Angela Goldstein is policy officer at the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), an Israeli organization that opposes house demolitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and re-builds demolished houses as a political act of resistance. She is also a member of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an international body established at the request of the United Nations that monitors displacement by armed conflicts across the globe. Goldstein is one of the people behind the Free Gaza Movement, which recently sent a boat to the coasts of the closed Gaza Strip. She strongly believes in cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians to increase prospects for peace. In 1981 she immigrated to Israel after having lived in South Africa. Her father is originally from Lithuania. We had a conversation with her on house demolitions, the work of ICAHD and the Israeli occupation policies in the West Bank.

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions was founded by the anthropology professor Jeff Halper in 1997, when the Oslo peace process was in decline and Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister after the assassination of Rabin. ICAHD consulted with Palestinians on what they considered to be the most critical issue to be working on. One issue that was coming up all the time was house demolitions. The extent of the practice was found to be shocking. Since the beginning of the occupation over 18000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed. Almost every Palestinian family has an experience with house demolitions. ICAHD now uses the issue of house demolitions as an action tool to resist the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Goldstein: Ten years ago we didn’t understand how powerful it would be as an issue to be working on. Each demolition is a microcosm of the occupation: why they are demolishing a particular house in a particular area exposes how the wider occupation works and how the process of house demolitions is contributing to the wider occupation. We want to unmask the way Israel frames the occupation as a conflict of security. The policy of house demolitions shows exactly the opposite. In more than 90% of the cases the families whose house was demolished didn’t have a security record. House demolitions gives us a perfect opportunity to present an alternative view to the occupation.

Then why are the houses being demolished?
Goldstein: Israel is hiding behind bureaucracy: ‘Everywhere in the world illegally built houses are being demolished.’ But why would Palestinians put all their life savings into an illegal construction? Because they cannot build legally. No Palestinian will get a building permit in East Jerusalem and over half of the West Bank in the so called Area C. Therefore people are forced against their will to become criminals. The territorial carving up of the West Bank into three Areas was created by the Oslo peace accords in 1993. It institutionalized the occupation. It allows Israel to execute deliberate demographic policies in Area C, forcing people out of the areas where Israel wants to extend its control into the enclaves of Area A. It’s a slow and long term policy of putting Palestinians as a surplus population in controllable ‘warehouses’. Naomi Klein launched this concept of ‘warehousing’ in her new book ‘The Shock Doctrine’.

What is so special about Area C?
Goldstein: House demolitions are a widespread phenomenon in Area C, because all settlements are, army bases, nature reserves, industrial sites and by pass roads are there. House demolitions go hand in hand with land expropriation for settlements expansion. Many foreign donor agencies are funding projects to build infrastructure for Palestinians in Area C, while Israel is building infrastructure for its citizens and demolishing Palestinian infrastructure in the same area, even those structures built with donor money. Thousands of Palestinians are displaced and homeless and thousands more are under threat of being displaced.

Is that why you rebuild houses?
Goldstein: Yes and no. We discovered the huge impact a house demolition has on the victim family: divorces, breakdown of families, kids’ school standards drop. The home is very much the center of Palestinian life. The family is the main institution in Palestinian society. So resisting demolitions and rebuilding homes allow us to express our solidarity with the victims. When I hear a house is about to be demolished, my heart sinks to my stomach. We are ultimately powerless to help the victims here and now. But the main goal of physically resisting a demolition is to win time for journalists and human rights activists to arrive on the scene. And rebuilding of homes is more a political act of resistance to the occupation, then it is an humanitarian act. The victims know they are the victim of a policy. We are resisting against this policy. But one of the biggest dangers is that we get used to it as a political act of resistance, while for each family it’s a tragedy. We have to remember our acts of resistance against the occupation involve victims.

How many of the 18000 demolished homes have you rebuilt?
Goldstein: A tiny fraction of it. We rebuilt over 150 homes in plenty of in the West Bank. Recently we rebuilt a home in Anata, a village close to Jerusalem and one in Al Baqa’a, a farming village in a fertile valley close to Hebron, where people live a very traditional lifestyle. Al Baqa’a is in the way of territorial contiguity between two Israeli settlements. Every single house in the village is either totally demolished, partly damaged or has a demolition order. Settlers are progressively moving the fence around Kyriat Arba, one of the settlements, to take more land.

