Rebuilding a House and Building a Common Future

Young and old came from different parts of the world to the small village of Anata to rebuild a demolished Palestinian house together with Israelis and Palestinians. They wanted to provide a home for 23 people, but there was also a larger motivating factor. Building the house was also an act of resistance to the Occupation.


After being displaced from their land in the Negev desert, the Kabuah family came to the Anata village on the outskirts of Jerusalem in 1980. They bought a piece of land and started to build a house, which was completed in 1998. For years they unsuccessfully tried to get a permit to build their house. In June 2004, their house was demolished by the Israeli authorities, leaving the Kabuah family of 23 people homeless. Sadly, the Kabuah family is not alone in facing this situation. According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), since 1967 Israel has demolished almost 9,000 Palestinian homes, leaving approximately 50,000 people without shelter and traumatized.


The homes that are destroyed do not belong only to suicide bombers or their families. According to ICAHD, the large majority of the houses are demolished simply because they lack a building permit. Palestinians build without permits because it is virtually impossible for them to get this permission, either within Israel or in the Occupied Territories. “The motivation for demolishing Palestinian homes is purely political, although elaborate systems of planning regulations, laws, and procedures are employed to give it legal justification,” says Lucia Pizarro, international coordinator of ICAHD.


A demolition order is typically stuck on a house, which could result in its destruction the very next day. Since so many Palestinian houses have no permits, these families know that their homes could be demolished at any time, although they could stand for many years, adding to the anxiety and uncertainty. In addition to risking the loss of their homes, Palestinians also can be heavily fined to the tune of up to $25,000 for not having a permit. Sometimes they even have to pay for the demolition costs of their own home.


“The systematic demolition of Palestinian homes is an attack on an entire people, an attempt to make the Palestinians submit to a mini-state…under Israeli control,” ICAHD coordinator Jeff Halper says. ICAHD is a nonviolent, direct-action group originally established to oppose and resist Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses in the Occupied Territories. They have since expanded their resistance activities to other areas: land expropriation, settlement expansion, by-pass road construction, the policies of “closure” and “separation,” the uprooting of fruit and olive trees, and rebuilding houses. The Kabuahs’ was one of the houses chosen for rebuilding by ICAHD.


A noble Tradition: Breaking an unjust Law


About 20 people of all ages from Europe and North America came to the village of Anata in August 2004 as a response to ICAHD’s invitation to rebuild the Kabuah house together with Palestinians and Israelis. Devorah Brous, a young Israeli woman and the camp manager, greeted the international volunteers on the first day of the building camp.


“During this camp, we will strive to learn as much as possible about the various components of Israel‘s Occupation while challenging it,” Brous said. “Building settlements, bypass roads, industrial zones, even nature reserves is the Israeli government’s strategy to create facts on the ground. Instead of just demonstrating, instead of just holding up signs of protest about what is happening in the field, we too create facts on the ground. We work together to resist the Occupation actively, strategically, and assertively.” Little time was wasted before work began in earnest.


The volunteers stood at the building site ready to do some serious work on the very first day of the camp. After all, they only had two weeks to rebuild the house. Together with the Palestinian workers, they carried heavy buckets of cement for the pillars of the house. Old and young, every one participated whether one was 20 or 70 years old.


Courtney Bailey, 25, from Ohio in the United States, was one of the volunteers at the site. She suffers from Lyme disease but decided to come anyway. “Because I am sick, I often need a break for sleeping,” Bailey said, “but I found this program which turned out to be flexible enough for me. My life is so good and I am so lucky compared to the life of the Palestinians and the terror they go through on a daily basis. It breaks my heart. As hard as it might be for me, I just think it is nothing compared to what they go through. I can tough it out for two weeks, if they can live like this forever.”


One of Bailey’s countrymen at the building site was Richard Ward, a 57-year-old writer and former high school teacher from New Mexico. “Rebuilding a demolished house like we do here is a very true and right thing to do,” Ward said. “It is as basic as it gets. Building a home for somebody is symbolic. But it is also very real, very tangible.”


Every one of the participants in the camp had been informed that they could be arrested by the Israeli police for participating in the building of a house without a permit. They underwent nonviolence training and role played in order to practice how to act if the Israeli police or military came to the camp to arrest them. Ward was aware that they were breaking the law, but he still thought their action was correct. “We are breaking the law but you know, even in the United States we had Martin Luther King who said that it was one’s moral duty to break a law that is unjust and I feel like we are following this tradition, which is a noble tradition,” Ward said. “I feel very good about breaking the law in this case, very good. And if we get arrested, we get arrested.”


