House Demolitions and Israel's Policy of Hafrada

House Demolitions and Israel's Policy of Hafrada


As the Director of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) for the past 14 years, I am intimately familiar with both Israel’s stated policies regarding the Occupied Palestinian Territory and its population, and its actual practices “on the ground.” Since my expertise lies primarily in the area of house demolitions, I would like to focus in particular on two articles of the Apartheid Convention: Article II(c) concerning measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including…the right to freedom of movement and residence; and Article II(d) regarding measures designed to divide the population of Israel/Palestine along racial lines.

Israel’s Policy of Demolishing Palestinian Homes

The long-standing Israeli policy of demolishing Palestinian homes on both side of the “Green Line” represents a central element in the conflict between the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian peoples. It is motivated by purely political considerations, although it employs an elaborate system of planning, laws and administrative procedures to lend it a proper facade. The goal is to confine the 4.5 million Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, together with the million Palestinian citizens of Israel, to small enclaves on only about 8% of the country – rising to 15% if a truncated Palestinian mini-state is established. Ultimately it is to make conditions so miserable for middle-class Palestinians that they leave the country, leaving the masses poor, leaderless and malleable. In this way, Israel can effectively control the entire country, Palestinian state or not.

The house demolition policy did not originate with the Occupation in 1967. The British Mandate authorities demolished Palestinian homes before 1948 as forms of “deterrence” against attacks, appreciative of the fact that this was the most painful punishment for Arabs (and, probably, for anyone).

It was Israel, however, that applied the house demolition policy widely and systematically. From 1947-1967, the Israeli authorities systematically demolished some 536 entire Palestinian villages, fully half the villages of Palestine, plus towns like Tiberias and eleven major urban neighborhoods. Many of these demolitions took place outside the boundaries of the land allocated to the Jews by the UN; all, however, were within what ultimately became Israel. Since 1967, the Israeli government has demolished 26,000 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories, but has also continued the policy of demolition within Israeli itself and against its own Arab citizens.*

What is the Process of Demolition?

When homes are demolished in military actions or as acts of deterrence and collective punishment, there is no process. No formal demolition orders, no warning, no time to remove furniture or personal belongings, often barely time to escape the home falling down around your ears.

Demolitions are also carried out for “administrative” reasons (lack of a permit) by the Civil Administration in the West Bank and Gaza, by either the Ministry of Interior or the Jerusalem municipality in East Jerusalem. Here, the process is embedded in planning and zoning – seemingly “proper administration.” Master plans and zoning regulations have been carefully prepared so as to limit Palestinian building, all carefully based on legal requirements. The entire West Bank has been designated "agricultural land," while most of the unbuilt-upon land owned by Palestinians in East Jerusalem has been zoned as “open green space.”

Since Palestinians do not enjoy home mail delivery (including in East Jerusalem), demolition orders are distributed in a very haphazard manner. Occasionally a building inspector may knock on the door and hand the order to anyone who answers, including small children. More frequently the order is stuck into the doorframe or even left under a stone near the house. On many occasions Palestinians have complained that they never received the order before the bulldozers arrived, and thus were denied recourse to the courts. In Jerusalem a favored practice is to “deliver” an order at night by placing it somewhere near the targeted home, then arriving early in the morning to demolish.

If they do manage to reach the court in time, Palestinians may occasionally delay the order’s execution (at considerable expense). We are not aware, however, of any order that has actually ever been overturned. Once it is affirmed, the bulldozers may arrive at any time – the same day, weeks or years later, or never. Palestinians, barred from any possibility of obtaining decent, affordable and legal housing, do a simple, cold arithmetic: thousands of demolition orders are outstanding, the various Israeli authorities destroy “only” 150-500 homes a year (military attacks and punitive demolitions aside), so if I build the chances are that I might buy a year or two or three before the bulldozers arrive. As in a perverse reverse lottery, I might even “win” and escape demolition altogether. This gamble comes at a high emotional cost as well as financial.

When the dreaded day finally arrives, it comes almost without warning. Though families know their homes are targeted, actual demolitions are carried out at random, without pattern, and can strike anywhere at any time. Randomization is part of the generalized fear that underlies the policy of "deterrence." The wrecking crews, accompanied by tens of soldiers, police and Civil Administration officials, usually come in the early morning hours just after the men have left for work. The family is sometimes given a few minutes to remove their belongings before the bulldozers move in, but because family members and neighbors usually put up some kind of resistance – or at least protest – they are often removed forcibly from the house. Their possessions are then thrown out by the wrecking crews (often foreign guest workers).

