Last week, Student for Justice in Palestine placed mock eviction notices in student dorms to call attention to one of the most abhorrent features of Israel’s occupation of Palestine: the demolition of Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories. In response, Leah Sarna and Yishai Schwartz wrote an op-ed (“Evicting the truth,” April 24) that obfuscates the issues, going so far as to suggest that the extinct Ottomans, not Israel, are responsible for Palestinian home demolitions today.
Our initiative aimed to highlight that, in 2010, the Israeli government demolished over 100 houses and over 240 commercial and community structures belonging to Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, affecting the lives of over 13,000 people, including nearly 8,000 children, according to the US State Department. We wanted to juxtapose the destruction of Palestinian homes with the construction of illegal Jewish-only settlements to highlight the discriminatory logic that drives Israeli policy.
Though Schwartz and Sarna criticize us for pursuing a “confrontational” approach and failing to promote “constructive conversation,” our notices have prompted an unprecedented level of discussion about the issue in the form of at least two op-eds, a news story, and countless conversations between students. This goes to show that creative activism, even of the mildly unorthodox variety, is not mutually exclusive with other forms of discourse: in fact, it can create more.
Moreover, we question Sarna and Schwartz’s standing to define “constructive conversation” when they cannot even bring themselves to say “occupation” without scare quotes — as if checkpoints in the West Bank were manned by aliens, not Israeli soldiers. That Schwartz and Sarna take greater offense to mock eviction notices than to the real eviction of real Palestinian families from real homes raises great doubts about their sense of perspective.
Indeed, even as Schwartz and Sarna throw accusations of “dishonesty” in our direction without directly contesting any of our claims, it is actually their claims that are far removed from reality.
Firstly, they characterize the evictions and demolitions as ordinary enforcement of zoning laws that “affect both sides” amidst a “thorny mess.” In truth, the demolition regime is neither hard to decipher nor equitable. According to Amnesty International, the demolitions are “inextricably linked with Israel’s long-standing policy of appropriating as much as possible of the land it occupies.” Thus the zoning laws are designed by one group (Israel, the occupier) and enforced against another (the Palestinians).
So long as Israel expands Jewish-only settlements in contravention of international law, it makes no sense to suggest that home demolitions are simply a matter of law enforcement; they are a way of curbing the growth of Arab neighborhoods. Compare the experience of Palestinians building in their own homeland with Jewish settlers illegally building on occupied land. According to Amnesty, the majority of Palestinians are systematically “denied building permits by Israel, even after lengthy and expensive bureaucratic and legal processes, so they have little choice but to go ahead without official permission.” In occupied East Jerusalem for example, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions estimates that Palestinians are short of 25,000 units but receive permits for less than 100 each year. In contrast, the Israeli government has authorized and subsidized the construction of 90,000 Jewish-only settlement units since the occupation of East Jerusalem began in 1967. Zoning technicalities, therefore, are a guise for a fundamentally violent and discriminatory land policy.
Secondly, Schwartz and Sarna claim that the demolition of some “structures” (read: homes) that provide “a haven for terrorist activity” is justified for “security” reasons. In fact, Israel ceased “punitive” demolitions carried out in the name of security in 2005, finding them ineffective. And at their height, only 15 percent of demolitions were carried out for “punitive” reasons. Moreover, the practice itself was particularly grotesque, whereby the Israeli military destroyed homes belonging to the families and neighbors of persons suspected of attacks on Israelis. Even if one accepts that one may punish an individual’s family and neighbors for an individual’s actions, Israeli authorities have never attempted to demolish homes belonging to the neighbors or relatives of armed Jewish settlers, like Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians as they prayed in a mosque. At best, then, Israel’s “security” motive is racist; at worst, it is a criminal breach of international law.
Finally, Schwartz and Sarna criticize SJP for not creating “dialogue” with “pro-Israel” student groups. In fact, many of us have. We are also open to co-hosting debates about the Israeli occupation with any group on campus. But unless “pro-Israel” groups on campus believe that they are responsible for Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes and have the power to reverse it, we see no reason why SJP should specifically seek them out to discuss this issue. Our discussion is with the campus community as a whole. The fact that the Israeli occupation is subsidized by billions of American tax dollars every year and forms a major feature of American foreign policy calls for an open debate and discussion beyond so-called “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine” groups, and outside of Jewish and Arab communities.
Omar Mumallah is a junior in Pierson College. Abeer Obaid is a freshman in Morse College. Samer Sabri is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Yaman Salahi is a second-year student at the Law School. They are members of Students for Justice in Palestine.