Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 96-99)

11 NOVEMBER 2003


  Q96  Chairman: Jeff, could you firstly, in literally a couple of sentences, introduce yourself and, just for the record tell us a little bit about the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Who do you represent? Is it an NGO? Is it a charity? Who are your supporters? How is it funded? Just a bit so that other Parliamentary colleagues, when they are reading this evidence, have some idea of where you are coming from?

  Mr Halper: I am the co-ordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, because there is a very strong Israeli component in this whole issue of development amongst the Palestinians. We are a coalition of a large number of Israeli peace and human rights organisations that got together about six or seven years ago when there was a real concern that the Oslo Peace Process was collapsing and that Israeli civil society had to be much more involved in resisting the occupation and leading the way towards peace and developing relations with Palestinian civil society, something that had not been very strong up until that time. The issue that we focused on at that time, in talking with Palestinians, was the issue of house demolitions. Since 1967 Israel has demolished more than 11,000 Palestinian homes, so it is very hard to talk about development and about a normal civil society, about normal life, when people are actually denied homes. The human tragedy—the trauma—is really incalculable, but beyond that what we discovered over the years was that this was really the essence of the conflict, because when you deny someone a home and collectively you are denying them a homeland, that is really the essence of the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. We have to remember that most of the Palestinians whose houses are demolished are refugees. So the message of the demolition policy is "You cannot go home because your home, your village, within Israel is destroyed and gone" or, if it is in the city, "You have Israelis living in your home, but we are also going to deny you homes and housing, the right to live, in your place of refuge." So the message is clear; it is: "Get out. There is no place for you whatsoever." So for us, as Israelis, this is a very important issue, not only on a political level, not only in terms of solidarity with the Palestinians whose homes are demolished, but also it is a form of resistance on our part to the occupation. In other words, we rebuild houses that have been demolished, together with Palestinians. In that way, it is not that the Palestinians need our acknowledgement certainly, but that gives us an opportunity as Israelis to acknowledge that the Palestinians are the native population, that they have every right to live in the country, that we want them to live together, that we refuse to be enemies and that we are, together, resisting in every possible way this whole policy. The Committee Against House Demolitions gets its funding both from donations—we have worldwide campaigns—for rebuilding homes, we also get the funding from the European Union and we have funding from other projects, from other NGOs, such as Christian Aid, for example and other groups. So I think it is one of the important civil society institutions, and because we are a coalition we are able to work a lot with other Israeli groups on all kinds of issues like the Wall, like the closure, like the settlement issues—on all the expressions of the occupation on the ground. If I can just bring one sentence that a friend of mine, Salem Shawamreh, who is a Palestinian whose house has been demolished four times (we have just built it again for the fifth time), says: "What is good for the Palestinians is good for Israel". I think it is a crucial point to understand that we cannot deal with Palestinian society—certainly under occupation—in a vacuum and in isolation; that Israelis and Palestinians are, in some way, Siamese twins and they both have a stake in the development of each other's societies. I think we have to be careful, especially in development work, not to adopt an either/or attitude—that we are either for this side or for that side—that both sides have the same interest in terms of development, including regional development, not only development in a particular area.

  Q97  Mr Battle: Could I ask you about the process of demolition? Do you think there is a strategy there? I have visited, but I wondered whether it was to make way for roads and clear people out of the way; or whether it was for other settlements. Is there a definite process, in your view, and has there been significant change in the last two years?