In addition to the emotional suffering of seeing their most personal possessions broken, ruined and thrown out in the rain, sun and dirt, demolitions constitute a serious financial blow, especially to the poor families who make up the vast majority of demolition victims. About 70% of Palestinians living in both Jerusalem and the West Bank/Gaza live below the poverty line. Families whose monthly income is around $500 are burdened by the Israeli courts with hefty fines in the range of $10-20,000, to be paid in monthly installments whether the house is demolished or not. In Jerusalem families must also pay for the demolition of their own homes; at the end of the demolition they are presented with the wrecking company’s bill, around $1,500.

When the bulldozer finally begins its systematic work of demolition, the whole process takes between five minutes (for a small home of concrete blocks) to six hours (for a five story apartment building). At times demolition is resisted amidst violence; people are beaten, jailed, sometimes killed, always humiliated. At other times the family and their neighbors watch sullenly as their home is reduced to rubble. One can only imagine their feelings and thoughts.

What Does It Mean to a Palestinian Family to Have Its Home Demolished?

The human suffering entailed in the process of destroying a family’s home is incalculable. A home is not only a physical structure; for all of us it is the center of our lives, the site of our most intimate personal life, an expression of our identity, tastes and social status. It is a refuge, a physical representation of the family, an extension of our very selves. It is "home." For Palestinians, homes carry additional meanings. Upon marriage, sons construct their homes close to that of their parents, thus maintaining not only a physical closeness but continuity on one's ancestral land. The latter aspect is especially important in the world of farmers, and even more so as Palestinians have faced massive displacement in the past half century. Land expropriation is another facet of home demolition, an attack on one's very being and identity.

Demolition is an experience different for men, women and children. Men are probably the most humiliated, since demolition means you can neither protect your family nor provide for their basic shelter and needs. It also means losing a living connection to your family land, your personal patrimony and that of your people. Men often cry at demolitions (and long after), but they are also angered, swear revenge and intend to build again (although some men withdraw emasculated from active family life). Since men usually have jobs and access to the world outside the home, they also have a certain outlet for their frustrations.

Demolitions alter, even destroy, a woman’s entire persona and role in the family. Palestinian women generally do not have careers outside the home. Their identity and status as wives, mothers and, indeed, persons is wrapped up in their domestic life. When their homes are demolished, women often become disoriented, unable to function without that organizing domestic sphere. Some sink into a kind of mourning, although in some cases, especially if the husband has withdrawn, they take on more assertive roles in the family.

Demolition represents a double tragedy for women. Not only do they lose their own domestic space, but they are forced to move into the homes of other women, their mothers- or sisters-in-law. The overcrowding and tension this generates is exacerbated by the fact that the “guest” woman has little control over the domestic sphere, over the care of her own husband and children, further diminishing her role and status. In many cases this results in severe tensions within the families, including domestic violence spawned by the wife’s demands (even unspoken) for a home of her own, and the husband’s inability to provide it. Eventually families may move into their own rented quarters – another expense – or even rebuild their home, having no choice but to risk another demolition.

For children, the act of demolition – and the months and years leading up to it – is a time of trauma. To witness the fear and powerlessness of your parents, to feel constantly afraid and insecure, to see loved ones (relatives and neighbors) being beaten and losing their homes, to experience the harassment of Civil Administration field supervisors speeding around your village in their white Toyota jeeps—and then to endure the noise, violence, displacement and destruction of your home, your world, your toys—these mark children for life. Psychological services are largely absent in the Palestinian community and there are many signs of trauma and stress among children: bed-wetting, nightmares, fear to leave home lest one "abandon" parents and siblings to the army, dramatic drops in grades and school-leaving, as well the effects of exposure to domestic violence that occasionally follows impoverishment, displacement and humiliation.

The Legal Implications

While every country requires planning regulations, zoning and enforcement mechanisms, Israel is the only 'Western' country that systematically denies permits and demolishes houses of a particular national group. The goal is clear: to create an exclusively “Jewish” space on 85% of historic Palestine while confining the Palestinians to truncated enclaves on the remaining 15% (does this figure include Palestinian citizens of Israel?). The policy is also explicit. The official name for Israel’s policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians is hafrada, “separation” or apartheid in Hebrew; the name of the 750 kilometer barrier dividing Jews from Palestinians and locking the latter into enclaves is called the “Separation Barrier.”

The house demolition policy, when combined with the designation of 85% of Palestinian and Bedouin-owned land (throughout Israel and the OPT) as Israeli “state land,”(and therefore largely inaccessible to Palestinians) the massive and ongoing expropriations that flow from that and the consequent creation of separate reserves and ghettos in which the Palestinian population is confined, violates numerous articles of other international covenants, as mentioned above.

In particular, it violates Article 2(c) of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, constituting as it does measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including…the right to freedom of movement and residence. It also stands in violation of Article 2(d): measures designed to divide the population of Israel/Palestine along racial lines.


As a political organization, ICAHD is dedicated to ending Israel’s occupation totally and achieving a just peace between Palestinians and Israeli Jews . We pursue a legal strategy when we think that is effective, but it is only part of our strategy, which includes resistance, advocacy and mobilizing civil society as well.

