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Demolitions Can Doom Israel's Democracy

Displacement and survival are two branches of a same tree. Following the Second World War, many Jewish survivors of forced labor camps, concentration camps and death marches sought to rebuild their lives far from the countries of their birth. Those who found shelter in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps, called She’erit ha-Pletah in Hebrew (meaning 'surviving remnants'), eventually began anew in North and South America, in Western Europe, in what is now Israel. Today in the latter country Palestinians are the victims of forced displacement at an alarming rate.

An international coalition of twenty leading aid agencies and human rights groups -- among them Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam International -- has issued a statement condemning the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes and has called upon the Middle East Peace Quartet (the U.S., U.K., European Union and Russia) to demand that the Israeli government reverse its settlement policies and freeze all demolitions carried out in violation of international law.

The situation has been deteriorating rapidly, the aid groups indicate. Since the beginning of 2011, more than 500 Palestinian homes, wells, rainwater harvesting cisterns and other basic structures have been destroyed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. According to statistics published by the United Nations, more than one thousand Palestinians have been 'displaced' doubling the numbers for the same period in 2010.

The psychological and physical effects of house demolitions and displacement are dire. Families must face the economic consequences of the loss of property, shelter, and employment. More than half of the displaced are children are subjected to poverty and are unable to resume normal schooling.

At the same time, there has been an accelerated expansion of settlements on Palestinian land. Over the past 12 months, plans for approximately 4,000 new settlement housing units in East Jerusalem have been approved, the highest number since 2006.

The approval for new settlement construction was announced just as mediators from the Middle East Peace Quartet began efforts to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Last Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that he was “deeply concerned” about the Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and called on the Israeli government to “freeze all settlement activity.”

At the same time, there has been a significant increase in settler violence against Palestinians. The number of aggressions in 2011 has doubled since 2010 and increased by over 160 percent compared to 2009. Settlers have destroyed some 10,000 Palestinian olive and other trees during this year, trees that were providing a livelihood for hundreds of Palestinian families. Between 2005 and 2010, ninety percent of the complaints against settler violence have been closed by the police without indictment.

In addition, if reported plans for 2012 proceed, up to 2,300 Bedouins living on Jerusalem's periphery will be forcibly and unlawfully relocated, their houses and livelihoods destroyed. One is reminded of the words in a James Fenton poem about WW II,

            It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.

            It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.

            It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.

Attacks by settlers and right-wing activists against the Israeli army are also on the rise. Aggressions against the Ephraim Brigade’s base, during which vehicles were vandalized and stones thrown at the brigade commander and his deputy, who received a head wound, are among the most recent.

Unless the Israeli government adopts a more active policy to stop the unlawful demolition of Palestinian homes and contain settler violence, it risks becoming hostage to the settlers’ delirious violence. As Gideon Levy writing in Haaretz has so aptly stated, “It is not only the government, as important as that is, that hangs in the balance, but also the very character of the state.”

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César Chelala

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a
winner of several journalism awards.

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