What does a demolition look like?
Meir Margalit (co-founder of ICAHD; during a visit to a demolished house in East-Jerusalem): There is no budget to destroy all houses built without a permit, because this is basically every Palestinian house in area C. This adds to the insecurity and arbitrariness of the demolitions: you never know when the bulldozers will come. Not even the delivery of a demolition order means your house will be demolished soon. The order leaves you the choice: if you do not demolish the house yourself within a specified period, the state will do it for you. From the moment you get the demolition order, you live in constant insecurity or fear. It can happen tomorrow or in 10 years.

In case of an actual demolition, the victims carry the costs of the demolition of their own house. The moment you know your house will be demolished is the morning of the demolition. The neighborhood is surrounded by police and soldiers. You are given some time to take your belongings. If you resist, you are arrested, sometimes violently, for obstructing the police. The border police is there to protect the demolition process. Children are witnessing all this. One of the basic things parents give to their children is a safe home. A demolition leaves children traumatized for the rest of their lives.

After a demolition the belongings remain scattered on the site and all that’s left of a family’s private life is concrete and steel. Some of the displaced people move in with an already overcrowded family, some move out to the city to rent expensive apartments. In August I spoke with a family whose father got a heart attack after the demolition and died. The mother was left behind with 5 children. She had no income and was still forced to rent an apartment. A demolition creates financial, psychological and sometimes physical distress, like heart attacks. Israel is creating the conditions for terror. We wreck people’s lives in their most private intimate environments.

For Amnesty International, it’s clear that only an end to human rights violations can produce sustainable peace. What is obstructing this?
Goldstein: When young soldiers or innocent Israeli’s die, politicians give speeches saying we will crush terror with more violence, knowing well that we are creating further conditions for terror. The main interest is controlling the West Bank in order to change the demographic and physical nature of the area to force the Palestinians into a ‘modus vivendi’. In this way we would avoid having to recognize their rights and having to deal with the issues they consider crucial. I don’t think this militaristic way of operating is wise. It is not going to contribute to security or a stabilization of the whole region. It is based on using fear to lead Palestinians and Israeli’s into acceptance of the status quo. The Israeli public is not empowered. They think, I presume, if we have major control of most of the West Bank, then we are safe even if behind our backs they are hating us. A policy of structural human rights violations will empower our enemies to make war against us, instead of our own population to make peace. Slowly Israel is not getting away with human rights violations anymore. That’s why we have to document every violation.

Is that what you do with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center?
Goldstein: On behalf of ICAHD I am part of a working group within the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center of the Norwegian Refugee Council. We monitor and document each case of displacement by house demolitions, land expropriation for building of the wall or settlements, and get legal assistance for the victims. I will be working more on legal research, trying to find statistics and details on the policies through research. The idea is to gather detailed evidence of deliberate displacement, ongoing on a systematic basis, to initiate legal cases and maybe eventually go to the International Court of Justice. The world should know about this issue.

At least Tony Blair should know about it. For the Middle East Quartet he’s in charge of ‘boosting the Palestinian economy’. Is he aware that Area C is critical for the economic development of the Palestinian territories?
Goldstein: When he first arrived here filled with energy from bringing peace to Northern Ireland, he was surprised about the extent of the closure of the West Bank. After a while, he hit rock bottom. Now he’s aware, but his mandate does not give him real teeth. In trying to set the conditions for the Palestinian economy to develop, he has to side with the Israeli security establishment. I was at one of his press conferences recently and the removal of a checkpoint was presented as a major achievement. Earlier, there was also agreement on the construction of an industrial park in the Jenin-district in Area C. He’s also working towards improving tourism to Bethlehem. It sounds wonderful, but they are not making any real progress, because the closure-infrastructure is even upgraded. The Israeli authorities are spitting in his face. He’s quite committed, but there are rumors he is going to resign. He’s also trying to organize planning rights in Area C, but it’s minimal. Israel is not planning of giving up all of area C under a final status agreement.

