Jeff Halper, a leader of the anti-demolitions movement, discusses the destruction of Palestinian homes, along with the history and politics that allows this violation of international law to continue
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.
Around five or six hundred Palestinians have lost their homes. On Monday, hundreds of Israeli troops descended on the village of Wadi Hummus on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. They led a team of demolition experts and heavy bulldozers at four in the morning, rousing people from their beds so they could begin the demolition of thirteen buildings containing about 70 apartments. The families living in those apartments were only allowed to grab a few of their belongings as they were forced, rushed out of their buildings in the middle of the morning, to watch their homes being demolished in front of their eyes.
The Israeli Supreme Court allowed the demolitions to take place after the residents lost their case, but the apartments were on Palestinian land. The Israeli government said it was too close to the barrier wall that was illegally put on Palestinian land in the first place. On Sunday, people gathered to protest that demolition— against the demolition of those buildings. Israeli forces attacked those protesters and injured a journalist. The protesters did not imagine that in less than 24 hours the houses would already be gone. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh responded this way.
PALESTINIAN PRIME MINISTER MOHAMMAD SHTAYYEH The government denounces this serious aggression. This is the continuation of the forceful dispossession of the residents of Jerusalem from their homes and from their lands. These are war crimes and a crime against humanity.
MARC STEINER We’re joined now by Jeff Halper who is Co-founder and Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He’s been a tireless advocate for justice and civil rights for all Israelis and Palestinians. He spent ten years as a community worker in Jerusalem aiding low-income Mizrahi families— those are Jewish families who come from the Arab and Middle Eastern countries— and Co-founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions in 1997 to resist Israel’s demolition of homes in the occupied West territory. He’s the author of four books. The most recent, War Against the People, which came out in 2015. Dr. Halper was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and joins us now. Good to have you with us, Jeff. Welcome.
JEFF HALPER Thanks for having me.
MARC STEINER I want to play this one piece as we begin. This was a piece actually you posted on your Facebook page. It came from someone else’s shot of Israeli troops watching their demolition. You’ll hear at the beginning an Israeli soldier counting down in Hebrew before the demolition of the buildings and the explosion itself. I want to share this with you before we begin our conversation.
ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCE OFFICER Sheva, shesh, hamesh, arba, shalosh, shtaim, ehad. [multiple explosions, laughter and applause]
MARC STEINER I think the video in many ways doesn’t just show you the intensity of the bomb or the destruction of the building, but just of the situation itself. Jeff, were you there for the demolition itself, or you were there later?
JEFF HALPER No. I was there for part of the demolitions. It took—It lasted all day and even into the night. I wasn’t there the whole time, but I was there.
MARC STEINER So just take a step backwards for a minute for our viewers and talk about what actually happened here, why this occurred, and where this was. It seemed that the bulldozer, from what I’ve heard from other people, showed up without warning. So talk a bit about that, the legal protections Palestinians have or don’t have against these demolitions, and what the history is here.
JEFF HALPER Well, you know, writ large this is all within a policy since 1967 of what the Israeli government calls “Judaizing Jerusalem,” turning an Arab city into a Jewish city. And the way you do that of course is by displacing Palestinians, if possible getting them out of the city completely or out of the country, but at least confining them to tiny little ghettos, little islands in the eastern part of the city. And then, taking their land and building Israeli settlements around them so that they’re really in little pockets surrounded by Israelis. So the Palestinians are 40% of the Jerusalem population, but they only have 8% of the urban land where they can live. And almost all of that was taken up already in 1967 when you had an East Jerusalem.
So the amount of land available for Palestinians, for young families, we’re talking now about 52 years of really frozen building in the Palestinian sector. People have children. Their children have children. You need somewhere to live. And one of the largest concentrations of Palestinians in the southern part of East Jerusalem is in these neighborhoods of Wadi Hummus, Sur Baher, Umm Tuba. And there, there was a very interesting situation where those neighborhoods are within the Jerusalem municipality, but then Israel wanted to build a wall around the city. You know, it’s a wall of 750 kilometers. It goes all through the West Bank. So the wall was built in a distance from those neighborhoods. And in fact, next to those neighborhoods in the West Bank is what we call Areas A and B that belong— according to the Oslo agreements— to the Palestinian Authority. They’re not within Jerusalem. They’re not within Israeli jurisdiction.