Thus we use the term “apartheid” to describe the regime Israel has constructed. In this sense it resembles apartheid in South Africa. Both systems were based on the same two principles: (1) one ethnic, religious or national group separates itself from the others and then (2) imposes a permanent, institutionalized regime of domination. By focusing on these twin elements of apartheid as a political system, separation and domination, we are able to “name” the regime that encompasses both Israel “proper” and the Occupied Territories. This lends focus and specificity to our analysis, helps people grasp the nature of the problem beyond such obfuscating terms as “terrorism,” “occupation” and “both sides,” and provides a measure by which proposed solutions can be evaluated. This political definition of apartheid complements the legal, yet must also be stated and made part of the equation.

Although exact figures are impossible to arrive at, the stages in Israel’s demolition campaign are as follows:

Stage 1: Inside Israel (1948-1960s)

• Between 1948 and into the 1960s Israel systematically demolished 518 Palestinian villages inside of what became the State of Israel, two-thirds of the villages of Palestine. This was not done in the heat of battle, but well after the residents fled or were driven out, so that the refugees could not return and their lands could be turned over to the Jewish population.

Stage 2: In the Occupied Territories (1967-present)

At the very start of the Occupation in 1967 the policy of demolition was carried across the “Green Line” into the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. As of 2005 approximately 12,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed – homes, we must add, of people who had already lost their homes inside Israel in 1948 and after.

• At least 2,000 houses were demolished immediately following the 1967 war. Four entire villages were razed in the Latrun area (now known as “Canada Park”), while dozens of ancient homes were destroyed in the Mughrabi Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City to create a plaza for the Wailing Wall.

• In 1971, Ariel Sharon, then Commander of the Southern Command, cleared 2,000 houses in the Gaza refugee camps to facilitate military control. (Since he was elected Prime Minister in early 2001 he has overseen the demolition of another 1500 homes in Gaza.)

• At least 2,000 houses in the Occupied Territories were destroyed in the course of quelling the first Intifada in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

• Almost 1,700 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories were demolished by the Civil Administration during the course of the Oslo peace process (1993-2000)

• During the second Intifada (2000-2004) between 4000-5000 Palestinian homes were destroyed in military operations, including hundreds in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron and other cities of the West Bank, more than 2500 in Gaza alone. Tens of thousands of other homes were left uninhabitable. Altogether around 50,000 people have been left homeless. Hundreds of shops, workshops, factories and public buildings, including all the Palestinian Authority ministry offices in all the West Bank cities, have also been destroyed or damaged beyond repair. According to Amnesty International more as than 3000 hectares of cultivated land – 10% of the agricultural land of Gaza – have been cleared during this time. Wells, water storage pools and water pumps which provided water for drinking, irrigation and other needs for thousands of people, have also been destroyed, along with tens of kilometers of irrigation networks.

• Between 2000-2011 about 2000 Palestinian homes were demolished by the Civil Administration for lack of proper permits.

• More than 628 Palestinian homes were demolished during the second Intifada as collective punishment and “deterrence” affecting families of people known or suspected of involvement in attacks on Israeli civilians. On average 12 innocent people lose their home for every person “punished” for a security offense – and in half of the cases the occupants had nothing whatsoever to do with the acts in question. To add to the Kafkaesque nature of this policy, the Israeli government insists it is pursued to “deter” potential terrorists although, according to B’tselem, 79% of the suspected offenders were either dead or in detention at the time of the demolition.

• In sum, during the second Intifada, according to B’tselem, 60% of the Palestinian homes demolished in the Occupied Territories were done so as part of military “clearing operations;” 25% were demolished as being “illegal,” not having permits; and 15% for collective punishment.

• About 8000 homes were demolished in the assault on Gaza during the three weeks of late-December 2008-mid January 2009. They were almost all “collateral damage” and not specifically targeted.

Stage 3: Back Inside Israel (1990s-present)

• Throughout Israel proper, in the “unrecognized” Palestinian and Bedouin villages, as well as in the Palestinian neighborhoods of Ramle, Lod and other Palestinian towns, houses continue to be demolished at an ever accelerating rate. Some 100,000 “internal refugees” from 1948 and their families still live in more than 100 “unrecognized villages” located in the vicinity of their now-destroyed villages, where they suffer from inadequate living conditions and constant threats of demolition. Entire Bedouin villages in the Negev, numbering some 60,000-70,000 residents, are threatened with demolition. Indeed, whereas Arabs comprise almost 20% of the population of Israel, they are confined by law and zoning policies to a mere 3.5% of the land. In mid-2004 the Israeli government announced the formation of a “Demolition Administration” in the Ministry of Interior to oversee the demolition of these homes of Israeli Arab citizens – between 20,000-40,000 in number.



*Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). He can be reached at <[email protected]>.