Bethlehem, Asharq Al-Awsat- Abdullah sat before the ruins that remained of his house with tears in his eyes, “I am 48-years-old. I have suffered throughout these years to secure this house for my family and children, and now all that is left of it is rubble after the Israelis destroyed it. How can I build another house?”
Abdullah is a Palestinian from Gaza and Youssef al Maghrabi is from Bethlehem. Tens of thousands like them have lost their homes under various pretenses but the common denominator is one: All their life’s work and achievements were lost in an instant. It is nearly impossible to compensate for that.
According to various statistical sources, over 90,000 houses in the Palestinian territories have been damaged or demolished by the Israeli army since 1967.
But Youssef al Maghrabi has learned from experience how to confront the severe hardships and the brutality of the Israeli army with an increased derision. He sat in front of his devastated house to review the progress of its reconstruction, vowing that this time he will build a larger and more beautiful home.
Not far from the ruins of his house in the Dahisha refugee camp near Bethlehem, al Maghrabi lives with his wife, the wife of his imprisoned son and his grandson in a tiny, impoverished, dark room made of bricks. It was formerly used to keep sheep. Al Maghrabi cannot entertain guests there, but he leaves a small table and a few chairs in the space outside between the ruins of his house and the room they occupy. Next to that room is another smaller one that was once used for chickens, which he is saving for his son when he returns. The harshness of the life he leads has not heightened his grief but has rather strengthened his resolve to learn to confront these tragic and trying times.
“Frankly, I thought I cannot rely on anyone in my nation except the animals,” he said in reference to the sheep and chickens, “so I moved them out and moved into their room with Umm Ahmed and the children.”
According to statistics conducted by the Palestinian Ministry of Public Works and Housing, the number of houses demolished by the Israeli army over the past few years since the second Intifada in 2000 number over 8,100 houses in Gaza and the West Bank. Since 1967, approximately 18,000 Palestinian houses were destroyed in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. These figures are in agreement with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. A report issued by an Israeli human rights organization concedes that 350 houses in east Jerusalem have been razed to the ground since 1999.
Meanwhile the Palestinian Ministry of Public Works and Housing estimates the financial losses over the past seven years to amount to approximately US $203 million. Moreover, the ministry upholds that the Israeli army has partially damaged nearly 69,300 houses, of which 60 percent have been fixed.
“I challenge the Palestinian Authority and all its factions, and the whole world to speak up if they have provided any support, whether financial or moral,” said al Maghrabi. He complained of the Authority’s neglect of the people whose houses had been ravaged. “Let me ask you; if the house of one of the leadership figures had been destroyed, would they have left it like that without rebuilding it? Certainly not…”
But the real war launched on Palestinian houses started in 2002 when the Israeli army started to target the homes of the families of wanted activists, or those who had participated in armed attacks on Israeli targets. But it went much further than that when whole neighborhoods were destroyed and tens of thousands of families were displaced as a result of large-scale operations, especially in Rafah (south Gaza), Jenin refugee camp and the old city of Nablus. Human rights organizations continue to condemn the use of force and the displacement of tens of thousands who are abandoned with no alternative or shelter.
The people of Rafah have not forgotten the mass displacements during what came to be known as the ‘Hal al Gazri’ (complete uprooting) operation in 2003 and ‘Qos Qazah’ (Rainbow) operation in 2004. According to Ibrahim Shatat, the head of the association of demolished houses in Rafah, these two operations resulted in the destruction of over 3,500 houses, displacing over 20,000 citizens who either set up tents in refugee camps or rented parts of wrecked houses that were originally used for storage.
Shattat told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Palestinian Authority, with the help of some Arab and European countries and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), has provided houses for 600 families only, out of 3,500, while 2,900 families are awaiting the completion of the housing projects. These projects, however, have been abandoned since Hamas came to power [in 2005].
In the West Bank, many are left homeless. Despite the authority having pledged to rebuild their demolished homes, the residents have been forced to resort to renting houses. Still, the Palestinian Authority let them down again when it failed to provide the cost of the rent, as it had said it would. This was related by the blind Hajj Abdul-Rabu Bedeir whose house was demolished back in 2002. Bedier affirms that he never received the cost of the rent, which is the equivalent of US $180 a month, for three years and neither has he received any monetary compensation for his ravaged house.
His son Khaled said, “We hear a lot of talk but nothing is delivered. I feel like we are treated as though we are a group of beggars. If I wanted to, I could gather money for a house by standing by mosque doors – but we have pride. We respect the blood of our sons. Just look at how they’re obtaining huge sums of money for a football stadium and other projects, including festivals held by political parties – and we can’t even secure our rent.”
“Has President Abbas not heard of the thousands of demolished homes and their owners who have been displaced? Isn’t Salam Fayyad aware, and hasn’t Hamas heard?” he said in frustration.
