Reflections on Hope: Demolitions in Sur Baher
Oppression greets us from all angles. Oppression wails from the soldiers radio and floats through tear gas clouds in the air. Oppression explodes with every sound bomb and sinks deeper into the heart of the mother who has lost her son. But resistance is nestled in the cracks in the wall, resistance flows from the minaret 5 times a day and resistance sits quietly in jail knowing its time will come again. Resistance lives in the grieving mother’s wails and resistance lives in the anger at the lies broadcasted across the globe. Though it is sometimes hard to see and even harder sometimes to harbor, resistance lives. Do not be fooled, resistance lives.
Image from Emily Glick
Content warning: state violence, homelessness
I was in Israel-Palestine for two and a half months this summer interning for Zochrot and engaging in solidarity work in the West Bank. Almost everyone I met through solidarity work urged me to tell everyone I knew what was happening there. This is the first of two pieces I’ve written about my summer. I hope that in sharing these stories, I can help show the human impact of occupation and settler colonialism in Israel-Palestine. This is the story of the home demolitions that took place in Sur Baher on July 22, 2019.
I wake up at 3 a.m. to someone banging on the door. The woman next to me says, “The army is here. We have to go, quickly.”
I am with a couple dozen other Israeli and international activists, sleeping on the floor of an office in Sur Baher, a Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi Hummus, just outside Jerusalem. A couple weeks prior, residents of the neighborhood had reached out to Israeli activists asking for support in stopping the pending demolition of 11 homes.
Many of the homes slated for demolition were in Area A, a small portion of the West Bank where the Israeli army is not supposed to have authority. The official reason for demolition was that the homes posed a security threat because they were too close to the apartheid wall. The Supreme Court ruled the demolitions were lawful, despite the buildings’ status as legally built with proper permits from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Area A. The day after the courts denied their request to freeze the demolitions, the residents said they wanted a large solidarity presence of people willing to resist, so we showed up.
The plan had been to wait until morning prayers were finished, then go to the houses where demolitions were expected and wait for the army to remove us. But, when we are woken up at 3 a.m., almost two hours before prayers start, we have no plan. We leave the office and walk outside - it’s still nighttime, it’s windy, cold, and, completely dark other than the giant light from the crane the army had brought to load explosives onto a large apartment building that’s still under construction.
The prayer call from the nearby mosque begins as the fourth busload of soldiers and Magav, militarized border police, arrive. Within ten minutes, four busloads becomes nine, plus dozens of Jeeps. There are hundreds of soldiers here. I am scared. I have never been around this many soldiers before. But even in my fear, I know that my identity, my passport, and my camera shield me, for the most part, from any real danger.
Soldiers try to move people back, away from one building that is going to be demolished, but the men explain they are trying to pray. Inside a different building, men are praying in one room while children hide in another. I am standing outside and can hear soldiers screaming in the distance, cutting through the sound of the prayer call.
After around an hour and a half, the army begins to physically drag Palestinians and activists out of the houses that are going to be demolished. The father of a family, holding his child in his arms, says to the soldiers as they try to make him leave his home, “Our whole lives are here. Where are we supposed to go?” In another building, where activists did not bring cameras, the army is the most violent, throwing tear gas canisters inside a small room and dragging people down staircases. The screams are the worst thing I have ever heard. Once everyone is outside, a line of soldiers – mostly young, around my age – pushes everyone so far away from the house we were near that we can barely see it anymore.
Some children whose home will be demolished gain access to a nearby building and are watching from a window. Some of the activists now have blood on their faces, one has broken glasses, one a fractured rib. One woman was choked by a soldier dragging her across a room by her keffiyeh, and is taken to a hospital. A Palestinian teenager gives one of the activists who lost his shoe as the army beat him a replacement pair of shoes. There is nothing we can do now.
An hour or so later, as I’m preparing to leave, I hear a horrible crashing noise. I turn around and see that a Caterpillar bulldozer has started to demolish the roof of a building. Some people cry, some just sit with their head in their hands. When we try to leave, the army stops our car and tells us it is a closed military zone. I get out of the car and continue to watch the demolition while the driver argues with the Magav. After half an hour, they allow only our car to exit. With only a couple hours of rest in my body, I fall asleep quickly on the way back to Tel Aviv.
