Briton suffers with Arabs under Israeli demolition law

Six months pregnant and exhausted, British mother Jessica Barhoum is still shocked that Israeli authorities ordered her, her husband and their baby out of bed at daybreak and pulverised their home.“I can’t believe that it’s lawful, that this law exists. I’m from England. Do you know what I mean?” said Jessica, 32, who grew up in the southern city of Salisbury but moved to Israel after marrying Musa, her Arab Israeli husband.

“You can’t believe a country like this would make a law against its own citizens,” she said.

For the last four decades, Israeli legislation has permitted the demolition of homes built without a construction permit, the case for the Barhoums’ home in the village of Ein Rafa, west of Jerusalem, although a permit was pending.

Critics say the law is disproportionately used against Arab Israelis rather than Jewish Israelis. Permits can take years to acquire, particularly for Palestinians wanting to build in Israeli-occupied and annexed East Jerusalem.

Jessica, a landscape gardener who also holds Swiss nationality, converted to Islam before marrying and moving to her husband’s village, giving birth to their daughter Sara and learning to speak nearly fluent Arabic and Hebrew.

Last week, she watched in disbelief as two bulldozers with pneumatic drills implemented an 18-month-old demolition order against their home, which Musa spent eight years building on land owned by his family.

Armed Israeli security forces woke them up at 5:00am. Jessica said she was given five minutes to get out. Her daughter screamed and her husband was arrested as clearers stuffed some of their possessions into plastic bags before the bulldozers pulverised the two-bedroom house and vegetable patch into rubble.

“It did feel like a war zone,” she said, pale under her pastel-coloured headscarf. The adjoining apartment where her newly married sister-in-law lived was also smashed.

Her sister-in-law, a hairdresser to the Israeli elite at the luxury King David Hotel in nearby Jerusalem, went into hysterics and then to hospital.

The demolition law has been in force since 1968, allowing “illegal” houses to be razed even if permits are pending in the bureaucratic pipeline.

In 2005, Musa was given legal notice he had 18 months to finalise the permit or have his house bulldozed. When the deadline ran out, the permit was still not ready.

Jessica said a woman at the local council led them to believe everything would be alright. They did not consult a lawyer. They now feel they were naive.

The pile of rubble took two days to clear. The Barhoums lost their bed and a handmade cupboard. Sara’s cot was broken, her soft toys and little shoes were found littered among the ruins.

Hundreds of Arabs in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories each year face the same trauma of watching bulldozers tearing their homes to dust.

Meir Margalit, field coordinator for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), said the interior ministry alone demolished 850 structures in “Israel” last year, most of them in the Arab sector.

And since 1967, 18,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in the territories, including East Jerusalem, according to ICAHD figures.

Margalit said Jewish Israeli homes are never demolished on the permit pretext under the 1968 law. Although the interior ministry was asked to comment, a spokesman did not return AFP’s call.

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the occupied territories are classified as illegal because Israel is an “occupier.” But such demolitions within Israel are legal.

“My husband’s cousin’s just been in a state of shock because he’s like, ‘we pay our taxes, we abide by the law, we’re Israeli citizens’.

“We all want to live together, but the people who are making the laws don’t. They know that they weren’t just knocking our house down, they know that they were breeding hatred and anger within our community,” Jessica charged.

When the bulldozers arrived, two Jewish Israeli friends drove down to the village to stand in support with Jessica. Another quietly paid 1,000 pounds ($2,029, 1,487 euros) into her bank account. The Barhoums are determined to begin rebuilding as soon as possible and enlist legal help to halt any further demolition orders while they finalise arrangements for the construction permit.

“I’m having a baby in November. We need something that’s winter proof and summer proof because we’re not quite sure how long it’s going us to take to get our house back to a liveable state,” Jessica said.

Theirs is the only home in the village to be razed so far, but the case has fuelled concern from lawyers and human rights activists that further properties could be destroyed since most lack finalised permits.

Margalit fears the authorities have their eye on confiscating land in Ein Rafa.

Commercial lawyer Sami Rashid is also worried. “It’s a bit strange that they just picked this house because there are many houses without a permit. It may be that the interior ministry may want to demolish houses in Ein Rafa.” The village representative on the regional council told AFP that 200 homes in Ein Rafa and a neighbouring village could be liable for demolition, saying the demolition of the Barhoums’ home had “destroyed” efforts to build bridges between local Arab and Jewish youth.

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