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'A Darkness in His Heart': Terror, Martyrs, Rubble, and Repetition as Israel Resumes Home Demolitions

In 2005, the practice of demolishing the family homes of Palestinian terror suspects was abandoned after a report by the Israeli army found it ineffective as a deterrent. Now, with violence on the rise, it is back.

by Harriet Salem
Nov 26 2014, 11:00am

Image via Reuters

"The house is surrounded," shouts 8 year-old Ramin al-Shalodi as she runs through the rubble to peer anxiously over the balcony. Above her, heavily armed riot police point AR series rifles from the neighbors' roofs; below they line the narrow passage of stairs up to the apartment block. Outside, the roads in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem, are sealed. Groups of irritated youths gather in the streets, police officers check IDs, the air is ripe with frustration. Inas Sharif, Ramin's mother, starts to cry softly.

Last month her eldest son, Abdel al-Shalodi rammed his car into a crowd of people in Jerusalem, killing a woman and three-month old baby. He was shot dead by police at the scene.

The alarming and unexpected arrival of police at the al-Shalodi's residence turns out to be security entourage for the country's right-wing Public Security Minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch. Smiling for the camera the Israeli politician shakes hands with police officers, but snubs the family and locals. He is in town for an unannounced rubble photo opportunity promoting the government's latest "counter-terrorism" measure: blowing up houses.

The deadly attack by al-Shalodi was just one in a series of brutal and random terror stabbings, shootings and hit-and-runs by Palestinians that have killed at least 11 Israelis, including four rabbis, in the past month alone.

The destruction of the al-Shalodi family's apartment, the third home of a terror suspect to be blown up since the controversial demolition policy was reinstated this summer, is just one in a series of widely condemned punitive demolitions scheduled in for the upcoming weeks.

The scene in Silwan is the epitome of an uneasy violent new status quo in Jerusalem.

Following a bloody seven-week summer war in Gaza, seething tensions between Palestinians and Israelis are evident in near-daily street clashes between youths and police. Yet whilst something is changing, both sides seem to have little idea where to go.

An Israeli riot police officer stands outside the al-Shalodis' home. Images via Harriet Salem

The recent spate of terror attacks were nearly all plotted in Israeli occupied east Jerusalem. But the perpetrators' nickname in the media, "lone wolves," speaks volumes about the degree of political organization and collective will for further unrest. The Palestinian complaints stretch back several decades. Illegal Jewish settlements are expanding with implicit support from the state. Quarrels over the right to pray at al-Haram al-Sharif, known as Temple Mount to Jews, have again inflamed tensions. Trash and dumpster cats in the streets of Arab neighborhoods evidence the unequal distribution of state resources between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods.

Yet while the numbers of isolated violent outbursts are increasing there appears to be no movement for mass mobilization. Ever-simmering tensions are rising but have not yet reached boiling point. Israel too appears to have little new to add, instead falling back on an already once-defunct policy.

Ostensibly the reintroduction of bulldozing homes is intended to act as a deterrent to a new wave of would-be terrorists. "When he [a potential terrorist] knows that his house, the house in which his family lives, will be demolished, this will have an impact," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in justification of the policy earlier this week.

Yet it is already widely acknowledged that demolitions are a counter-effective populist measure, not an effective counter-terrorism policy. Widely used by Israel in previous decades — human rights NGO B'Tselem recorded 668 punitive destructions of Palestinian houses during the second intifada — the practice was abandoned in 2005 after a report by the military found its deterrent impact to be negligible.

As well as inflaming local tensions the lack of empirical evidence for the strategic value of demolitions combined with the punishment's collective character has, predictably, attracted widespread criticism from western governments and human rights watch groups.

"Punitive home demolitions are blatantly unlawful," Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement last week. "Israel should prosecute, convict, and punish criminals, not carry out vengeful destruction that harms entire families."

Back at the al-Shalodi residence, Ramin points to the blown out shell that is all that remains of the room where she used to sleep. Mickey and Minnie Mouse wallpaper decorate the still-standing outer wall. "Our home was destroyed after my brother was martyred," she tells VICE News.

The family is now staying with neighbors and friends until they can find a new home, or find some means to rebuild this one. Other damage, however, will prove much harder to repair.