Building Relationships through building a House


Building a house is also a vehicle to build new relationships and, in some cases, new perceptions and thoughts. Matt Robson was one of four members of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) helping to build the house. “Things in this region are very polarized,” Robson said. “Many Palestinians see Israelis as bad people and many Israelis see Palestinians as bad people. I like projects where every one works together and breaks down those barriers. On the building site it didn’t really matter who you were and where you were from. If you had a skill, you used your skill. If you didn’t, you just picked up a bucket and moved things around. I think it was a good example of cooperation.”


Sara Turra, a young Italian woman, has spent the last five months in Hebron for the organization International Palestinian Youth League. The only Israelis she had met were settlers and soldiers. “It was difficult for me to think of them as ordinary people,” Turra said. “After the camp, I have another view of Israelis. It makes things more complicated. It is easier to see things in good and bad, good Palestinians and bad Israelis, but for sure it is better with a more diversified picture of the truth.”


Building a house together is a challenge in many ways. At this camp, bridging the language and cultural barriers also complicated matters. Salome Phillmann, a 23-year-old American active in Iowans for a Free Palestine, experienced some of these challenges during the building process. “We were cleaning an area in the house until it was spotless,” Phillmann explained. “When we came back from lunch, the Palestinian workers had painted all the walls. They didn’t tell us they were going to paint the walls right after we cleaned the floor! We learned to be good-spirited about our mistakes and I am sure we made their work difficult at times.”


Before Phillmann began the building project, she was worried that the Palestinian views on gender roles would be a problem. Women don’t usually build houses in Palestine. “I didn’t know if I would receive the same amount of respect as men, but I have been wholly surprised because I have never felt like I was not treated equally to any other worker at the site,” Phillmann said. “If I wanted to do any particular job, from laying brick to mixing cement, they willingly let me give it a try.”


Bill Christison, a retiree who used to work for the United States government, joined in the camp as part of his longstanding commitment to the Palestinian cause. He believes that Americans are predisposed to having positive viewpoints about settlers, an issue which always presents itself as a major stumbling block in any peace negotiations. “The word ‘settler’ is a very positive word for Americans,” he said. “People all through the 1800s became settlers in the U.S., so that is a word that Americans like to hear.”


Global Campaign to rebuild Palestinian Homes


ICAHD wants to be able to rebuild more homes and for this reason has started a program called “Right to a home…and a homeland. Global campaign to rebuild Palestinian Homes.” They hope to raise enough money to rebuild 20-30 homes and are encouraging people all over the world to have house parties to “raise consciousness about the Occupation and funds for rebuilding.”         In Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle against the British occupation of India “the constructive program” was as important as the non-cooperation with the occupation. Gandhi meant that the world must be built up at the same time as unjust actions are resisted and evil structures are brought down. Rebuilding Palestinian homes fulfills both these goals — resisting an oppressive occupation while building homes and a possible state for the Palestinian people.


How the perception of “the other” is built is an important part of the creation of and the resolution to any conflict. Another clear nonviolent feature of the building camp is the refusal to see “the other” as an enemy. “It is Israelis; it is Palestinians and internationals, all of us together telling our governments: ‘we refuse to be enemies,’” Halper said.


After two weeks it was done. The house that once was a pile of rubble stands again, risen like a Phoenix from the ashes. “It is beautiful,” Phillmann said, not trying to hide her pride in taking part in the construction. She is determined to come back next summer to rebuild another demolished house together with ICAHD.


“All of a sudden 23 people see their house surrounded by bulldozers and they are thrown into the street,” said Abu Jamal, head of the Kabuah family. “We are only left with the option of choosing hatred. But when we see all these volunteers coming to help us, we realize that we are not alone. I want to thank the international community, Palestinians, and Israelis for coming to help us have a home again.”


Many people were invited to a house-warming ceremony with singing, speeches, dancing, tree-planting, and wonderful food. Salim Shawamreh, whose house has been destroyed four times, addressed the international volunteers who helped build the house. “I appreciate that you leave your families overseas, coming here to help Palestinians, not only by words, but with your hands,” he said. “I appreciate you coming here to bring back a family of 23 people. The Israeli Occupation sent them to the street. You are returning them back now to their home. This is a big thing.”


 Martin Smedjeback is secretary for nonviolence in the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation ( During a prior visit to Israel and Palestine, he collected material for a book entitled Nonviolence in Israel and Palestine. He was working as an ecumenical accompanier in Jerusalem in the summer of 2004.


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