The world has come to know the dire situation in Palestine via graphic eruptions of violence such as those we witnessed recently at the Great March of Return — state violence purposefully enacted against men, women, children, disabled people, journalists, and medics. Yet little of the day to day acts of oppression and humiliation — acts that indeed drive people to despair — are reported, rendering our understanding of the human crisis in Palestine extremely limited.
But a recent event points out the unrelenting, devastating nature of the Occupation, illuminating the Kafkaesque and immensely cruel program of Israeli dominance and humiliation. Israel’s continued construction of illegal settlements on the West Bank has resulted in the demolition of Palestinian homes, buildings, and entire villages for some time now. Israel is now requiring Palestinians to destroy their homes themselves, or face prison time, as Al Jazeera recently reported.
To understand this tactic of erasing a people requires a thorough understanding of the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territories.
The “harsh logic” of the occupation comes from the name of a book compiled by an Israeli human rights organization, Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli soldiers who banded together to give witness to the Occupation. Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Solders’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010 collected 145 testimonies that named the core aims of the Occupation — they were charged with “demonstrating a presence” and the “searing of consciousness” among Palestinians that their state of oppression was to be permanent.
Since 2012 things have gotten exponentially worse for Palestinians, in both Gaza and on the West Bank. Everyday life in both places shows the scars and the wounding of life tethered to the occupation’s logic. Forcing Palestinians to destroy their own homes is as much an act of psychological warfare as it is one of brutal and direct destruction.
Israel routinely denies building permits to Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem. With the choice between lacking shelter and constructing whatever roofs they can put over their heads, Palestinians face the ever-present threat that their homes will be demolished — they are thus caught in a calculated paradox designed by the Occupier. To be Palestinian in day to day life is thus to likely be an illegal in one’s own land.
Restrictive building laws and difficulty obtaining permits are part of a wider two-tiered discriminatory Israeli legal plan aimed at solidifying a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. According to the UN, several areas of East Jerusalem have seen a spike in demolition operations (some 782 homes have been destroyed) which have left nearly 2,800 Palestinians homeless. As Human Rights Watch points out, over half of them are children.
For example, the Hashimi family has recently been forced to demolish most of their home, displacing Murad Hasmini, his wife Idaya, and their four children (aged nine months to thirteen years old), as well as his brother and his family. If they had not demolished the rooms themselves, Israeli authorities would have done so and charged the family at much greater cost to the family; the father, Murad, would have faced up to three months in prison. With the help of a friend, they are now trying to raise donations so they can pay for the equipment and help they needed to hire to destroy their home.
In an interview, Murad told me that he was born in that house, which was built two decades ago. He is unable to work, suffering from a debilitating respiratory disease that has him on an oxygen machine and medication. When I asked him what emotion he felt at this juncture, he used the Arabic word “qahr.” It is a word that is difficult to translate into English — it is annoyance, pain, hurt, grief, sadness, feeling wronged all rolled into in one.
Nora Lester Morad, who started the GoFundMe campaign for the family, is a writer, activist, and teacher now living in Manhattan who has made a short film showing how the simple act of making a cup of coffee is painstakingly done in a demolished Palestinian home. She told Al Jazeera: “It is a whole new level of depravity when an oppressor makes their victims pay for their own oppression …. It forces Palestinians to participate in the violation of their own rights and physically implement their own dispossession. Self-home-demolition is one of the many types of injustices that Israel does that are not well-known outside of Palestine.”
The Occupation has been particularly devastating for the young, whose hopes are dying due to the relentless “logic” of Israel’s policies. No normal life is open to them. Like those on the West Bank unable to be assured of even having a home to come back to each day, Palestinians in Gaza have little semblance of everyday life.
Ali Abusheikh is a young university student and member of We Are Not Numbers, a nonprofit human rights groups that seeks to give a picture of Palestinian life beyond the statistics we are presented with in the US. He told me in an interview of the lack of “simple things others around the world take for granted — the lack of fresh water, of medicine, of electricity, of jobs that pay sustainable salaries, of construction materials, of good-quality goods.” He feels Gaza is at “death’s door.”
The entire rhythm of Palestinian life in Gaza is determined by if and when Israel decides to allow electricity or water to flow:
I never allow myself to sleep when we have electricity. I have to make sure to do the laundry and charge the family’s phones and laptops. We never know when we will have electricity again, so I must take advantage of it when I can. Most importantly, I keep an eye on the outside faucet so when the water comes, I can turn on the generator that pumps it from the underground pipes into the storage barrels on our roof. We schedule our entire life according to the few hours of electricity we are given. And the continual bombs, especially those late at night or at dawn, always freeze us in terror. They make us feel dizzy and give us headaches — we feel them in our bones.
It’s these practices that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which urges people of conscience to refuse to be complicit with these state practices and to not engage in business as usual with Israel until it grants the Palestinians their due rights, is trying to halt. And it’s these practices that efforts to stifle criticism of Israel are attempting to defend. Until we can have frank discussions about the brutality of life under the logic of the occupation, we cannot truly make any kind of moral or ethical judgment about the Palestinians.