete house (typical Arab style), built without a building permit. A demolition order had been issued only days ago and they had been unable to stop it. The Israeli authorities allowed less than 5 minutes for the family to get their belongings out of the house, and did not allow neighbours to help. As a result, the majority of their household goods are buried under the rubble.
With the financial hardship brought about by this demolition, and no electricity, no water and only a tent for shelter, Iman now feels that she cannot go back to her law studies.
This house was home to Iman’s grandparents, their 3 sons and their families. In total, this demolition has left 37 people homeless! They have no access to water, no food, no clothes other than what they were wearing, and no bathroom facilities. The ICRC (Red Cross) have supplied them with 2 tents and other agencies have contributed a small amount of food and water. Neighbours are helping out as much as they can.
Apart from the obvious physical needs of the family, they also are suffering from considerable psychological trauma. As well, the grandmother was taken to hospital during the demolition.
In the car on the way back to where we are staying, the outgoing EA explained that the house had indeed been built without a permit 10 years ago. As a consequence of building without a permit, the family have been paying a monthly fine of 2000 NIS (approx. $650) for the last 5 years. In total, they have paid approximately 120,000 NIS (approx. $40,000) in fines, but that did not stop Tuesday’s demolition. They will now be required to pay all costs of the demolition, including the demolition equipment charges and operator costs, and costs for all police and Israeli authorities present that day.
Why would this family deliberately build their house without a building permit?
The simple answer is that building permits are issued by the Israeli’s. They are virtually unobtainable for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Why is this so?
Following the 6 Day War of 1967, Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem and the surrounding West Bank, in contravention of international law. According to the UN OCHA, East Jerusalem Factsheet, Dec 2012, found at www.ochaopt.org, this annexation “is not recognized by the international community which considers East Jerusalem an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territory, (oPt), (see UN Security Council resolutions 252, 267, 471, 476 and 478).” In spite of this illegal annexation, the State of Israel now controls East Jerusalem.
The same UNOCHA, East Jerusalem Fact Sheet indicates that only 13% of East Jerusalem is now zoned for Palestinian construction, much of which is already built up. As a result, “at least 33% of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem lack Israeli-issued building permits, which are difficult to obtain, potentially placing at least 93,100 residents at risk of displacement…Since 1967, the Israeli authorities have demolished some 2,000 houses in East Jerusalem.”
The Palestinian people need young, strong, courageous and articulate women like Iman to act on their behalf. May she find the strength to continue with her law studies.