Nureddin Amro is the founder and principal of Siraj al-Quds School for Integrated Education, a Jerusalem school for visually impaired, poor, orphaned and emotionally troubled children. Orly Halpern contributed reporting and fact-checking for The Washington Post.
EAST JERUSALEM — The world is watching Susiya to see if Israel will demolish the community of 340 Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills. The Supreme Court here has refused to delay the forced removal of structures where 55 families have lived since they were displaced by state-sponsored archaeological digs that helped expand a nearby settlement. Living under the threat of demolition is a horrible experience. The Palestinians of Susiya probably feel disoriented, unstable and scared that their way of life could be dismantled at any minute. I know, because I’m in a similar situation. In my neighborhood, the destruction has already started.
Just before dawn on March 31, dozens of Israeli soldiers and police officers blocked off the streets and surrounded the one-story house where my older brother Sharif, his family of six, our 79-year-old mother, my wife, my three children and I live. We had gone to bed looking forward to a picnic the next morning, but we were awoken by the frightening sounds of jeeps and heavy machinery. Israeli security forces banged on the doors, shouting in Hebrew that we had to get out at once. They had come to demolish our home.
I was born in Jerusalem. My parents were born in Jerusalem. Their parents were born in Jerusalem. Their parents were born in Jerusalem. Our modest house is approximately 70 years old — older than the state of Israel. I have lived here in al-Sawana, a neighborhood between the Old City and the Mount of Olives, not far from the Gethsemane Valley (where the Romans caught Jesus), for more than 40 years. It is near a commercial area, hospitals, Muslim and Jewish cemeteries and precious religious sites for the three big monotheistic faiths. In other words, I live on strategic land.
In December, city planners, civil engineers and workers from Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority began walking up and down the neighborhood. They ordered people on my block to clean up things like broken furniture and wood outside our houses (we complied), measured the area with surveying tools and spray-painted footpath markings for hikers. Eventually they told us that we lived on “public land” inside something called the Jerusalem Walls National Park (established in 1974), where they warned us they have plans for further work. Government documents suggest that they will connect the Tzurim Valley National Park and the Beit Orot settlement, below the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus, where I studied, to the City of David archaeological site and Jewish settlement in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan — ultimately putting a Jewish belt around the eastern, Muslim side of the Old City. The parks authority has already boasted of beautifying this area, through which many Jewish pilgrims and hikers cross on Jewish holidays.
Israel employs numerous policies to push Palestinians out of East Jerusalem, including house demolitions, often ostensibly because homeowners lack the proper building permits. Human rights organizations argue that these “administrative demolitions” are illegitimate because Israel usually refuses to issue home-construction permits to Palestinians and because the permit regime is one-way, driving Palestinians out of areas Israel wants to control. (Tear-downs can also be collective punishments for violent acts carried out by individual Palestinian family members.)
All this helps explain what happened early that March morning. At first, the officials who showed up said they had come just to raze the eastern wall near the street, although they did not have a demolition order. I went through the house to my brother Sharif’s side to tell him, but when I got there, the officials said we were standing in a room they planned to demolish. They roughly pulled us outside, injuring Sharif’s leg. Meanwhile, they began tearing down the two outer rooms on my side of the house without my knowledge. My wife shouted, “They’ve already begun demolishing our house!”
Police and soldiers — many of whom were masked — pushed us back inside and kept us there so they could work unimpeded, and when I went outside again, they were knocking over a big tree. When it fell, it collapsed part of the garden wall, a piece of which injured the leg of my 12-year-old son, Mohammed. My family documented the damage with our camera phones, even as they cut our electricity and destroyed the sewage pipes.
By the time the soldiers left, less than four hours later, they had destroyed the kitchen and three other rooms, the wall that separates the house from the street, the chicken coop and the garden that we loved. Trees felled by the bulldozer were pushed to the side of the property. The place where my children — the others are 9 and 5 — used to play under the shade of those old trees was now covered by piles of rubble.
It wasn’t easy living in a house surrounded by rubble, especially since my brother and I are both blind. Still, I found myself unable to throw away the crushed concrete, which was mixed with fragments of my entire life. Each uprooted plant and broken piece of furniture was a part of our story. While it was hard to walk over and around the rubble as we tried to live, it was just as hard to imagine tossing it into a dumpster.
For weeks, the detritus was a source of confusion. Some Palestinians in our situation are told to remove it or face high fines. Others who clean it immediately fear that they have erased the ugly testimony to Israel’s act. I didn’t want to take any action that would undermine my legal position, and I didn’t want to do anything to invite further demolitions. At the same time, I wanted to restore some amount of normalcy to our daily lives and provide a safe play space for my kids by putting up a fence between us and the road that passes by our home.
Life for Palestinians in Jerusalem is complicated. Laws favor the Israeli authorities and Jewish citizens, especially settlers, and are interpreted unevenly and unpredictably. As the principal of a school for visually impaired and sighted children, I have supported hundreds of families as they have tried to stay on their ancestral land. Now my family is among them. We live in daily fear that the soldiers will come back and that nobody will protect us.
Several weeks later, after I paid to fix the electricity and the sewage pipes, they did come back. I was at work running the school’s end-of-the-year party. My brother called to tell me that soldiers and municipal officials had showed up at our house and said they wanted to clean up the rubble. We had already been advised by other Palestinians in Jerusalem who had gone through the same experience that if the city hauled the wreckage, it would charge us exorbitant fees for the job and might later claim rights to the land. So I told my brother to prevent them from doing any work. After several hours of arguing, they gave us two hours to remove the mess. We explained that this was clearly impossible, and they agreed to give us two days.
The next day, I found a bulldozer company willing to work on promise of future payment, and we started the job. On May 30, a Saturday morning — the Jewish Sabbath, during which Israeli public offices are closed — officials returned with the police. They threatened to fine or arrest us for cleaning up the rubble without a permit.
We didn’t know if we should laugh or cry. They had themselves demanded that we clean up the debris and had given us a permit the previous day! Then they threatened to fine us if we disposed of the rubble illegally, and they reminded us that the legal disposal sites were closed until Sunday. Workers from the bulldozer company, who were busy cleaning up the rubble, promised to keep it in their trucks until the dump reopened.
Many people know that more than 600 Palestinian villages were depopulated in the years during and after Israel’s founding and that most of them were demolished. Some people also know that tens of thousands of structures have been torn down by Israel since the 1967 war, some 500 homes in East Jerusalem alone since 2004. Fewer know that there are more than 11,000 open demolition orders against Palestinian structures just in Area C of the West Bank. This means that Israel can raze them at any moment, without further warning; Palestinians in those homes live in constant fear.
There are so many demolition orders, in fact, that Israel has sought more efficient ways to get all the work done. So it often recommends that Palestinians knock down their own homes at their own expense, freeing Israel of the hassle and risk. Some do. It seems this isn’t enough for Israel, though, because authorities continue to experiment with new and creative ways of dispossessing Palestinians. My own home seems to have been demolished using a municipal ordinance related to cleanliness of public areas in order to avoid judicial scrutiny, according to a Palestinian legal clinic that is challenging the operation. Indeed, in the three months before the demolition, I received two orders to clear away broken and old objects outside my house; I did as they asked. Demolition is not listed as a punishment for violating these orders, but human rights lawyers told me they have identified other recent cases in which Israeli municipal authorities cited the ordinance as a pretext for flattening homes.
Living under the threat of demolition is nerve-racking, as the residents of Susiya know, and it seems impossible to win against the legal and physical force Israel commands. My family is unsure about what to do next. Still, we do not intend to give up. If they completely demolish our homes, we will rebuild.