But the Palestinian Authority admits to its negligence and its inability to find solutions for the hundreds of displaced families, according to Fayeq Deek, the deputy minister of the Palestinian Ministry of Public Works and Housing. However, he pointed out that this was a result of the lack of funds.
“The donating parties and the international institutions have refused to deal with all cases of demolished houses in the West Bank and have only provided compensation for the houses that were partially destroyed. We do not have the required budget,” said Deek.
In their desperation, the owners of the demolished houses decided to take initiative and formed various committees throughout the Palestinian territories. Among them is one that is headed by Youssef al Maghrabi who stated that in some cases they had not even been able to lift and clear up the rubble that remained of the houses.
“The governor of Bethlehem has formed a committee of citizens who have lost their homes, in addition to members of national associations and institutions, with the intention of alleviating the crises of the displaced families – but he is unable to restore their houses,” said al Maghrabi.
“The governor appointed me as the head of the committee, but I refused. He told me that the president had assigned him with the task so I requested that he ask the president to make a financial contribution so that we could remove the rubble first. He promised to look into the matter. He then informed me that the committee was established with the intention of raising money, and that they had started to obtain funds from Arab countries to rebuild the houses.”
But al Maghrabi, like others, did not want to beg for money and began to rebuild his second house – but at a very slow pace. He relates how he had salvaged metal from the wrecked house to reuse in rebuilding the foundation. He added that his daughters have sold all their gold and that he had borrowed US $10,000.
“The important thing,” he said, “is that the house is erected above the ground again. It’s not important if we do not live in it again; I just want to see it up again.” He affirmed, “If they destroy the rocks, we will rebuild them. They (the Israelis) will never be able to crush my soul.”
Al Maghrabi worked with the PLO in Lebanon from 1970 until he left the country in 1982. He was then transferred, as part of the organization’s forces, to Sudan and Libya until he returned to the Palestinian territories in 1996 after the Oslo Accords. In 2000, he lost his son Mahmoud who was killed by a bullet fired by the Israeli army, and in 2002, while pursuing his second son, Ahmed, the army bombed the house. At the time, the losses were estimated at US $75,000, in accordance with the Ministry of Housing’s assessment. But al Maghrabi rebuilt it again, without turning to any official party for assistance.
“I rented a small house nearby for a year and a half and made the decision to rebuild the house. The Israelis had managed to imprison my son Ahmed, in addition to his brothers Ali and Omar. Only my wife and I remain, along with Ahmed’s wife and my son Mohammed. I used to have some money, and I borrowed some to build a bigger and more beautiful home,” said al Maghrabi.
Al Maghrabi’s tragic story does not end here. Despite having lost a son, while three others have been given life sentences in Israeli prisons, he has not given up the fight. Asked by Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist for ‘Haaretz’ newspaper, what he felt as he stood in front of the rubble that used to be his home, he said, “I will build a more beautiful house. In three months, I will invite you for a chat and we can have a coffee together.” Levy replied, “I am ashamed to be Israeli and I personally extend my apologies to you, as well as the apologies of all my readers.”
In 2004, soldiers bearing explosives came to al Maghrabi’s doorstep – but the scenario was different this time. There were no demands or excuses. Al Maghrabi recounted: “I asked the officer what he wanted and he said ‘I’m going to blow your house up.’ I asked: ‘For what reason?’ He said: ‘these are the orders in the report.’ I asked: ‘Does it say to demolish my house?’ ‘Yes, and it’s also written in your Quran, too,’ he said laughing. ‘What is written?’ I asked him. ‘That we will take revenge on your sons and that you lost your house because of your sons,’ he said.
‘You claim democracy while my sons are imprisoned by you and you punish them in your prisons, how am I connected to that?’ I said with contempt. ‘You are the witness without a testimony,” he said.
Al Maghrabi continued, “He asked me to wake the neighbors but I refused, so he gave me 15 minutes to take out the furniture. I laughed and went out to pray. As I was praying, I heard the sound of an explosion and everything collapsed once again.” He was silent for a moment, lost in thought or perhaps shedding a tear, but then he continued, “They don’t want us to live with dignity. Our house has been demolished; do we not deserve some help? I have two sons affiliated to Fatah who are imprisoned; the other supports Hamas, while the authority, Fatah and Hamas alike, has nothing to offer. (He smiles) Maybe they take me for an independent organization, or a secret one. In any case, I am thankful to God for everything.”
Still, he anticipates that his house could be demolished a third time. “Of course it is possible,” he said, “But I will never leave and abandon my homeland. I love this nation. What does destroying a few rocks mean? Nothing. We will only rebuild it again in a much better way.”
However, what pains al Maghrabi, along with thousands of other families is the authority’s neglect of them. “Did you know that Fatah died with Abu Ammar? They were both buried in the same grave. The authority and the factions are useless,” he said with tremendous bitterness.
“We have no one to depend on but God. I do not trust anyone. I take full responsibility for my words. My debt has reached US $20,000 but I cannot surrender. Life must go on,” concluded Youssef al Maghrabi.