The unwelcome news came last night. Meir, staff member at ICAHD, told us there was likely to be a house demolition today. We had gathered under the lattice and vines of the Jerusalem Hotel to savor the sweet smell of nargile, sip Taybeh beer and say our goodbyes. Two weeks of re-building had left us feeling grateful, humbled, almost hopeful. And now this. We exchanged cell phone numbers and Meir promised to call in the morning with any updates.
Around 9:30 this morning I was lingering in the shade outside the Academic Book Shop on Selah ed-Din Street (convincing myself not to spend money) when the call came. The demolition was going ahead. Meir had only vague information about its location in Sur Bahir, East Jerusalem, but I set out anyway. Several Palestinians pointed me to the right service which, as always, waited until every seat was filled before setting out. We swept around the west side of the Old City and south onto Derek Hebron, then east to wend through a string of Arab communities not far from the Jewish settlement of Talpiot.
After about 15 minutes I climbed down in Sur Bahir with no further instructions to guide my steps. Phone calls to Meir weren’t getting through. In vain I scanned the hillsides in search of bulldozers and military vehicles. More phone calls failed. Then a young Palestinian, sharing my shade and sensing my frustration, asked me in Arabic what I wanted. Remarkably, he understood my gestures and halting speech about the demolition. He pointed the way, then looked at his watch. I was only five minutes away.
There was no mistaking it. As if to advertise the demolition, several army jeeps stood guard over a side street. Soldiers controlled access. I played naïve and tried to pass but a heavily armed soldier blocked my advance. Who was I, he asked. Bruce, I said. Where you from? Canada. (Well, I am. I live in the U.S. but I’m from Canada, which country tends to have fewer enemies than many these days.) I flashed my passport. He scrutinized it carefully and let me pass. Knowing how easily the IDF can establish a “closed military zone,” I was surprised but didn’t let on.
Rounding a corner, another cluster of military vehicles loomed. Soldiers filled the street. A small group of observers, including four fellow members of ICAHD, were being held at a distance from the scene of the demolition. The news they shared wasn’t good. Notwithstanding a lawyer’s best efforts and the payment of 50,000.00 shekels (11,000.00 USD), the soldiers and demolition crew refused to wait a few minutes for a fax to confirm the official postponement of the demolition. This is typical. Last minute legal gymnastics, exorbitant bureaucratic fees, delays in the relay of information, impatient soldiers in charge of the site, and another house crumbles.
When I arrived the Daewoo machines weren’t moving. Up at the site, Palestinians young and old were milling about, shouting, waving arms, staring. At our side, Meir was getting regular updates by phone. The all-important fax had indeed arrived, we learned, and the demolition had been halted mid-course. More waiting. Further commotion. Finally the soldiers and equipment began a grim retreat, marching and rolling past where we stood.
With them gone we were free to approach the scene of the crime. The house in question sat on a hill, just below the road. The machines had smashed the sidewalk and a retaining wall to get within striking distance of the house. And strike they did. The entire front half was gone. A jagged mound of gray rubble lay beneath a tangled web of reinforcing bars. Careless piles of furniture and belongings cluttered the yard. The exterior walls of two remaining rooms were punched in, filling floors with rubble but leaving a bathroom sink and mirror completely untouched. Part of the roof over the “undemolished” part of the house was cracked and tilted dangerously.
In the news this morning the Israelis, after killing over 50 people (mostly children) huddled in a basement in the Lebanese village of Qana, announced a 48-hour suspension of their aerial bombardment. Meanwhile, at a press conference somewhere near where I sit, Condoleeza Rice extended her support for Israel’s objective of degrading Hezbollah’s capabilities, and announced the outline of a U.N. / American plan to establish a secure corridor between Israel and Lebanon. Israel seems to think, and certainly wants the world to think, that its strategy will eventually make the region safer. And Condy is buying it, even though it means certain death for more civilians and further massive erosion of Lebanon’s infrastructure.
Will Israel’s enemies desist after the IDF destroys most of their bunkers and rounds up most of their militants? Is there a military solution to this conflict? I understood little of the Arabic spoken at the demolition today. But I did hear words like “America” and “Israel,” “Hezbollah” and "Nasrallah" (the group's head). And, of course, “Allahu akbar.” Old men shouted. One wept openly. Women covered their faces. Young children looked on, noting carefully who has the power and how it was put to use.
If the Israelis think they will gain security and quell resistance by destroying houses, up in Lebanon or here in East Jerusalem, I can only marvel. What they will gain, I suggest, is another generation of warriors whose young memories cannot erase the sound of buckling concrete and shattering glass, and whose hearts cannot dispel feelings of humiliation, powerlessness and rage.