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Family takes stock after mass Lod demolition

Dec. 16, 2010 10:07 A.M. (Updated: Dec. 22, 2010 4:33 P.M.)
By Anne Usher

LOD, Israel (Ma'an) -- The 67 members of the extended Abu Eid family assessed the remains of their six concrete homes on Wednesday, two days after police in Lod demolished them amidst sheets of rain and blustery winds.

The six buildings were among more than 100 in the city under immediate demolition orders, following a fall Knesset decision to destroy an estimated 4,000 illegal housing structures in a plan said to cost millions of shekels.

A dozen other homes have been bulldozed in previous years, sparking periodic protests by hundreds of Arab residents. Yousef Asfour, coordinator with Amnesty International’s Israel branch, said an earlier incident in October saw two homes in the same neighborhood of the mixed Jewish-Arab city bulldozed.

The most high-profile demolition to date was Monday's demolition of the entire Abu Eid family compound.

Most of the extended family members said they were home at around 8 a.m. when an estimated 500 police officers in tactical gear stormed the courtyard of the compound, broke through doors and quickly turned the men, women and children out into the season's worst storm without shoes or jackets. Police made no arrests.

Eleven-year-old Odei was home alone with his 12-year-old sister when police broke through his door. “They pointed rifles at me and said ‘don’t move,’” he related. Once outside, he said, "I was wet and cold. They were like gangsters,” he added of the young police in face-concealing riot gear.

All that remained after the five-hour bulldozing operation was chewed-up grey concrete, bent fans, broken air-conditioners and furniture beneath rubble. A paddock containing goats was partially broken and nearly half of what the family said was 100 animals went missing.

Family members said they were not allowed to rescue of their possessions and watched as refrigerators were destroyed and food was thrown to the floor. Five allege that they were shoved or kicked, including Shareen, 27, who is three months pregnant and had re-entered her home to try to assist her mother.

Sinam, a mother of seven, claims that officers took gold jewelry she had in safekeeping to use as dowry for her two engaged daughters. A ring with precious stones was returned, she said, but a gold chain remains missing.

Thirteen-year-old Noor claims he watched as a soldier threw his puppy – tied up and barking – and then shoot it in the stomach. “I came over and it was dying,” he said quietly as other boys noted his tears that morning.

Lod’s police chief and mayor declined multiple requests for comment.

Contesting demolitions

The family claims the six houses and small office destroyed Monday were built more than 50 years ago. Each family said it had been paying rent for decades to a state-owned company to use the land, but was only allowed to build up to 100 square-meter homes since it was zoned as agricultural.

As the family grew, it requested but was declined approval to expand their houses. Expansions were nonetheless made and retroactive permits sought. After many court appeals, family members were told to expect the demolitions at the end of December.

Some 30 homeowners in same area have received notices that their houses will also be bulldozed at the end of the month.

Families whose homes are demolished are asked to pay the municipality for the steep cost of the action or be jailed; some Arab residents in Lod have taken to demolishing their own homes because it is cheaper.

Arab homes principal target in larger plan

It is a scene being repeated across Israel with increasing frequency. Some 42,000 Arab homes built without required permits are threatened with demolition: 13,000 could be carried out at any time and 30,000 are at some stage in local courts, said Ameer Makhoul, director of Ittijah, a Palestinian civil society organization.

Last year, 165 of these homes were bulldozed, Amnesty International said.

“It’s the same story for all the mixed cities: destruction and construction,” said Busayna Dabit, a project coordinator with the New Israel Fund and a Ramle resident. These “mixed” cities also include Haifa, Yaffa and Acre.

More than two-thirds of Arabs in Ramle and nearby Lod are living in illegally built houses. Hundreds have demonstrated periodically in Lod, where, the roughly 27,000 Arabs represent a third of the population.

The phenomenon is pervasive across Israel, from targeting Arab homes in mixed cities to the homes of Bedouins in the NEGEV. //// A collection of some 40 small population centers THERE house an estimated 40 percent of the Bedouins in the Negev, have been settled locations for decades and in some cases used as seasonal encampments for centuries. The areas are not demarcated on maps, receive no water, electricity, road repair or other municipal services.

In Shameer, an unrecognized village of some 4,000 near Lod, virtually every home has been issued a demolition order. A portion of the houses, however, are being legalized under a master plan that involved negotiations between the city, the Israeli Land Authority and Shameer’s inhabitants, including amounts that the government will pay as compensation.

Next door, some 13 families in the neighboring village of Dahmash are awaiting a court order to determine not only the fate of their homes - which are also under demolition orders - but whether Lod or the adjacent city of Ramle will be forced to absorb them into their municipalities, or whether a plan it has drawn up to make its residences legal retroactively will be approved.

The roughly 600 residents of Dahmash say the government told its original families to move there after they were forced off their lands from 1951 through the mid-1980s. While some houses have stood for more than 60 years – and one pre-dates the war – no municipal services, such as water, electricity or sanitation, have been provided to its residents. After three Dahmash children were killed crossing the railroad tracks on foot, the village won a recent court fight to bus them to schools in Ramle.

The Dahmash residents facing expulsion have been told to seek housing Ramle’s Juarish neighborhood, where thousands of Arabs were concentrated after the 1948 War of Independence but have never been given residential building licenses because the city has not registered their names.

National and local officials are intentionally not granting Arab-Israelis planning rights to allow them to develop any land, charged Amnesty International’s executive director for Israel, Itay Epshtain. “It is a form of diminished citizenship because a lot of the services you depend on are at the municipal level.”

Emek Lod’s leader, Minache Mosche, denies that Dahmash exists.

“There is no settlement or village by the name of Dahmash and there never has been one,” he said. He claimed that, with the exception of one pre-war house, there was nothing on the land except for two farm storage buildings until illegal construction of homes began in 1990.

Asked where the villagers should move, Ramle mayor Yoel Lavi said: “It’s a free market. You can buy everywhere.” “They are poor in culture, poor in behavior. No ambition.”

The cost

A kilometer away from the Abu Eid family, the wreckage of the homes of nine other families whose homes were destroyed in 2008 remains visible, across some railroad tracks from where one of the sons of a former homeowner now sleeps in a lot with dozens of sheep and his car repair shop.

The Wihwah brothers and five of their neighbors paid 15,000 shekels altogether to wreck their own homes two years ago after receiving an initial demolition order in 2003. The owners of the other two homes “didn’t think they would come,” said Telal. One week later, each had to pay 90,000 shekels when the police carried out the demolitions.

Talal said his family had to pay 250,000 shekels ($69,624) in back city taxes, despite not having received municipal services. He and his brothers say they are afraid to open bank accounts, out of fear that the city would confiscate any deposits.

“It’s very painful to look at these stones,” said Ahmad, one of his two brothers. “My grandfather owned this land. Now, I suffer from claustrophobia.”

Anne Usher is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv. She has written for The Christian Science Monitor and Ynet since moving to Israel and is a former editor for Cox Newspapers. Her bio is at anneusher.com
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