Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sorry, we think you built that cave illegally

I was surprised to see an article on the eviction of a Palestinian from his childhood home - a cave in the hills between Jerusalem and Bethlehem - prominently listed on the Yahoo! News homepage today. I don't think I've ever seen an article on this issue in the American press. And, technically, it's still not in the American press - Reuters is the article's distributor - but it's about as close as it can get without being technically American.

The man is being evicted to make room for Givat Yael, another Israeli settlement* in the West Bank - settlements that the U.S. government (along with Israeli groups like Peace Now, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Rabbis for Human Rights) says are an obstacle to peace and in violation of international law and common courtesy. (Although the U.S. government says it, the Israeli groups actually mean it.)

When I was in the West Bank a few years ago, I visited quite a few families who lived in such homes, all of which were either under threat of demolition or, just as often, had already been filled by the Israeli military with rocks, rubble and the trashed property of the homeowners. It goes like this: The occupying authorities say the people who live in the caves built the caves without permits, never mind that the caves are hundreds of years old. The homeowners go to the courts with papers showing that they own the land. The courts either tell them that the papers are worthless (perhaps because they predate the Israeli government), or they agree with the homeowners and issue an injunction to prevent the demolition of the home. Whatever the courts rule doesn't really matter, though; the military is still pretty likely to destroy the caves, because once you've created facts on the ground - a destroyed home, an eviction, and a nice new Jerusalem suburb with orange-tiled roofs - it really doesn't matter what the courts say.

It may sound like an oversimplification, but it really is a lot like Joseph Heller's Catch 22.

*Whether or not Givat Yael is a settlement is disputed by Israelis. Some say the land on which Givat Yael will be built - and I have no doubt that it will be, barring some miraculous new consensus within the Israeli government - is within the municipal borders of Jerusalem and therefore part of Israel. Others say that if that land were part of Jerusalem, the Palestinians who live there would have been given Jerusalem I.D. cards and be Israeli citizens. They have not and they are not, which of course makes it much harder to fight a case in Israeli court, since they are given no inherent legal right to travel inside Israel.

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