Israel’s Home Destruction

Why does Israel have a policy of destroying Palestinian homes? How is this policy justified both on the international stage and domestically? How has the changing landscape affected Palestinian sense of homeland, attachment and/or loss?

Yesterday I took a tour through the Nablus’s Old City – a beautiful, ancient city that is architecturally similar to the Old City of Jerusalem. My tour guide pointed out the usual historical sites such as ancient mosques, the famous Turkish bath house, and the crowded markets. However, the tourguide couldnít help but to include recent history as well – such as blown up buildings and houses. He pointed to specific places where during the last major invasion (April 2002), the Israeli military tore down homes for the sole purpose of providing better transportation routes for tanks into the narrow roadways in the old city. In fact most of the buildings destroyed had been done so for strategic reasons rather than for ìsecurity reasonsî. The destroyed homes were not those of resistance fighters, but civilians. After that particular invasion, it was discovered that entire families were wiped out.

I was also brought to a large empty lot that is now used as a parking lot. It is the site of a huge building that was completely destroyed by a missile. A middle-aged man appeared out of nowhere and told our guide the story of this site. He told us that the missile not only destroyed the targeted building, but many buildings and homes that surrounded it as well. He pointed to the buildings that still stood and the damage still visible on them. He finished the story by saying that his 10-year-old child was playing on the street when the missile struck the building – killing him immediately.

During the April 2002 invasion, the military went house-to-house searching for people who might be a ìmilitantî. They didnít engage in this search by going to the front door of peopleís homes, but by going through peopleís walls into the adjacent building.

Another behavior by the military that similarly shows little concern for peopleís personal homes is when the Israeli military decide that someoneís home has ìstrategic valueî. Since the April 2002 invasion, the Israeli military invades the city regularly. Not a week passes that a house or building is not demolished or someone’s home is annexed for the purpose of setting up a camp. For periods up to a month or more, the military will decide to take a house and force the family to either find housing elsewhere, or force them to live in one room without any contact with the outside world. When the soldiers finally decide to leave a home, they usually do so in a hateful manner. As one man told me, ìthey left rotting food in the kitchen and living room, broken furniture, and graffiti on the wallsî. No compensation is ever offered to families whose homes are occupied or whose possessions have been destroyed.

Another story about homes that one hears regularly has to do with the dispossessions that occurred due to Israelís continued conquest of Palestinian land. For example, a taxi driver told me the story about why he lives in Balata Refugee camp. His family is originally from Haifa, a city on the Mediterranean Sea north of Tel Aviv. During the war of 1948, the family fled. They believed when they left that it was temporary, that they would return home in a few days. But after Zionist forces captured territory and didnít allow his grandfather and his family to return, they were forced to seek refuge in Refugee camps. They had few possessions with them as the house was still filled with all their belongings — belongings they would never see again. His father and he have visited the house however. A couple of years ago they were given permission to travel in Israel and the two went to look at the house from outside. It would have been too difficult to walk inside so they merely stood across the street looking at it. A few minutes later, a Jewish family that now lives in the house returned and their heartís sank. Such a story is very common in the Palestinian territories. Not a day goes by that I donít hear such stories of dispossession.


The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories hijacks history and memories of home by fundamentally transforming both the built environment and natural landscape.Changing the spatial understanding s of land and nation is disrupting the landscape to fit Israelís relationship to it. The geographers J. Douglas Porteaous and Sandra Smith have coined the term ìdomicideî to describe the deliberate destruction of a physical home, causing emotional, psychological and mental suffering to its former inhabitants. Domicide erases the physical site of memory and the sources of identity. It results in a loss of ownership of property, restrictions of oneís freedom, loss of a historical connection to land and community, and a general weakening of the sense of rootedness or belonging. The same authors use the term ìmemoricdeî to describe the deliberate attempt to erase memory of home, chifly through the destruction of physical, cultural, and community props within the natural and constructed landscape. Domicide is clearly bound up with memoricde. ìmemoricideîis evident in the full or partial destruction of over 800 Palestinian villages that are in Israel. During and after the war of 1948, many of the inhabitants of these villages either fled due to the fighting, or were forcibly removed by Zionist forces. Over 400 of these were completely depopulated (ethnically cleansed). The other 400 villages were mostly, but not completely cleansed. The terms ìdomicideî and ìmemoricideî are useful for trying to understand how the Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes and villages is part of an overall campaign of terror, transformation, and modern state-building.

