Israel Razes 14 Arab Homes at Refugee Camp
It took Israeli bulldozers about an hour to crush Jamila abu Kweik’s concrete-block house Monday. Barefoot and dejected, the 46-year-old refugee sat on a boulder near the ruins and wondered where she and her 12 children would be spending the night.
The Abu Kweik residence was one of 14 Palestinian homes flattened by Israeli forces on orders from the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, who said the structures were built without permits. The destruction at the Jerusalem-area Shuafat refugee camp was the largest such operation in years, city officials said.
An additional 11 homes are to be torn down today.
The city frequently razes illegally built homes, most of them Arab-owned. Palestinians, who argue that obtaining permits to build legally is nearly impossible, say it’s all part of a campaign to reduce the Arab population of Jerusalem, a city claimed by both Jews and Arabs as their capital.
At Shuafat on Monday, residents and a handful of leftist Israeli activists clashed with hundreds of soldiers and police, some on horseback, who accompanied the earth-moving machines. Three Arab women were slightly injured and three Israelis, including a leader of Rabbis for Human Rights, were arrested.
The destroyed homes sat just across a narrow ravine from a rapidly expanding Jewish neighborhood, Pisgat Zeev, where cranes were busy Monday adding on to apartment buildings.
Coupled with a Palestinian suicide bombing early Monday and the killing of an Israeli army captain, the demolitions further inflamed hatreds and undermined desperate efforts to prevent a tenuous cease-fire from collapsing irrevocably.
In a heated meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was attacked by his own right-wing ministers for failing to hit the Palestinians more forcefully. Minister after minister from Sharon’s Likud Party demanded an aggressive crackdown on Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
“You are all great heroes with your advice,” Sharon retorted, according to Israeli media reports. “No one will teach me how to deal with terrorism.”
Only the ministers from the center-left Labor Party urged restraint.
Also Monday, in a sign of the chaos that is becoming a staple of daily life here, traffic jams that stretched for miles tied up all access to Israel’s international airport, following warnings of a possible terrorist attack and stiffened security checks. Travelers were told to reach the airport 4 1/2 hours before their flights.
Israelis and Palestinians accuse each other of repeated violations of a cease-fire agreement brokered by CIA chief George J. Tenet nearly a month ago. Although overall violence has decreased, killings continue, one a day on average.
A 23-year-old member of the radical Islamic organization Hamas detonated explosives packed into a car early Monday near an Israeli army checkpoint in the Gaza Strip, apparently aiming for a nearby bus used by Jewish settlers. The Palestinian was the only casualty, and he received a hero’s burial later in the day.
Israeli officials, who said they had learned of the attack in advance and alerted Palestinian authorities, charged that no efforts were made to stop the bombing.
Israeli opposition leader Yossi Sarid of the leftist Meretz Party listed Monday’s demolitions at Shuafat as another violation of the cease-fire, saying the timing of the operation was “unfortunate” and “brutal.”
Homes Built Next to Jewish Neighborhood
At least two of the houses destroyed Monday were occupied by families; the others were empty.
The Abu Kweiks moved into their one-story, four-bedroom house four months ago, the family said, after saving and scraping for five years to build it. Members of the family have lived in the Shuafat camp since fleeing their original home--in what is today central Israel--during the Jewish state’s 1948 War of Independence.
The destroyed homes were scattered along one slope of a dry gully, among scruffy olive and pine trees. On the opposite side, a few hundred feet across the ravine, are hundreds of apartments in a new section of Pisgat Zeev. Israelis consider Pisgat Zeev to be part of Jerusalem, while Palestinians regard it as an illegal settlement.
Shuafat and Pisgat Zeev are on land that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed to Jerusalem.
Olmert, the mayor, said the demolished houses were being built on designated “green areas,” public land where construction is banned. He said “criminals” should not be allowed to break the law and “build wildly.”
More to the point, Olmert told Israeli radio, the Palestinian presence poses a security threat to the Pisgat Zeev Jews--much like the situation in Gilo, a Jewish suburb of Jerusalem also on disputed territory that has come under regular gunfire from the nearby Palestinian-ruled town of Beit Jala.
Danny Freedman, a leader of the Pisgat Zeev homeowners association, said residents are afraid and property values have plummeted. The association calls the mayor’s office to complain every time new construction is spotted in the Palestinian areas facing Pisgat Zeev, he said.
Jamila abu Kweik and her family said they posed no threat. She looked across the ravine to the brand-new Pisgat Zeev apartments clinging to the hillside, then back at the heap of rubble that was her home. She had rescued a few carpets and thin mattresses but lost most of her pots, pans and clothing.
“What will become of us now?” she wailed, several of her children gathered around.
Her brother, Hamiz Kharma, 50, also had to flee the house as the wrecking crew descended. “Maybe [the Israelis] don’t want the Palestinians near the settlement [Pisgat Zeev]; maybe they think we are dangerous; maybe they just want us out,” he said.
“We always dreamed of returning to our [pre-1948] village,” Kharma said, “but with the ’67 war, we forgot about 1948 and concentrated on living here. And so now they want to uproot us from here.”
Families Were Given 24 Hours’ Notice
City officials had given the families 24 hours’ notice, skirting the usual grace period allowed for legal appeals. The Abu Kweiks acknowledged that they do not own the land, saying they believed they had permission to build from Islamic Trust religious authorities. Palestinians and human rights organizations say Israel makes it difficult for Palestinians to obtain building licenses.
“I just want to settle down and live in peace,” said Kharma, who works as a blacksmith in the refugee camp.
But his cousin, Ahmed Halaby, was bitter. “How can you live with a settlement right there?” he asked, scowling at Kharma.
A 46-year-old plumber who lives deep inside the refugee camp, Halaby surveyed the ruins of his relatives’ home. “What do you think this creates in our hearts?” he asked a visitor. “It creates much more hatred.”