Lena Doesn't Live Here Any More

By Gila Svirsky | 1998-09-01 12:00:00

Yesterday was a day I won't ever forget. Nor will Salim and Arabiyeh Shawamreh or their six children.

We had planned a joint Israeli-Palestinian protest against home demolitions. The idea was to set up a tent on the site of a demolition, a tent that would serve several purposes: protest, solidarity, documentation, and compassionate listening to the family members. We planned to move this tent from site to site, wherever the Israeli army used its bulldozers. Yesterday's inauguration of the tent was planned for opposite the so-called "civil administration" headquarters -- the nerve center of Israel's control of the occupied territories -- those who actually do the dirty work of demolishing people's homes and other acts of oppression.

Our bus from Jerusalem held activists from several peace movements -- Bat Shalom, Rabbis for Human Rights, Gush Shalom, and Peace Now. We are all partners in a coalition, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, and our demonstration was to be held jointly with the Palestinian Land Defense General Committee.

Through the bus microphone, I listened to Meir Margalit explain the action and sketch one chilling scenario. "If the soldiers try to prevent us from holding the demonstration, proceed in an orderly manner to the planned alternative site. There must not be violence on our side, but if the army engages in violence, do not separate from the Palestinians. The army will be more brutal to the Palestinians if the soldiers manage to separate us."

It was a sobering thought as we drove across the Green Line and toward the protest tent. Suddenly a call came across a mobile phone and Meir took the mike again. "We have just had word that a demolition is taking place at this very moment not far from here." It's a rare occurrence to catch a demolition in progress, no less with a group of peace activists; most demolitions take place with virtually no warning, and hence no time to protest. We turned toward Anata, a town on the edge of Jerusalem composed of Palestinian refugees who had lived in the Old City of Jerusalem and fled in 1967. They thought they had found refuge in Anata.

After driving its narrow unpaved streets, we located the area and the bus parked as close as possible. We still had to walk 10 minutes down narrow, zig-zagging dirt roads between crowded homes until we came to the outskirts of Anata. There we practically ran toward the edge of the hill and looked below -- a beautiful home set into the pastoral valley with one of its walls now crumpled into rubble by a roaring bulldozer; a family and neighbors sobbing nearby; and a unit of Israeli soldiers preventing anyone else from approaching the scene.

The scene was horrific. We surged down the hill in our small group until the soldiers blocked our progress with their guns and bodies. There were scuffles trying to get past them, but more soldiers joined the barricade. Knesset Member Naomi Chazan, who was with us, demanded to see the order proclaiming this a "closed military zone," as the soldiers claimed, and after several long minutes the officer complied. Who knows if the order was genuine or invented at the last minute. But the guns were real.

So there we stood on the side of the hill and watched with an unbearable sense of helplessness as the "civil" administration's bulldozer took the house apart wall by wall. He drove through the front garden with a profusion of flowers and a lemon tree and slammed the front door as if he were God Almighty. Backing away, he slammed again until the entire front was shattered and dangling from metal rods. Then he came from every side, slamming and crashing his shovel against the walls. Finally he lifted off the roof, barely suspended, and sent it crashing below. When that was done, he went around the back of the house and crashed through all the fruit trees, including a small olive stand. He saw a water tank on a platform and knocked that over, the tank tumbling down and a cascade of water drenching the trees now uprooted and broken. He saw two more tanks nearby and knocked those over as well. I have never seen anyone in the Middle East deliberately waste so much water. Then he noticed a shack in the corner of the yard and he churned over to that, his cleated treads grinding and squealing over the rubble he had to climb over. The shack was an easy swipe for his shovel, and we were surprised to see two pigeons fly out, one white and one black, frightened out of their wits. They flapped their wings briefly and landed not far from their former home.


All the while, a crowd of Palestinian neighbors and young men were gathering behind us on the mountain crest, cat-calling and jeering. From our Israeli group, many engaged the soldiers in challenges: "How can you sleep at night?" "Is this what is meant by defending Israel?" "Don't you understand the immorality of this action?" and the like. Every single soldier, from the high commander to the lowest GI responded the same way: "This is legal; we're only following orders." One woman tried to yell at the bulldozer driver every time there was a lull in the din. But nothing we could think to say stopped the roar of devastation.

by then I had managed to move down past the soldiers and was with the family outside their former home. One woman was sobbing and I put my arms around her. When I began to cry too, she put her arms around me. A weeping girl joined us and we both encircled her with our arms. This was 14-year-old Lena and this house had once been hers. Then suddenly, gunshots rang out. Some of the young Palestinian men had begun throwing stones -- from a very great distance, I note -- and Israeli soldiers retaliated by opening fire and running up the hill after them. The soldiers were shooting as they ran, setting off their guns like the wild west. I saw the commander and told him that this was illegal, a clear violation of the "open fire regulations" of the Israeli army, which stipulate that a soldier's life be in danger before he opens fire. I demanded repeatedly that he tell the soldiers to stop. The commander shrugged and didn't bother answering. After 10 minutes the shooting stopped. Amazingly, no "stray" bullets had hit any of our group, although the Palestinians, as usual, were not as lucky. A man approached the crowd of neighbors, said a few words, and instantly two women let out piercing shrieks and tore up the hill, running at top speed. The son of one had been hit by a bullet. I don't know his condition. Already in hospital was Arabiyeh, the mother of the family, who had been struck by soldiers when she tried to keep them from destroying her home.by then there was nothing to do but sift through the rubble. I picked through the rocks and talked to Jeff Halper, who is organizing the program to "adopt" Palestinian families whose homes are slated for demolition. Jeff had sat in the living room of this home last week, now a pile of jagged concrete slabs, hearing Salim and Arabiyeh talk about the problem of Palestinians not being issued construction permits. "Just last night," Salim had told Jeff during the demolition, "friends and family had sat in this home watching the World Cup soccer game." Now there are six children without toys, books, diapers, bottles, or a place to lay their heads. Instead, they have the trauma of the bulldozer turning their home into a bottomless pit of hatred for this occupation and the people who carry it out.


A lot of us picked up olive branches from the yard as we walked back to the buses. Most of the branches, like mine, were crushed by the treads of power run amok. For the first time, I also noticed the scenery around us. On a nearby mountain were the classrooms and amphitheater of the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University. Had they looked out their classroom window, the students studying ethics and justice could have watched the trampling of this family's lives. And surrounding everything, on mountains and hilltops to our left, right, and center, were the bright orange rooftops of the settler homes in the Occupied Territories. The settlers have no problem in getting construction permits. And no one would dare uproot their olive trees, waste their water, harm their homes, or turn their children out into the streets.

This story must not end here. Our group, the same people and more I hope, will be going back Friday to begin rebuilding this home. This is a new tradition of nonviolent resistance that began a few weeks ago, and is gaining momentum. The Palestinians rebuild, the Israeli army demolishes, and they rebuild again. As one of the neighbors said, "We'll see who lasts longer."

Please use your power to get this to stop. The messages you send are effective -- foreign political leaders have begun to raise the issue of home demolitions with Israeli leaders. Tell your foreign minister that the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes must stop.
Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy Fax: (613) 996 3443 Email: axworl@parl.gc.ca

Bat Shalom is a feminist peace organization.
Peace Magazine Sept-Oct 1998

Peace Magazine Sept-Oct 1998, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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