The wholesale destruction of Palestinian communities did not end in 1948, however. After the 1967 war, Israel claimed more land and reinstated their policies of displacement and destruction again. For example, an entire Palestinian neighborhood, which was close to the Wailing Wall, was dynamited. These policies continue this year as evidenced by Israeli military operations in the Gaza strip. Hundreds of homes have been demolished this year in the Gaza strip. Some were demolished with U.S. manufactured Apache helicopters, others by tanks or bulldozers. Houses were destroyed in Rafa, Khan Younis, Nablus, Balata, Qalailya, Jenin and elsewhere. This year, in many dozens of communities, there has been the wholesale destruction of agricultural land and infrastruction. Roads have been dug up, telephone polls pulled down, water systems demolished.

Most of the people who were forced to leave what is now Israel, after the 1948 war, ended up in refugee camps in the surrounding countries and in the West bank and Gaza strip. These displaced Palestinians still have documents attesting to the ownership of property. They also have eth keys to their home, which, in many case, no longer exist. Regardless of the fact that these documents and keys have no legal value according to the Israeli regime, they nevertheless represent something much greater to the people who still possess them ñ the memory of home (which stays, in spite of its destruction) and the sense of an injustice that has been done to them. No compensation has ever been offered to these victims of Israeli state formation.

The destruction of homes not only affects Palestinians living in the Occupied territories, but also Palestinians living in Israel proper, or Palestinians who are also Israeli ìcitizensî. Israeliís right to demolish peopleís homes indiscriminately is codified in a general idea and Law of the ìpublic goodí. This permission to destroy Palestinians homes for the sake of public good is granted indiscriminately. Yet, at the same time, most Palestinians living within Israeli borders are prevented from receiving building permits for their land or communities, forcing them to build without the permits and thus initiate a vicious cycle of legality/illegality. This ethnic discrimination in so used against Jewish citizens of Israel as they do not have problems getting permits and their houses are never bulldozed.

Other examples of Israeli policies of destruction of non-Jewish peoplesí homes include the displacement of over 8,000 Bedouins in the Negev desert. After Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt that returned the Sinai to them, Israel had to move their military bases, which it had established there, back into Israeli territory. The land, which they chose to colonize, was home to various Bedouin communities, which had lived there for more than one hundred years. The Israeli government took the land and placed the inhabitants into large, newly constructed towns. These towns ere celebrated by Israeli government officials as proving their compassion. But the Bedouins were not happy with their displacement — as few displaced peoples are, regardless of the ìamenitiesî. Israel and Israelis in general seem to have a more materialistic approach to the home and house ñ in spite of their supposedly spiritual attachment to the land ñ than others who have called this land home for centuries.

In Palestine, as elsewhere, a home is more than a shell or shelter in which people reside. It is the place that oneís identity and self understanding, a place that is familiar and is bound up with peopleís family and community are, a place which the cherished objects and memories of oneself is bound. Destruction of oneís home wrecks havoc on the individual and the family and the memories that create a seam between past, present and future. More than a dwelling, the home, the village, and the landscape reflect ones ideas and values, oneís homeland, and oneís permanence and continuity.

Besides the devastating results as mentioned above, it should be also mentioned that all these practices of destroying the homes of politically or militarily weaker groups in or out of Occupied territories is illegal under international law. Israel has been reprimanded many times over the years by international and Israeli human rights organizations as well as by the United Nations. Criticisms and political pressure to get Israel to stop such practices falls empty.

While the destruction of homes by Israel is not a unique historical event, it is rather exceptional in contemporary history. Erasing the Palestinian imprint from the land, like the Chinese did in Tibet or the Serb forces tried to do in Bosnia and Kosovo through the destruction of homes, libraries, churches, mosques, temples, and schools, attempt to erase the imprint of these groups from the land. The Israeliís do this not only by destroying homes and villages, but also by changing the road systems, by settlement building, increasing military infrastructure, resistrcting movement, and so on.

Thus the destruction of home and land must be seen as part of a larger attempt to disenfranchise Palestinians from their homeland and their source of memory and hope. In Nablus and elsewhere in the Occupied Palestinian territories, the rubble of the houses demolished remains in its place. The rubble and broken stones seems to serve as a testimony to the destructive nature of the injustice of the occupation. But there is also another purpose: to rebuild the house with the very same materials that once held it together. In this respect, the rebuilding is much like other aspects of Palestinian resistance: to repair, replace and rebuild what Israel pulls down. As opposed to Israelís intention of destroying Palestinian connections to their homes, communities, and land,

Rebuilding demonstrates that their roots to the landscape, determination for sovereignty, and their commitment to each other, are stronger than the mere stones that make up the shell of their homes.

John Petrovato

Nablus, Nov.21, 2004


Leave a comment