Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh the remains of Beit Arabiya. Photo: Christian Aid/Sarah Malian.
‘Come inside please,’ said Salim Shawamreh at the entrance to Beit Arabiya, a peace centre on the edge of Jerusalem. But there was no ‘inside’ to come into. He was inviting me not to walk into a building, but to climb over rubble.
The centre had been demolished the day before by the Israeli army. They had done more than knock down the walls. Concrete had been broken into pieces. Tiles were individually smashed. Bathroom pipes had been twisted to make them unusable. The bodies of two stray dogs, apparently a mother and her puppy, lay amidst the rubble, presumably killed as the building collapsed.
I witnessed this demolition the morning after my arrival in Jerusalem. Salim said he could have fallen down and cried when he saw the devastation. ‘It’s not just concrete they are demolishing,’ he insisted. ‘Human rights are being violated by this occupation.’ He and his wife Arabiya were full of grief. This was the sixth time that the building had been demolished. Before its use as a peace centre, it had been their home. It had last been rebuilt in July, by Muslim, Jewish, Christian and other volunteers who said ‘we refuse to be enemies’.
The euphemistically named Israeli Defense Force (IDF) seems to be doing its best to make clear that it does not share this sentiment. Yesterday in the South Hebron Hills, I witnessed the remains of a house destroyed only hours earlier. On this occasion, the Israeli authorities appeared to have broken their own rules by not issuing a demolition order in advance. The family’s mattresses and kitchen utensils lay on the ground in front of broken pieces of concrete. The two-storey building had housed a couple, their eight children and two elderly relatives. The owner of the house wandered around in shock. ‘Where will my children sleep?’ said his wife, over and over again. She is eight months’ pregnant.
As he stood on top of the broken concrete of Beit Arabiya, Salim described Israel’s building rules as ‘Kafkaesque’. The IDF has demolished at least 27,000 homes in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, according to a count by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). This is supposedly because they were built without permits. ICAHD and Christian Aid report that 94 per cent of building permit applications by Palestinians in ‘Area C’ – the part of Palestine administered directly by Israel – are refused. Even to make an application costs around $5,000. Palestinians are forced to build without them.
‘All the rules are made to serve the occupation,’ said Salim. He argued that the demolitions were really about giving the Palestinians a clear message. ‘They are telling us to get out,’ he said.
It’s a message that the Palestinian people are not willing to accept. The resilience that has produced so many rebuildings of Beit Arabiya is likely to produce another.
From the site of the peace centre, I could see the remains of demolished buildings stretching into the distance. As Salim paused, quietness descended and other journalists and I, with staff from Christian Aid, walked around the site. I gradually became aware of a persistent noise in the distance. It took me a moment to realize that it was the noise of somebody doing building work. Amidst anger and distress, there was a glimpse of hope. However many bulldozers the IDF sends in at midnight, that is another, more persistent, activity that will be heard in the morning. It is the sound of building.