By 8 a.m., news about the demolitions is everywhere: articles were written for international outlets like the BBC and the New York Times, a video of soldiers celebrating after detonating an apartment building went viral online, as did a short film that Yuval, one of the activists, made following Ismail, whose home was demolished. The day after, the Israeli Foreign Ministry tweets about the demolitions, lying about the facts.
Three days after the demolitions, we are invited back for dinner in Sur Baher. As we enter the neighborhood, the first thing we see is the rubble of the demolished buildings. I learn more about the specific fucked up irony of these demolitions. The state charged one man 2 million shekels for demolishing his home. The PA gave Ismail a tent as a replacement for a house. He tells us that the night after the demolitions, he set up the tent next to the rubble of his old home and the next morning the army came and demolished it the same way they demolished his home. Another man shares that some time ago, he was the victim of a terrorist bombing of a bus station and received financial compensation from the Israeli government. He invested that money in a new home, a home that he doesn’t have anymore, because the army demolished it. The day after our dinner, many Palestinians from the Jerusalem area decided to hold Friday prayers at Sur Baher in solidarity. Suddenly, the WhatsApp group we had been using to communicate about Sur Baher is flooded with pictures and videos of Magav throwing tear gas canisters and children running away.
Ultimately, 11 buildings were demolished, including a huge apartment building that was under construction, three families (about 17 people) were displaced, and nearly 400 people were affected. Even though not every building was inhabited, each was a result of life’s savings and hard work.
The army’s goal was never to stop a security threat. In this area, the wall is actually a fence. In court, the residents offered to build and finance a 25 foot concrete wall on their own and install security cameras to address any “security threat” while keeping their houses intact. In some buildings, only one floor was demolished. Further, there are hundreds of buildings that were also close to the wall, including in Israeli communities, that did not receive demolition orders. (Actually, a few weeks after the Sur Baher demolitions, an Israeli community got demolition orders for the same reason – that buildings “too close” to the wall pose a security threat. Like the residents of Sur Baher, they fought the orders in court, but unlike the residents of Sur Baher, they ultimately won their court case.) The goal was simply to displace Palestinians from their land. Home demolition is just one of the ways that the Israeli state currently tries to ethnically cleanse the land of Palestinians.
Usually, demolitions of Palestinian buildings happen quickly and quietly – the army arrives at dawn and leaves by the afternoon. If you don’t live in the affected community, or have close friends who do, you will probably never hear about it. Before this summer, I didn’t realize how frequent and devastating demolitions are. According to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, just this July, 66 structures were demolished by the Israeli army, directly affecting 7,952 people.
I have only ever lived in one apartment my whole life. I have always felt a sense of belonging and refuge at home. I do not know what it’s like to be homeless, or to fear that the government will demolish my home. I do not know what it means to have my home taken from me violently. I do know, outside of any political argument, I cannot justify the violence that I witnessed. I think of the soldiers, young men and women, and how it is possible that they commit these acts of violence. I think it is much easier if you don’t think of your victims as people.
Every time I saw the brutality of “the most moral army in the world,” I tried to find a way to be hopeful. It’s really hard to find hope after witnessing cruelty like that. It’s hard not to feel powerless when, in an attempt to be a solidarity presence and use our privilege as international and Israeli Jews, all we can do is sit in a house, next to the people who live there, and wait for it to be demolished. But there is hope to be found, even in a day when the Israeli army destroyed almost 400 people’s homes. The fearlessness and resilience of Palestinians facing extreme violence, and the unwavering dedication of Jewish activists, gives me hope.
One of the Israeli activists, the night we were coming back to Sur Baher for dinner, said to me, “They [the people of Sur Baher] aren’t really an activist community. They’re just regular people. It’s not always a logical step for people who aren’t activists to reach out to Israelis for help.” So a relationship was started, at the very least, a relationship which is threatening in some way to those who want us to hate one another. Even though we weren’t able to stop the demolitions, we made sure the families in Sur Baher were not alone that night.
I’ve thought a lot about home demolitions this summer, but I think most often of the quiet moments in between, the moments where we are just people: when someone pours us coffee as we wait for the demolition to begin, when a child runs up to my friend and places a Palestinian flag in her hands, when we share cigarettes, when a little girl teaches me a game. It is this coming together, where the seeds of a just future are sown, that gives me the most hope.