Friendship wins

Jews lay in front of Israeli bulldozer pointed at Arab home

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the very week that the israelielectorate installed hardliner Ariel Sharon as prime minister, two friends — one Palestinian and one Israeli — told Toronto audiences that Israel has been tightening its hold on the Occupied Territories from the moment the so-called peace process began.In a set of meetings hosted by the Canadian Arab Federation, the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation, Jews for Justice, Yosher (a Jewish social change group), the Canadian Friends Service Committee and others, the two vividly described the on- the-ground effects of Israeli policy.

“We Israeli activists are trying to counter this whole notion that being critical of Israel is anti-Semitic,” speaker Jeff Halper tells a gathering at the Winchevsky Center on Cranbrooke. A professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University, Halper is also coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

“Speaking out against house demolition has been a way for us to show the injustice of the occupation,” he says, pointing to the 7,000 Palestinian homes demolished since 1973. More than 4,000 others in the territories are slated to be bulldozed as well.

Demolition was stepped up, Halper says, after the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993 and more recently with the start of last fall’s intifada.

It remains a constant threat for 3 million Palestinians whose average incomes have been reduced by two-thirds since Oslo and who are confined to areas where water and food shortages are the norm. The lawns of Israeli settlers, meanwhile, grow green on the other side of the patrolled borders.

A few people stand to testify to what they’ve seen on their trips to Israel, off the beaten path of guided tours. Nonetheless, a couple of audience members tell me they’ll have to take Halper with a grain of salt. But it looks as though the personal story of the other speaker, Salim Shawamreh, is easy enough for everybody to swallow without a reach for the salt shaker. His photographs tell too much to deny.

Shawamreh was born in the Old City of Jerusalem after his family became refugees from their village in the Negev. In 1965 they were moved to a refugee camp, and Shawamreh received a degree in engineering from a United Nations school. He then spent six years in Saudi Arabia before returning to Jerusalem.

“The black day in my life and in my family’s life is July 9, 1998,” says Shawamreh. A slide show begins with a before picture of his humble home on the outskirts of East Jerusalem.

“I heard a big voice coming from outside the house and I saw my house surrounded by bulldozers. The leader of the soldiers asked me if this was my home. I told him yes. He said, “No, it’s not your home now. You have 15 minutes to get your family and your belongings out.”‘

Shawamreh and his family didn’t go quietly, and the army used tear gas. Another picture shows the Palestinian’s friend, Halper, lying down in front of the bulldozers. And then, of course, there’s an after shot.

All this destruction is the result, Shawamreh says, of his failure to obtain a permit to build — a permit that costs $6,000. Shawamreh makes $5,000 a year, about average for a Palestinian man.

Halper and other Jews helped him raise a second house. The Israeli Civil Administration destroyed it as well. “I rebuilt a third time, and that shell still stands,” he says. But he and his family don’t dare move into their new home because they fear it will be razed.

The audience is then shown another picture, this one a map of Israel and the 195 Jewish settlements that dot the landscape of the West Bank and Gaza. They’re connected by 450 kilometres of fenced byways that cut off one Palestinian village from the next.

It’s a gerrymandering of Jewish and Palestinian homesteads reminiscent of a South African bantustan, says one South African-born Jew in the audience.

Halper agrees. He’s not shy about drawing comparisons between his country and Israel’s former trading partner during the time of UN-imposed sanctions on that African nation.

“It’s very convenient for Israel to present itself as the victim, because a victim cannot be held accountable. If Israel, despite the fact that it is a nuclear superpower, is able to present to the world that it is the weak party — as Netanyahu used to say, “the little kid in the schoolyard surrounded by big bullies in a rough neighbourhood’ — then it’s able to have its control but not be held accountable,” says Halper.

This kind of statement, the Israeli general consul in Toronto tells me when I call later in the day, is dangerous for the country.

“(Such statements’) real aim is to vilify Israel,” says Meir Romem. “Some of these Palestinian homes were demolished because they were the homes of terrorists or were built illegally.’

Romem tells me I should write about an Israeli doctor, one of the 200,000 Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories, who was murdered on a West Bank highway.

“Dr. Shmuel Gilles was a hematologist, a good man who saved lives, and he was shot 11 times by Palestinians. He was killed like a dog. Those highways are essential to the well-being of Israeli settlers.”

Romem is unable to provide me with the number of Palestinian homes that have been demolished, but he assures me that Jewish homes have also been razed to a mound of hard Syrian stone. That number, too, is unavailable.

“The Israeli government, especially the municipality of Jerusalem, is trying to maintain the demographics of Jerusalem, where the Israelis, or the Jews, are in the majority,” Shawamreh told me earlier that afternoon. “If they allow Palestinians to build homes, that would interfere with the Israeli plan.”

Later, when the NOW photographer snaps their picture, he asks the two comrades to get a little closer. “We’re close,’ jokes one, “but not this close.’

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