This past month, Israel’s Execution and Collection Authority approved plans to demolish the homes of 20 Palestinians living in the Southern Negev to make way for a new Jewish town. According to Human Rights Watch, the residents of this town, Bedouin Palestinian citizens of Israel, were relocated to this area in a 1956 agreement in which they were forced to drop claims to the land they were expelled from in 1948. Their current town – Umm al-Hiran – has not been formally recognized by Israel and has not had access to basic necessities such as clean water, electricity or building permits. Umm al-Hiran’s story is indicative of Israel’s long-standing and long condemned policy of house demolitions.
Israel generally uses house demolitions for one of three reasons. First, houses are often demolished if Palestinian homeowners have not procured a building permit, as was the case in Umm al-Hiran. Second, Israel uses a policy of punitive house demolitions, where the family homes of those involved in or suspected of carrying out attacks against Jewish Israelis are demolished. And third, there are precautionary demolitions where houses are demolished for counter-terrorism objectives including clearing suspected weapons factories, destroying booby-trapped homes and path-clearing for tanks and personnel carriers. The United Nations, US State Department, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and countless other human rights and international organizations have condemned the above forms of house demolitions for a host of different reasons.
In regards to permit based demolitions, the underlying issue is the inability of Palestinians to access Israeli building permits in the first place due to racist policies that are designed to marginalize Palestinians. According to the UN, between 2010 and 2014, Palestinians submitted 2,020 requests for building permits in Area C. Only 33 (1.5 percent) were approved.
In regards to punitive house demolitions, human rights organizations consistently find that they are actually a form of collective punishment and thus a potential war crime under Article 33 of the Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party. The actual people who face the consequences of demolition are relatives, neighbors and communities — including women, the elderly and children — whom Israel does not suspect of any involvement in any offense. In the vast majority of cases, the actual suspect that prompted the demolition was not even living in the house at the time of demolition. Israel claims that home demolitions act as a deterrent, but evidence from journalists, the Israeli army itself and retired generals disproved this. And regardless, such destruction of property is also illegal via Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
And on the topic of precautionary demolitions, these demolitions are frequently carried out outside of the given military justifications by the Israel Defense Forces. Housing demolitions are often used to make way for Israel’s ever growing security fence and illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1,033 building demolitions had occurred in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2016 (an already 100 percent increase from all of 2015). These demolitions have rendered over 1,000 people homeless, including many children. In the past month alone, 47 Palestinian-owned structures have been demolished or seized in East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank (the area of the West Bank completely under Israeli military control and administration), displacing 16 adults and 10 children in the process.
This is a reality that Palestinians are all too familiar with. For this reason, Penn Students for Justice in Palestine is focusing its efforts today to start a conversation on Palestinian house demolitions by the Israeli Defense Forces. The teddy bears you see around campus are used to reflect the countless children displaced and made homeless by these human rights abuses. House demolitions are a tactic of ethnic cleansing used against Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, which indiscriminately affect children and civilians in bouts of vindictive collective punishment and underhanded land-grabs. Scattered in the rubble of each demolition are the household items that once constituted a Palestinian home. Similarly, we have strewn reminders around campus that Palestine is still under military occupation and that its people are constantly reminded that they are less than — that their homes and livelihoods mean nothing. They are constantly reminded that within the course of a few hours their children and loved ones could be forced into homelessness. So we ask you: What is left of a demolished home?
RASHAD is a senior in the College majoring in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and getting a Certificate in Human Rights. He is the current Chair of Students for Justice and Palestine, an active member of the Civic Scholars Program and currently works at a refugee resettlement organization in Philadelphia. His last name has been omitted for security concerns.