There will be ‘land swap’ to compensate the land not given up by Israel?
Goldstein: What we see today, is clearly a process of dividing the land, not by negotiations, but by a unilateral process on the ground. Sharon was the main architect of this policy. Israel is taking the land it wants and afterwards guaranteeing land swap by negotiations. Offering some sand in the Negev next to Gaza will not compensate the farmers of Jayyus in the north of the West Bank who lost their farmland and water resources. Viability is the issue, not some mathematical exercise and holding on to area C is undermining the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

In 1988 Palestinians acknowledged Israel on 78% of historic Palestine. Any Palestinian will see through the percentages that are presented as  magic solutions today:  Israel offers 93% of the West Bank, a so-called generous offer. But from the perspective of the Palestinians this is 93% of the 22% they have left. Palestinians know very well that they need access to Jerusalem, that they need sustainable and independent access to water resources, that they need access to their farmlands, that they need to travel easily from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Ramallah. For the Palestinians, no percentage could cover these needs up, but this is exactly what these percentages do towards the international community and world public opinion: give the Israeli offer a semblance of reasonability and cover up the core issues at stake.

Why is Area C so important for the viability of a Palestinian state?
Goldstein: Area C is running all through the West Bank, impacting heavily its territorial contiguity. Israel is now building the infrastructure for Palestinians to have ‘transport contiguity’, a concept introduced by Sharon. Israeli planners are currently thinking out a whole system to ensure Palestinian fabric of life in several areas of the West Bank while not impacting and interfering with the settlements on the ground. Palestine will be an island surrounded by Israel and given tunnels under Israel to allow for the fabric of life to continue. This will not allow a viable state, according to us. We need to do research to develop benchmarks on what ‘viability’ means. Otherwise we are just consciously or unconsciously setting up an apartheid state without self-determination.

Even if Israel only keeps Maale Adumim and lets go of all the other settlements, which would be presented by Israel as a incredibly generous offer, it could still not be accepted by the Palestinians, because the E1 area is critical to a viable Palestinian state. The West Bank would be cut into two with Israel in-between. Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and Jerusalem, 4 Palestinian cities who are close to each other but Maale Adumim is in-between.

How do you raise awareness within Israeli society?
Goldstein: This is a very difficult job. When Gazan settlers’ homes were demolished and the settlers were not given the compensation they were promised, it was an issue. The widespread policies of demolitions of Palestinians’ homes is not, even if this happens on a daily basis. How much we lament the destruction of Jewish homes and we just cannot empathize with Palestinians. ICAHD wants to bring the soul and the heart back to Israeli society.

Clearly a wider mission than many other Israeli peace organizations. What is the place of ICAHD in the peace movement and how are you perceived by the Israeli public?
Goldstein: We are branded as radicals because we lose trust in the two-state solution, but it is the Israeli policy that is making two states impossible. Organizations such as Peace Now are not entirely fair to the Israeli public. They let Israelis believe that a land swap will bring peace. Peace Now is the standard in the Israeli peace movement, it has swallowed the mainstream and it determines the limits of the peace discourse. We are outsiders.
 
Many Israeli organizations operate only within an Israeli context and never come into contact with Palestinians. They do nothing to break down the walls of fear between the two peoples. They prepare Israeli society for the final separation from the Palestinians, while we work towards a rapprochement with the Palestinians. We emphasize what unites us and not what divides us. We want to enable Israeli society to see the Palestinians as humans. This sounds obvious, but it is crucial. Because many Israelis do not see Palestinians as individuals with rights, the Israeli government can violate the human rights of the Palestinians without much protest.

What is your vision for the future?
Goldstein:
We must dare to dream of a region without borders. It is a small country. Some Palestinians living in enclaves surrounded by the wall actually live 15 kilometers from the finest beaches in Israel. They cannot go there. Look at the European Union, where borders have disappeared. You do not even know why you really needed them. The separation logic goes back to the traumas that the Jewish people suffered in the past: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, suicide attacks. We can only hope that future generations in Israel will have to live through less traumas and will open up to the world.

ICAHD:
18,000 Homes destroyed by Israel since 1967:
http://www.18000homes.org/
Constructing Peace (foto’s): http://picasaweb.google.com/ICAHD2007
Interview Jeff Halper (ICAHD): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZJc7i0bGGk
Jeff Halper, Warehousing a “Surplus People”:
http://www.icahd.org/eng/articles.asp?menu=6&submenu=1
Norwegian Refugee Council: http://www.nrc.no/?did=9167645
Internal Displacement Monitoring Center: http://www.internal-displacement.org/idmc/website/countries.nsf/(httpCountries)/78C5F977D946B388802570A7004CD702?OpenDocument&count=1000