  Mr Halper: The first thing to emphasise is that 95% or more of the demolitions have nothing to do with terrorism, nothing to do with security issues; the people have never been charged with any crime—in other words, the popular conception is there is a link into terrorism and it is a deterrent, it is a punishment or whatever. That is not the case. In fact, Israel is claiming, and this is government policy, somewhere around 60% of the occupied territories for itself. Israel denies that it has an occupation at all, so it has done everything in its power to normalise its presence, its rule over what the Israelis call Judea, Samaria and Gaza—even taking the Palestinian Arab names out of the equation. One interesting thing is that because Israel presents itself as a democracy and because it wants to normalise its rule it uses planning, zoning, administration and laws in a very simple way in order to further its political agenda. The British played a crucial role in this. One of the things that Israel did—in other words, they do not demolish a house because you are a Palestinian. No one says "You're a Palestinian, you cannot have a home", but the basis of demolitions is a British mandate plan from 1942 that, essentially, zoned the entire West Bank as agricultural land, even though—you have been there, you know—most of it is not fit for agriculture. It was an attempt on the part of the British at that time, I think, to preserve the landscape, to prevent urban sprawl, to ensure that the villages are built in clusters and that agricultural land and open land is kept free. It was not meant to be a policy against the local population, but the Palestinian population at that time was a quarter of what it is today. Israel came in and, at the end of the 1970s, beginning of the 1980s, the Israeli Supreme Court said "We are caught in our own petard; we are a democracy, we have laws, we cannot simply take lands from Palestinians and give them to settlers, you have got to find a way" (it told the army and the government ministries) "to equalise the law, to give us a basis for administering the occupied territories." This British plan was ideal, because it had the force of law, it was a formal law that had never been superseded by any other plan, and it basically froze Palestinian building in 1942. So that until today about 70% of the West Bank is zoned as agricultural land, and that means that even though Palestinians have title deeds to their own properties, lands privately owned, they are not allowed to get building permits; they are not given building permits because it is agricultural. Of course, the point of this whole policy is to force them into what we call today Areas A and B—this 40% of the West Bank and into parts of Gaza—and the same is true of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians are a third of the population of municipal Jerusalem but only have access to 6% of the urban land. So that is also shoving them into these tight kind of ghettos in Jerusalem, certainly, in order to keep the land free for Israeli settlements. So it is a very sophisticated use of law and zoning and planning that seals the occupation, because it allows Israel to then present itself—if I was the Israeli ambassador I would say to you "Well, in London, too, you need a building permit to build. You have your policies, we have our policies, they are not discriminatory". However, of course, the whole basis of the law and of planning is what we call "partisan" planning, and that is to advance the interests of one group against the interests of another group.

  Q98  Mr Battle: What sometimes surprises people who visit the Palestinian territories is the notion of refugees and refugee camps, which is a misnomer in this context, is it not? It is not tented cities—people actually own buildings there and in urban areas within towns and cities. Could I ask you this question: I have seen urban evictions before on a mass scale, and violent evictions—Korea in 1988 before the Olympic Games, for example—but where do Palestinians who are evicted go? Who provides housing for them? What is the plan for those, and who works with those that are evicted? If you are saying it is 11,000 homes, have they just been absorbed?

  Mr Halper: It is 11,000 homes but we have to remember there are thousands of demolition orders outstanding. Demolitions are happening all the time. Two weeks ago 20 houses were demolished in East Jerusalem. The people are left to fend for themselves. In other words, they are considered the offenders because they are the ones that built without a permit. So they are the ones that violated the law. Just to give one example of that, we are now trying to negotiate this fifth house we have built for the Shawamreh family to try to preserve the house and let the family live somewhere. Because there has been such a public outcry, including among MPs here, the Israeli authorities are considering a negotiation. What they want to do is demolish the home and then give the family a building permit; the idea is that "If we allow them to continue living in the home we are destroying respect for the law because we would be condoning building without a building permit." So that they are criminalised. This is, really, a point that is important in general. All of Palestinian society is criminalised: you cannot function in Palestinian society without lying, cheating, trying to get around all the rules. In other words, it is impossible to develop a civil society and good citizenship. In direct answer, what happens is the people are left to fend for themselves, they go and live with brothers-in-law, they go and live with parents, they live in tents—the Red Crescent Society provides tents for a while—and basically it creates tremendous overcrowding and very serious housing problems.

  Q99  Mr Battle: You mentioned the law and the context of the roots in the legal system. Has there been any case at all of any evicted Palestinian, arguing a case for, taking a case for and indeed even getting compensation for, being evicted?

  Mr Halper: Not in my experience. The system is pretty watertight. The demolition actually goes back not to 1967, it goes back to 1948, and of course it was a British policy even before 1948 as well, so it goes back a long time. Civil administration is the legal body that administers the occupied territories. It has a whole bank of lawyers and, essentially, they have created a corpus of law that has been approved. The measure is "Will it pass the Supreme Court?" In any kind of step the army and civil administration wants to take the first thing, before it is taken, is "Would this pass the Supreme Court?" It has all been pretty much worked out with the Supreme Court, and the Palestinians really have no grounds on which to appeal—they can appeal and Palestinians do appeal because it buys them time, but they never win in court.

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