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“Hate Does Not Come Easy” – Home Demolition in East Jerusalem

by an ISM volunteer, October 22nd

“I tell my children it’s my fault that our house was demolished. I say that because daddy didn’t have a building permit, I broke the law and so they had to tear it down. I would rather they believe this than that they be angry about the truth. I want them to grow up without being full of hate so that they can concentrate on school and on building a future for themselves.”

The 15-year old house of Hani Totah, proud father of six children and one Arabian thoroughbred mare, was demolished upon orders by Israeli police in November 2005. A year later, he now sits in his brother’s living-room explaining why he feels compelled to lie to his own children. “I want a good life for my children. But how can we have peace when the Israelis want their own house, but won’t let me have one? And the Israelis want their children to grow up to be doctors and engineers, but want my children to be homeless criminals?”

Totah’s house is but one of about one hundred family homes in the East Jerusalem district of Wadi Ij-Juus that have been targeted for demolition. The reason offered for this is that the houses are built too close to the Jerusalem Wall, although Totah and his neighbours are certain that the Israeli authorities simply do not want Palestinian communities to erect buildings within the confines of the city. Yet with rents prohibitively inflated, there is little other choice than to build one’s own house, especially for families with children.

Having earlier been forced out of the rather exclusive inner-city neighbourhood of Qatamon, Totah’s family are now once again being chased off their land. A former rubbish-dumping site, Wadi Ij-Juus is now seen as increasingly attractive for expansion of the Old City’s tourist facilities and contractors have long been eager to exploit the area. Israeli police and judiciary have also long tried to pressure Totah into relinquishing his land – a decision that he says would not be up to him alone but to the entire family as they are all old Jerusalemites and intimately connected to this “the most beautiful” of Palestinian cities.

Tired of waiting, the authorities then decided to take the issue into their own hands. As Totah summarised it; “If we sell, they buy. If we don’t sell, they take the land anyway.” Without prior notice, they arrived in the middle of the day in order to tear the house down. Upon receiving a phone call from his frantic wife who at the time was home alone, Totah had to force his way through the police barricades blocking all the entrances to the valley and the doorway to his own home.

Confused and angry, he attempted to dissuade the police and demolition workers present from going through with the demolition, explaining that they had received no warning. It was explained to him later on that what the authorities usually do is go to homes at times when they assume no one will be home, stick a notice on the door, take a picture, remove the notice and then leave. Totah hurried to the Israeli court in order to have the demolition order overturned. With the help of a lawyer, his emergency petition was successful and a court official informed the Israeli police at the scene of their decision to halt the demolition.

As soon as the police heard this, the bulldozer was put to work, eating away at the red-tiled roof. By the time Totah’s eldest son arrived home from school all that remained of the former family home was a large pile of cracked walls and tangled wires. His father, up until then having channelled his sorrow and anger into action, could no longer contain himself as he saw the tears roll down his son’s cheeks. Occasionally stopping to salvage some belonging identified among the rubble, Totah stumbled about blinded by tears and disbelief.

As if this was not enough, Totah and his family are now forced to pay 420 NIS every month until year 2012 to cover the municipality’s expenses for the demolition and the massive police presence. The thick stack of bills and receipts is a constant reminder of the violent injustice of the Israeli legal system vis-a-vis Palestinian citizens.

Israeli media were quick to cover the story, an American embassy official was there to witness the destruction and all the Palestinian political factions expressed their vehement condemnation of the act. Although comforted by these expressions of support, the family were in dire need of practical help. After having spent two weeks crowded into a small canvas tent donated by the Red Cross, one of Totah’s brothers insisted that they move in with him. The Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, ICAHD, has since taken upon itself to locate funding for rebuilding the house and in helping with the construction.

The rebuilding has, however, not been easy. The municipality has repeatedly warned the Palestinian construction workers that if they proceed with the work, they might be arrested and two workers have indeed been detained and later dropped off outside of a Jerusalem checkpoint. International volunteers from Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) and International Solidarity Movement (ISM) today joined in the work in order to act as some sort of deterrence against police interference. As wooden rafters were being hammered into place overhead, internationals cleared the broken tiles and other rubble from off what will eventually become the floor of the house.

Totah’s young boys eagerly joined in, shovelling stones and shards of glass into buckets with their bare hands. Every once in a while, they would stop to listen to their father explaining how beautiful their home used to be, snuggled in between friendly neighbours and with lovingly tended flowerbeds at the back – now a pile of rubble, a home, a crime-scene. As they sifted through a pile of sand, one of the boys found a collection of shiny stickers which he carefully dusted off and put in his pocket. He glanced up at one of the international volunteers, flashing a shy little smile, as if embarrassed over his sudden nostalgia.

In the afternoon, a cement truck arrived and the construction workers proceeded to guide a giant hose spitting out wet cement at high speed around the roof. Half-way, the cement supply ran out and the second truck had not yet arrived. A few tense phone calls later, it was explained that the missing truck was stuck at a checkpoint somewhere in Jerusalem. Totah sat himself down on a rock to wait. “I look calm but my heart is beating hard in my chest. They have to hurry, the police could be here at any minute and that would be it.” Fortunately, the truck arrived only moments later and the work could continue. Now, the cement must be let to dry for at least five days and so work is suspended until after Eid.

It is estimated that the house, which when finished will be about half the size of the original home, will take a couple of more weeks to complete. Until then, Totah and his family are still living with one of his brothers. For two of his other brothers, the home demolition proved the last straw. Afraid for their families’ safety, they now live in the USA and have no plans on returning to Palestine in the near future. “You must understand”, Totah says. “We are from Jerusalem, not Nablus or Ramallah or Bethlehem. We have more then 300 years of history in this very area. If we cannot live here, we would rather move to somewhere completely different.”

Grateful for the fact that no one was injured during the demolition operation and that his family is still united and strong, Totah seems determined to face the future with the careful optimism of someone who has decided once and for all to overcome every obstacle. “Hate does not come easy”, he remarks as we are watching the video footage of his house mercilessly being torn down, “but these kinds of things make people so angry they lose their minds. I do not want this to happen to my children. And it does not have to happen to them. The only way to win is through love. When you love people and people love you, there is no one who can beat you. When you rule by force of power, you are always under threat.”