In the first hours of dawn, Nader Elayan was woken by a call from a neighbour warning him to hurry to the house he had almost finished building. By the time he arrived, it was too late: a bulldozer was tearing down the walls. More than 100 Israeli security guards held back local residents.
The demolition, carried out four years ago, has left Mr Elayan, his wife, Fidaa, who is now pregnant, and their two young children with nowhere to live but a single room in his brother’s cramped home. It is the only land he owns and he had invested all his savings in building the now destroyed house.
Over the past few years, the Elayans’ fate has been shared by two dozen other families in the Palestinian village of Anata, on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. Hundreds more families have demolition orders hanging over their homes. “Not one person in my neighbourhood has a [building] permit,” Mr Elayan, 37, said.
The problem of house demolitions affects Palestinians throughout the occupied territories. But according to Hatem Abdelkader, an adviser to Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, the situation is particularly acute in the East Jerusalem area.
He noted that Israel’s policy of refusing building permits to many of the 250,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem has resulted in the classification of 20,000 city homes as illegal since the occupation began in 1967. Last year alone, the Jerusalem municipality issued more than 1,000 demolition orders for “illegal dwellings”. It is believed that three out of every four Palestinian homes in the city are now built without a permit.
“Illegal building is simply a pretext for destroying Palestinian families’ homes and lives,” said Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).
“The demolitions are part of a policy to stop the natural expansion of Palestinian communities in and around Jerusalem, freeing up the maximum amount of land for use by Israeli settlers,” Mr Halper said. “The demolitions increase the pressure on Palestinians to move into the West Bank, so that they will lose their residency rights in the city.”
In an act of defiance, Mr Halper’s organisation and 40 international volunteers helped the Elayans to rebuild their home this week in an attempt to highlight what the committee calls the “quiet ethnic cleansing” of East Jerusalem. The work was carried out during a two-week summer camp funded by the Spanish government. Madrid also paid for 18 Spanish volunteers to participate.
“This is the first time a government has supported the rebuilding of an ‘illegal’ Palestinian home demolished by the Israeli authorities,” Mr Halper said.
The issue of house demolitions is back in the spotlight now after two separate incidents in July in which Palestinians, both of whom were residents of Jerusalem, rampaged through the city in bulldozers, killing three Israelis and injuring many more. Although the two Palestinians were shot dead at the scene, Israeli officials, including Ehud Barak, the defence minister, are calling for their homes to be destroyed, making their families homeless, to deter others from following in their path.
Such punitive destruction of homes was stopped in 2005, under the threat of legal challenge, but not before some 270 homes were razed on security grounds in the first years of the intifada.
According to Mr Halper, however, the use of demolitions against Palestinians accused of illegal building is a far more significant problem. “We estimate that there have been at least 18,000 homes destroyed during the four decades of occupation.”
In fact, Mr Halper said, he believes the true number of demolitions is likely to be double the official figure. Many razings are unrecorded, carried out by Palestinians themselves fearing a heavy fine if the Israeli army enforces the demolition order.
“Most demolitions are of multi-storey buildings that are home to several families, meaning that well in excess of 100,000 Palestinians may have been made homeless by Israeli administrative policies,” he said.
Since its founding a decade ago, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions has rebuilt 150 Palestinian homes as part of its campaign to bring the issue of demolitions to the attention of Israeli Jews and the international community. It has been an uphill struggle, Mr Halper said. The European Union, which recently upgraded its relations with Israel, announced this month that it was withdrawing ICAHD’s funding.
But this year’s work camp may make the continuing demolition of homes in Anata a little harder, Mr Halper said. “It’s one thing to destroy a home supposedly built illegally by a Palestinian, but another to destroy one built with money provided by the Spanish government.”
Mr Halper also believes that, by exposing such groups as the summer camp volunteers to the Palestinians’ plight, public perceptions may begin to change.
Alonso Santos, a 21-year-old architecture student from Madrid, said he learnt much from seeing at close hand Palestinian life under occupation.
“It was an eye-opener to realise that the principles of urban planning we are taught at the university are being used by the Israelis, but for exactly the opposite purpose from the one usually intended. The planning rules here are designed not to improve the Palestinians’ lives but to make them more miserable.”
The volunteers were hosted at a peace centre in Anata erected on the site of Salim Shawamreh’s home, which was demolished four times by Israeli authorities. Known as Arabiya House, after Mr Shawamreh’s wife, the building is decorated on one side with a mural depicting the death of Rachel Corrie, a US peace activist, by an Israeli bulldozer that had been demolishing homes in Gaza.
“Imagine your children leaving in the morning for school and returning later in the day to find their home, their whole world, has disappeared while they were gone,” Mr Shawamreh said. “It’s happened to my children four times. It’s cruelty beyond words.”
Mr Shawamreh, whose family were refugees from the northern Negev in 1948, said he and ICAHD established the peace centre to highlight the plight of the Palestinians in Anata. Today the house is overlooked by an Israeli police station across the valley, part of the advance growth of a large Jewish settlement, Maale Adumum, that Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups believe is cutting the West Bank in two.
The peace centre is also close both to the snaking route of Israel’s separation wall and to a new bypass road –” part of what critics call an apartheid road system –” being built to ensure that Jewish settlers can drive separately from Palestinians across the West Bank.
Arabiya House is under a temporary reprieve from demolition while Israeli courts determine its status.
Mr Halper said the judges have been reluctant to confirm the destruction order because his group has threatened to take the case to the International Court of Justice if the ruling goes against it.