17 July 2007

17 July 2007 - Protesting home demolitions

Yesterday I joined my colleagues at a demonstration against the demolition of Bedouin homes by the Israeli government. There are dozens of “unrecognized” Bedouin villages in the Negev, which conflict with the government’s plans for the region’s development. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the government recognizes tiny Jewish towns but not Bedouin towns of similar size.

We showed up at the Wohl Rose Garden, opposite the Knesset, wearing the crimson shirts of ACRI. There were several other demonstrations nearby, including rallies by former Gaza settlers demanding better compensation from the government. We couldn’t find our demonstration at first, and asked some border guards who were lounging under a tree to help us. They knew exactly where it was and pointed us in the right direction. En route, some police stopped us and asked where we were going. “To the demonstration about home demolitions,” someone said.

“For or against?” he joked.

“For, if there is a proper solution. Otherwise, against,” she replied.

We walked downhill to a fenced-off area facing the Knesset. There were about two hundred or so demonstrators, mostly Bedouins from the Negev. Most of the women wore the hijab; a few were fully veiled, and some of the men wore traditional Arab headdress. There were a couple of Arab members of the Knesset standing in front, and little kids running everywhere. I saw a fellow I recognized from Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) hovering at the edge with some American students.

Six years ago, he visited South Africa ahead of the Durban racism conference. I took him around the townships of Cape Town, including Muslim areas such as Gatesville. He had appeared at two panel discussions as a counterweight to anti-Zionist fanatic Uri Davis. The first discussion was at a Reform synagogue in the center of Cape Town; the second was at the radical Gatesville mosque.

The Uri Davis meeting in Green Point was really the beginning of it all. It’s where uninformed Jewish lefties like Jonathan Shapiro got their inspiration (as Shapiro himself happily testifies). It’s also where dovish Zionists began to put up a fight. I first met Theo Schoklne there, after he told a reddened Davis that he “lacked equal empathy”—the best and most effective critique of the afternoon, I thought.

My acquaintance from RHR later told me that at the Gatesville meeting, where the crowd chanted “one Zionist, one bullet” and burned an Israeli flag outside, he had shocked the the audience by asking them to pray for his children in Jerusalem. I thought of saying hello today but I didn’t want to re-connect in the context of the demonstration. I decided just to hang back and observe a bit.

The demonstrators wore white t-shirts in Hebrew, Arabic and English bearing slogans such as “No More Home Demolitions”; “I am from Arsala” (one of the unrecognized villages; “Don’t Destroy My House.” Groups held large banners in Hebrew: “We Are Also Citizens of the Negev”; “There Is Someone to Talk To—the Council of Unrecognized Negev Villages”; “Destroying Homes Builds Hatred.”

One guy held a sign that had a large photograph of a barren piece of ground—presumably, where a village had once stood—and the Hebrew words: “Darfur… is here.” Another large sign simply read: “Don’t let them destroy our houses—please.” There were also signs in Arabic, many of them simply carrying the names of some of the unrecognized villages that were represented at the demonstration.

A man with a bullhorn began leading chants in Hebrew: “No, no to demolition! Yes, yes, to recognition!” “No, no to destruction! Yes, yes to construction!” There were also chants and songs in Arabic. An old woman whipped the crowd into clapping hands in time to the chants. She also moved some kids to the front, to make sure they were there for the TV cameras and the newspaper photographers.

The demonstration was loud but fairly laid back. The police officers standing at the front joked with each other and smoked cigarettes. Behind the crowd, some bored Bedouin kids started a soccer game. The ball sailed out of bounds and a police officer kicked it back into play. An Arab gardener addressed some men lounging under a tree and complained that people were trampling the new rose bushes.

The American students stood around with signs bearing rather abstract slogans in English: “Democracy not demolition”; “Citizens don’t deserve this.” They looked a bit awkward. Israeli journalists moved through the crowd, filming demonstrators and conducting interviews. Al-Jazeera was there, but they just did a set-up shot and an interview outside the crowd. I get the sense that that’s their journalistic style.

I had seen a fair number of anti-demolition rallies in South Africa, as well—generally outside the Western Cape provincial legislature. South Africa’s Constitution guarantees the right to housing, which was the subject of the famous Grootboom case (full judgment here). The court ruled that the state did not have to immediately provide homes to people it had evicted, but had to provide emergency shelter and had to work towards the “progressive realization” of housing rights.

Israel doesn’t have a constitution, and the right to housing is not recognized by the courts as one of the nation’s core “constitutional principles.” One of my colleagues explained to a group of visiting American rabbis who stumbled across the demonstration that what is needed is equality in planning between Jews and Arabs. Equality is indeed recognized as a constitutional principle—but within some limits.

Ruth Gavison, who helped found ACRI, takes an interesting and nuanced approach to the issue:

“In the context of the ongoing conflict, Israel is justified in establishing Jewish towns with the express purpose of preventing the contiguity of Arab settlement both within Israel and with the Arab states across the border: Such contiguous settlement invites irredentism and secessionist claims, and neutralizing the threat of secession is a legitimate goal. By contrast, the blatant discrimination against Arabs in the quality of housing and infrastructure cannot be justified. The Israeli Supreme Court’s declaration in Kedan v. Israel Lands Administration (2000), according to which the state must not discriminate against Arabs in these matters, is therefore welcomed. However, I do not accept the ruling’s further implication that there is no basis for permitting the creation of separate communities for Jews and Arabs. In a multi-cultural society such as Israel, most individuals prefer to live within their respective communities, and they should be allowed to do so, provided that this does not severely undermine the common civic identity.” (“The Jews’ Right to Statehood: A Defense,” Azure 15 (5763/2003))

She adds, in a footnote:

“The issue of housing should be handled in cooperation with representatives of both the affected villages and those communities seeking a solution to their housing problems. It is important that there be no illegal building: This sort of construction could be dangerous and might disrupt vital development plans. However, in the absence of formal planning that allows for legal construction according to need, efforts to stop illegal construction would be arbitrary at best, and almost certainly doomed to failure. The decision to demolish illegal structures (or to “legalize” some of them) will be easier if it is accompanied by the development of an integrated building program in Arab villages. Moreover, plans of this nature will encourage the Arab population to adopt a variety of housing styles, as opposed to the single-story type of construction to which they are accustomed and that is wholly unsuitable for the population’s size and financial resources. (supra, n. 30)

Some Israelis have far blunter opinions. On the way back to the office, our cab driver quizzed us: “But surely the government demolishes illegal Jewish houses as well? Arabs are always building big houses, anyway—for sons, daughters, grandchildren, whatever. Besides, the Bedouins are all criminals. All the cars that are stolen in Jerusalem end up in the Negev.” “Not all,” one of us replied, “and I’ve seen quite a few kippot in the criminal courts.” “Maybe not all, but most,” he said.


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