They belong to the Palestinian Authority even though they’re inside the wall. So there was a plot of land then that young Palestinians, young families, could use to get housing. And they applied to the Palestinian Authority, who is the authority over that land, got permission to build, and began to build these apartment buildings. You can see how tall they are. Some of them are six, seven stories because they have no land to build out, so they have to build up. And they began building. Some of them actually were occupied. Others are in the process of being built. And then, Israel said, no. We’re going to demolish them; you can’t build— with really no authority because these are within Area A. This is within the Palestinian Authority authority.
And so, after they began to be built, the Civil Administration— which is what we call Israel’s military government in the West Bank. So this has nothing to do with Jerusalem. This has to do with a military government because this is happening in the West Bank— issued a ruling that Palestinians can’t build within 250 meters of the wall. There has to be a sterile buffer. So there’s two things. First of all, now these buildings are closer to the wall than 250 meters because that ruling hadn’t been made when they started building, and the people were never informed of that decision of the military. So that’s one problem. The other problem is this is a precedent. I mean, they’re abolishing these houses, but can you imagine how many Palestinian homes— thousands of homes— exist within 250 meters of a 750-kilometer wall?
So you know, the fear is not only that these houses will be demolished, but that thousands of houses all through the West Bank are also going to be demolished with the excuse of security. And you said it rightly in the introduction. It’s a double illegality. Israel has no authority to demolish homes in Area A and B because they’re under Palestinian jurisdiction, but the wall itself is illegal. The wall itself is built outside of Israel’s borders in Palestinian territory. The International Court of Justice in The Hague and the UN have all ruled that this is illegal. So even an order saying you can’t build close to the wall for security is itself illegal, so there’s a double illegality here that the Palestinians are facing—
MARC STEINER So. So when— I’m sorry.
JEFF HALPER And on the basis then of that—See the Israeli Supreme Court goes by laws, laws, laws. And when they run out of laws, and they want to anyway do what the government wants, they pull in security because the Supreme Court of Israel has said publicly when it comes to security, that’s beyond our competence as a court. And so, as soon as the army or the Ministry of Defense comes and says, all right, forget law, this is a security matter— the Supreme Court gives in.
MARC STEINER All the time.
JEFF HALPER And that’s why they agree to these demolitions.
MARC STEINER So this latest Supreme Court decision in Israel that allowed this particular demolition take place, is that now the precedent to do what you were alluding to earlier, which is demolishing houses all along the 750-kilometer wall within 250 meters?
JEFF HALPER Exactly. Yes. In other words, this decision by the military not to allow Palestinian building within 250 meters for the whole length of the wall has now been affirmed by the Supreme Court, and can be carried out at any time. So there’s tens of thousands of people— not just the five or six-hundred of yesterday— who are today worried that at any moment the Israeli Army can come and demolish their homes. They don’t even need demolition orders because this has already been decided by the court.
MARC STEINER So your group that you helped found, the Israeli Committed Against House Demolitions, you’ve already recorded hundreds of demolitions in Jerusalem alone every year and across the West Bank—
JEFF HALPER Since 1967, Israel’s demolished 55,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories.
MARC STEINER 55,000? So but there’s very little mention of this often in the newspapers and other media. I mean, you don’t see this a lot. I mean, nobody’s covering this in terms of the extent to which you are describing.