Ramin and her sister recount the night their apartment was blown. "They [the army] arrived in the middle of the night, we had five minutes to leave," 12-year-old Nibras tells VICE News. The family then had to wait for several hours outside in a tent; they were not allowed to go to the toilet and had no food or water.

"It was a massive explosion, it woke up everyone in Silwan," she continues. "Afterwards we went back inside. We couldn't even recognize it was our home, everything was a mess the soldiers had shit on our mattresses." Above the couch where the girls now sit, a framed photograph of their dead brother hangs on the wall; they point to him with pride.

Clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli police have become a near daily occurrence in east Jerusalem after a summer of unrest.

Less than one mile away from the al-Shalodi family's former home, the conflict's repetitive violence is playing out in another soon-to-be-demolished living room.

"My son was good at school, he played sports, he read books, he was good at chess," Ibrahim Hijazi tells VICE News. But something changed in Mutaz Hijazi as he grew into a man, his father says. "What he saw during the second intifada left a darkness in his heart and it did not go away."

In 2002, aged 20, Mutaz Hijazi was convicted of "nationalistic crimes." On October 30, shortly after completing an 11-year jail sentence in Israeli prisons —where his father claims he was "regularly beaten by guards" — Mutaz was shot dead on the family home's roof.

According to the Israeli authorities Mutaz, a suspect in the attempted assignation the previous day of right-wing rabbi and activist Yehuda Glick, was "neutralized" in an "exchange of fire" with the police.

But, seated amid boxes on their neighbor's couch, Mutaz's family quietly protest his innocence. He was, they say, unarmed, and an easy scapegoat for the Israeli authorities under pressure to act.

Whether he was guilty or not is impossible to know for sure. So far there has been no trial or public examination of the evidence against Mutaz. It is unlikely there will be. Terror suspects, often killed by police at the scene, rarely get their day in court. When they do, information from the hearings is frequently kept under wraps at the request of Israel's secretive Shin Bet security service.

The lack of due process given to Mutaz's case has not, however, prevented a court order being issued for the demolition of the Hijazi family's home. The house is now totally empty, save for the kitchen sink and a lone poster declaring their deceased son a "martyr."

His father has filed an appeal on the order. There is a 48-hour window for a reprieve to be granted, but he has little hope that his request will even be considered.

Young relatives of Mutaz Hijazi in the family house that has been emptied in preparation from demolition. On the wall a poster declares Mutaz a "martyr."

To date only one decision on the demolition of a Palestinian home, in 1993, has ever been reversed, and three months ago Israel's Supreme Court made clear that the demolition policy would only apply to Palestinians, not Israelis.

Referencing the gruesome summer murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager burned to death by three Jewish extremists, the judge declared the case the "rarest of the rare occurrences". The demolition of his killers' houses would therefore constitute an inappropriate "artificial symmetry," he said, dismissing the similarities in the nature of the crimes.

Dead suspects, no trials, unequal application of the law, and no meaningful opportunities for families to appeal demolitions are only adding to Palestinians' already long list of grievances in a protracted territorial conflict where destroying homes is a punishment loaded with symbolism.

"I am not the first and will not be the last Palestinian to lose his son and his home… I am old man, I want peace, I cannot lose anything more than I have already lost," says Ibriham Hijazi. "But answer me this question. Tell me, the children, what do you think happens when they see how we are living under this occupation, treated as non-humans? Do they blow up the houses of Jews?"

The Israeli authorities are unlikely to reverse their decision on reintroducing the bulldozing policy, however. On Wednesday a new bill outlining an eight-step plan to end terror is being discussed in the Knesset. Among the proposals are plans to speed up demolitions and further crank up the pressure on families. If passed, the law would mean terror suspects' houses will be razed within 24 hours and their relatives also stand to lose their citizenship, or residency in the case of Palestinians, if they express support for their actions.

A statement issued by the Israeli Defense Force last Tuesday said the demolitions send would-be terrorists "a sharp, clear message." But it may not be the one they intend. On the rooftop where Mutaz Hijazi was gunned down, his teenage relatives have graffitied a simple, angry note in response: "Here our cousin was murdered." The "darkness" has already begun creeping into the next generation's hearts.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem