West Bank demolitions: homes, and dreams, in ruins
The latest house destructions in the Gaza Strip highlight a problem that is not new for residents of the Palestinian territories. The ICRC's Liv Ronglan reports from the West Bank.
" I will never move from this place. I have lived here for more than 40 years, " says 62-year- old Sara as she stands in the rubble of her home, demolished three days earlier by Israeli soldiers. In a symbol of mourning she wears her hair tightly wrapped in a white cloth.
Sara's case is one of two that has been brought to the attention of Sebastien, an ICRC delegate based in the West Bank town of Jenin. Security concerns or the lack of a construction permit are the usually reasons given for the house destructions. The ICRC's job is simply to help the affected families according to their needs, whatever the reasons for the demolition.
Sebastien first visits the two families affected by the most recent demolitions to find out what happened and what their immediate needs are. Later he prepares a relief package including hygiene items, mattresses and blankets, cooking utensils and other household goods. There are also tents available for families that don't have relatives or friends to stay with.
Just outside Jenin, the little farm owned by Sara's family sits on a hill. She, her five sisters and six brothers moved here from the Israeli town of Haifa in1965. Now Sara is the eldest of a family of 35. Until the demolition their farm included four houses, a stable and a small storehouse for charcoal. Now, only two buildings are left standing - not enough room for everyone.
The ICRC House Destruction Relief Programme started in March 2001; so far this year more than 2,000 families in the West Bank and in Gaza have been helped. The programme aims to provide immediate support to families whose houses are destroyed in East Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, whatever the reason for the demolition. The families receive a package of basic relief items including a tent (if needed), blankets, hygiene items and household goods.
A lifetime's savings
In the late eighties, an Israeli settlement was created on the hill neighbouring Sara's farm. Because of threats by the settlers the family found it increasingly difficult to get to their land. In May 2002 Sara received a note from the Israeli civil administration in Jenin saying that two of the family's houses were built without a permit, and would have to be demolished.
In early September this year they received the final house destruction order. A week later, civil administration officials arrived together with the Israeli Defence Force and bulldozers to put the order into effect.
Sara may be withou t a roof over her head but she is determined to stay. " This has been my home for 40 years and I'll never leave, " she says. When she was young, Sara worked in Israel harvesting vegetables. She used all her savings, about 10,000 dollars, to build her house.
" It was so nice, " she explains. " Three rooms, a bathroom and a sitting room. Now everything is smashed - even the furniture. "
The family is glad of the ICRC's support and helps to unload the relief goods from the vehicle; a little boy smiles as he carries away a gas-bottle. The whole family has gathered in the shadow of one of the remaining houses. The future looks bleak: they have already been warned that this house may also be demolished.
A destroyed farm
Another family is waiting for Sebastien in a nearby valley, just a ten-minute drive from Sara's farm. The family had already received some relief goods; more boxes are due to be delivered today.
As part of the strict closures and restrictions of movement imposed in the West Bank, earth barricades have been erected to block the main road. The ICRC driver is forced to take the four-wheel-drive vehicle up improvised dirt tracks across the fields. A taxi tries to follow but finds it hard going...
When Sebastien finally arrives, Mohammed, the head of the family, greets him with a warm handshake. The family has already set up the two ICRC tents next to the ruins of their home. About twenty goats are tethered on a small hill, a few chickens scratch around for food in the yard and several pigeons are flying around looking for their shelter, which was destroyed together with the farmhouse.
" We received a destruction order from the planning office a week ago, " says Mohammed. " It said we lived here without a permit. I was told to go to the civil administration to apply for a permit, but how can I go there? I don't have the money or all the right documents. And the road is constantly blocked. It's impossible!
" Three days ago they came with the bulldozers. They destroyed our home, our barn and our pigeon-loft, as well as most of our 100 pigeons. We are 11 in this family, where can we go? I invested everything in this place. I don't even have the money to apply for a permit to rebuild my house. "
The tents and other supplies donated by the ICRC will at least provide shelter from the sun and the rain but they cannot take away Mohammed's deeply-felt frustration. The impact of house demolition is not only material: families such as Mohammed's and Sara's also have to cope with the pain of seeing their life's work laid to waste.