JEFF HALPER That’s right. Because, you know, what Israel does, is it does it very incrementally. I mean, yesterday was an exception because usually you don’t have 70 or 100 houses demolished at the same time like yesterday. Usually what happens is they demolish a house over there, two houses somewhere else, three houses on another hillside, you know, throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, so that nothing breaks through as news. You know, it’s routine. Nobody sees it. Nobody covers it. It’s already 55,000, so it’s not news anymore. You can’t get journalists to go cover these things. And it just does it very, very incrementally over 50 years now— except under military incursions. I mean, when Israel goes into Gaza, they demolish tens of thousands of homes. 18,000 homes were demolished within three weeks in 2006 in Gaza. So under military incursions in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s able to clear the table and demolish a lot. But that all is hidden by the military. In everyday life, thousands of homes are demolished, but they’re demolished bit-by-bit-by-bit over years and so it never becomes news.
MARC STEINER That’s why it becomes difficult to cover. I mean, the way you’re describing it because it’s just being done in piecemeal. But, you know, a couple of quick things here while we’re together. I mean, I’m very curious about, you know, when you look at these videos, you can’t really see the logo of the company that made these bulldozers. Do you know what companies are doing this and working with the Israeli government to sell their bulldozers? I mean, I think they’re probably intentionally covered up and concealed, but what do we know about that?
JEFF HALPER Well, no. They’re not all concealed. I mean, Caterpillar, of course.
MARC STEINER Yeah.
JEFF HALPER But also Hyundai is a very common bulldozer and even John Deere. You know, they use different bulldozers. Now, I want to say one thing about that though. That’s true. We have a BDS campaign against Caterpillar because they design— You see these jackhammers and bulldozers are designed especially for the Israeli Army to demolish Palestinian homes. So they’re active participants in the repression of Palestinians. And so, we have a campaign of Boycott Caterpillar. But a lot of the bulldozers are simply subcontracted by the army for everyday demolitions.
MARC STEINER [laughs] Everyday demolitions.
JEFF HALPER Those companies really aren’t to blame. Those are simply commercial companies that subcontract, but Caterpillar actually works directly with the Israeli Army.
MARC STEINER That’s a really important distinction. So two very quick things. I’m curious, you know, what happens to families who lost their homes like in Wadi Hummus. Where do they go? I mean, there’s some of them who hadn’t moved in yet and they’ve lost everything because they invested all their money in being able to move into these apartments. So I’m curious, very quickly, what happens to them and what’s been the history of that?
JEFF HALPER You move in with your parents. You know, now you might have three, four, five kids of your own. You have to move back in with your parents who also have kids, who are also living under inadequate conditions. Maybe you move in with your brother’s family. In other words, everybody’s living in inadequate housing. Israel has not allowed new housing to be built for Palestinians in 52 years. So everybody is living in crowded substandard housing and this simply increases. Now you have to go back and, you know, live in a corner of a room with your family, with your parents, and that’s all you have.
MARC STEINER So finally, I’m curious what groups like the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and others—I mean, it’s almost as if people can protest, they can take it to the court, but it’s almost kind of literally impossible to stop this from going on unless people surround it nonviolently by the thousands and refuse to move.
JEFF HALPER But that doesn’t matter because the army will move you. [laughs] It’s impossible to stop. You know, so we resist demolitions. We even rebuild homes that have been demolished. We’ve built about 200 homes of Palestinians that have been demolished over the years as political acts of resistance with Palestinians. I mean, we can’t—We don’t have the money to build massively, but we build in a political kind of way. And then we use the issue of house demolitions as a vehicle for explaining to people how the occupation works, what Israel’s intentions are, you know, to get at the bigger political issue of ending this whole thing. So that for us, house demolitions is an important issue by itself because obviously the suffering is tremendous, but it’s also a very important tool for us to help us explain what’s going on here with Israeli policy towards Palestinians.
MARC STEINER Jeff Halper, this has been really enlightening. And I look forward to many more conversations with you and exploring some of the issues we talked about before we went on the air— a little tease for our audience— which will come out later. Thanks for your work and thanks for joining us today.
JEFF HALPER Okay. Thanks for having me on.
MARC STEINER And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.