More than 200 people crowded the University of Washington’s Kane Hall to listen to a discussion about the Middle East peace process led by an Israeli and a Palestinian on Feb. 15.
Jeff Halper, a Jewish-Israeli Professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University, and Salim Shawamreh, a Palestinian working for the Ministry of Industry, came to Seattle together to speak about demolitions of Palestinian homes. Halper is coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a non-violent, direct-action group. He has been part of the Israeli peace movement for more than 25 years.
“The peace process only captures half of what’s going on,” said Halper. “There’s another part of this equation that nobody sees and that is what’s going on on the ground.”
He said Israel, with 5 million Jews and 3 million Palestinians, wants to remain in control of the West Bank and Gaza. He said Israel feels it has won if it humiliates the Palestinians, but violence will continue. He said Israel’s control is much stronger since the peace process started in 1993.
Shawamreh, 43, was born in the Old City of Jerusalem, but he and his family became refugees following the Israeli capture of the city in 1967. They were moved to Shu’afat refugee camp to the north. In 1991, his family bought a plot of land at the edge of the village of Anata, a village that had been incorporated into Jerusalem. His land, however, was located just outside the municipal boundaries in the occupied West Bank.
Shawamreh applied for a building permit, which was refused by the Israeli government. The first time he applied, he had to pay $6,000 for an application and wait for one year to hear a response. He continued to apply after that, paying more money and each time being turned down for a different reason. Finally, in 1994, overcrowded conditions forced him to build on his land. He started building and planted more than 50 trees. A demolition order was issued soon after, and in July 1998 the Israeli army interrupted his family’s lunch with tear gas and gunfire.
“More than 200 soldiers came to destroy our home,” said Shawamreh.
Red Cross gave his family a tent to live in while ICAHD volunteers rebuilt the house. The house was demolished again the next month. This time, Shawamreh’s family had 15 minutes to gather their belongings while Israeli soldiers beat him. ICAHD helped rebuild the house a second time.
“My wife didn’t speak for two months because she was so traumatized,” said Shawamreh. “They left us with nothing.”
He said his human rights have been threatened by Israeli military occupation.
“It’s a family demolition also, not just a home demolition,” he said.
Since 1967, more than 7,000 Palestinian houses have been destroyed at random because the owners didn’t have legal permits to build, according to Halper.
“Building permits, enforced by house demolitions, arrests, fines and daily harassment, serve to confine Palestinians to small enclaves,” said Halper. “Planting crops is restricted, and Israel controls the licensing and inspection of Palestinian businesses.”
For the past five years, Palestinians and Jews have worked side by side to help Palestinians rebuild their lives after military action has torn away homes and destroyed crops. The ICAHD passively but illegally recruits hundreds of people to help Palestinian families rebuild their homes.
“I am not anti-Israel,” Halper said. “You do have to look at both sides. I am not saying that Arabs don’t have a responsibility, but Israel is a state against a non-state.”
He calls the Israeli powers a “matrix of control” over occupied territories that excludes Palestinians from economic opportunities and restricts freedom.
“Simply by planning and constructing highways, industrial parks and satellite settlements around Jerusalem, an Israeli-controlled metropolis is created whose power lies in its urban activity, employment possibilities and transportation routes,” said Halper.
He said the issue is one of control, not simply territory. The West Bank, said Halper, is an area the size of Delaware, but with triple the population. The Israeli government has begun constructing 480 kilometers of highways and bypass roads, turning Palestinian territory into tiny disconnected islands. Halper said some of the highways are 50 meters wide with 100–150 meters of fenced-in “sanitary” margins on each side, for a total width of three to four football fields. Halper compared the “matrix” to a honeycomb where the Palestinians are surrounded, encircled and isolated.
“Israel can easily offer 94 percent of the West Bank and maintain its control. Dismantling the matrix, then, is at least as important for the Palestinians as the amount of territory acquired in final status talks,” said Halper. “The goal is to confine the 3,000,000 residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza to small, crowded, impoverished and disconnected enclaves, thus effectively foreclosing any viable Palestinian entity and ensuring Israeli control even if the Palestinians achieve some form of internal autonomy.”
The discussion continued with a question and answer session.
“What role do Israeli citizens play in this?” asked an audience member. “Do they know what’s happening?”
Halper answered, “You can’t put everyone into one category.”
Halper said Israelis don’t really know what’s going on and have enclosed themselves in a bubble with their back to the Middle East.
“In general, they don’t know or want to know,” said Halper.
He said that 90 percent of Israelis believe the houses being demolished are of terrorists. Halper said his talk at the Mercer Island Jewish Community Center on Feb. 17 would be gentler. “I know I’ve been very hard on Israel tonight,” he said. “I think most Israelis would say, ‘To the hell with the Palestinians, let them have their state.’”
Halper said it’s difficult for him to speak to Jewish communities because they don’t want to hear criticism of Israel. He said he gives the talks because Israel has to be held accountable. “It’s not a position that’s easy to get across to the media or to the public,” said Halper. “But we’re working on it.”
What’s good for Palestinians is good for Israel, said both Shawamreh and Halper.