This week’s guest blog is by Ryan Rodrick Beiler, a service worker with MCC in Palestine and Israel. This article originally appeared in the Mennonite World Review.
In a panic, Arabiya Shawamreh locked the door to protect her seven children. Israeli soldiers surrounding the house were beating and handcuffing her husband Salim. When the soldiers threw a tear gas grenade through the window and broke down the door, they found Arabiya unconscious. The children fled in all directions as their house was demolished.
“In that demolition, I lost everything. I lost all the memories of my life … pictures, documents, belongings from my childhood. Everything that meant something to me personally,” says Arabiya. “People tried to comfort me, but I couldn’t hear them. It was like mourning. I was sunk into myself, disconnected, preoccupied with what would happen to us, the kids, worried about our future.”
True, Salim had built their house without a permit. Most countries have building codes to maintain sustainable communities, so demolishing “illegal” buildings may seem justifiable. But Salim had limited options. When he was nine, the 1967 war forced his family to flee their 3-story Jerusalem home for a 3×6 meter room in Shu’fat Refugee Camp. After his studies, Salim worked abroad, saved money for nine years, married Arabiya, and returning home, bought land in nearby Anata.
Salim applied for a building permit, but after several years and thousands of dollars in fees, surveyors, and lawyers—without success—he decided to build anyway in 1994. “The ‘peace process’ had by then begun,” he recalls, “And everyone was sure that house demolitions would stop.”
As the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem reports, “Israel has created a situation in which thousands of Palestinians are unable to obtain permits to build on their land, and are compelled to build without a permit because they have no other way to provide shelter for their families.” At the same time, “Thousands of houses were built in [Israeli] settlements without permits. Israel refrained from demolishing these houses, and instead issued retroactive building permits.”
As an act of resistance against such discrimination, the Shawamreh homestead became the first house rebuilt by MCC partner the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) in 1998.
“I supported the idea of rebuilding the house, even though I was scared about going through the trauma of demolition again,” says Arabiya. “When the Israeli peace people came and we started to rebuild I was there, rebuilding, with Israelis.”
But three more demolitions took their toll. “I have lost the role of protector of my children,” Salim says tearfully. “I said to them: ‘Don’t worry, I am here. I’ll protect you.’ Do you know what my 9-year-old daughter Wafa said to me? ‘You can’t protect us. We saw what the soldiers did to you when they handcuffed you and threw you outside when they demolished our home.’”
After the fourth demolition in 2003, ICHAD helped the family rent elsewhere while rebuilding their house as a peace center. Named “Beit Arabiya”, meaning “Arabiya’s House”, it became a place where Palestinian and Israeli activists could meet, housed volunteers rebuilding other demolished homes, and hosted hundreds of groups who came to hear its story, including many MCC learning tours.
After nine years, Israeli forces demolished Beit Arabiya yet again in January 2012. And at last year‘s ICAHD summer camp, Palestinian, Israeli, and international volunteers once again celebrated its rebuilding, dancing arm in arm under the banner, “Resisting Occupation, Constructing Peace”.
Four months later, authorities demolished Beit Arabiya for the sixth time.
But like Jesus’ persistent widow in Luke 18, ICAHD remains committed to demanding justice for the Shawamreh family, declaring that their August summer camp (volunteers needed—learn more at www.icahd.org) will once again “resurrect Beit Arabiya”, in a new and different form, ever a focal point of cooperative peacemaking.