Jews vs. Palestinians, Landowners vs. Trespassers

Israeli security forces have descended over and over again on Ali Moussa’s family compound in the West Bank and demolished the houses he built. Across the way the settlement of Efrat expands, unchecked.

Alex Levac

The numbers speak for themselves: four demolitions, six razed houses, one husband, two wives, 17 children, 17 grandchildren.

The story behind the numbers: Ali Moussa, a farmer who lives in the West Bank, has clung stubbornly to his land for more than 30 years. Repeatedly, forces of the Civil Administration, Israel’s governing body in the occupied territories, have demolished the houses Moussa has built. Repeatedly, he has rebuilt them. His applications for a construction permit have been ignored, but this is his home, this is his family’s land.

The compound of Moussa’s ramshackle dwellings lies on a hill overlooking the valley through which Highway 60, linking Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Hebron, passes. On the hill across the valley rise the homes that are part of one of the unchecked expansions of the settlement of Efrat. They are a lot less legal than Moussa’s houses – the land does not legally belong to the settlers – but they, of course, are not under threat of demolition at the hands of the Civil Administration. Those dwellings are inhabited by Jews.

If you want to see apartheid in action, here’s the place. There’s no need to elaborate. Here are Jews opposite Palestinians, landowners opposite trespassers. Apartheid in a nutshell.

A short drive from Jerusalem reveals a scene of squalor that seems to have come out of a different time and place. The repeated demolitions force Moussa to rebuild his hovels with the cheapest materials he can find so that he can house his extended family – until it’s all tumbled down again by the Israel Defense Forces.

It makes for a pitiful sight: eight children huddling in one room whose tin roof is leaking and where bone-chilling cold prevails even on a sunny, late-fall day. Mildewed walls through which rain drips in, bare rooms without closets, without beds, only a stack of mattresses, and sacks to hold the clothes.

Kittens and children prowl about aimlessly outside; the women’s clothes are tattered. Five shacks plus a heap of ruins from the last house that was demolished, and pervasive neglect. Welcome to the compound of the Moussa family on the edge of the village of Al-Khader, outside Bethlehem. Next to the latest pile of ruins is a column of gray bricks, awaiting the next demolition and the rebuilding that will inevitably follow.

Farmer Moussa is 61, and he has 17 children – the eldest 37, the youngest six months old – by two wives, as well as 17 grandchildren, most of whom live here. He has always made a living from his land, but part of it has been plundered over time for the nearby settlements and for construction of the separation barrier. And the security barrier has prevented his access to another area, in which he has olive groves.

Moussa sold his flock of sheep some time ago to finance his obsessive rebuilding efforts. To date, they’ve cost him between 300,000 and 400,000 shekels ($75,000 – $100,000), he says, adding that the Civil Administration has offered him alternative land and compensation if he’ll leave. What did he tell them? He’s surprised at the question. He didn’t consider the offer for a second, he says.

Moussa has been living here since 1982. There was a different atmosphere in the territories when he built his first house in the compound – the only one that still stands intact and has never been demolished. The government agreed to the project, at least tacitly, back then. But things change. The first demolition came in 1995 – the house he had built for a married son. At the time, the authorities cited security reasons: There was an IDF post in the valley below, where the pillbox that overlooks Highway 60 now stands, just a few hundred meters from the house.

Moussa married his second wife in 2000 and built her a house. It too was swiftly demolished. In addition, the army tore down a house that he had built for his second son and his new family. The official reason: It was illegal.

He explains that he spent 30,000 shekels ($7,500) on building plans, which he submitted to the Civil Administration at its request – he displays the maps – but nothing came of them. There was a third round of demolition in 2011, and a fourth last June 14. The heap of ruins remaining at present comes from that most recently razed dwelling, belonging to Moussa’s second wife and their eight children.

In recent months, that dwelling has been rebuilt near the original one, in the form of a shack of 170 square meters, made of bricks and tin. It is still standing, at least for now. Additinally, a humanitarian aid association donated a tin hut, where they can store clothes, household utensils and furniture from all the structures that have been destroyed.

At his lawyers’ advice, Moussa builds each new house a few meters from previous ones. Indeed, one can see the remnants of a concrete pillar from the first house that was demolished in the compound, between the shacks, like a denuded monument.

Moussa’s story is also documented in a sheaf of documents that he keeps with him: no fewer than a dozen demolition and stop-work orders, issued over the years. For example, there’s a “stop-work order” from 2012 and a “final stop-work and demolition order” issued a few months later. There’s a demolition order for a “25-square-meter concrete surface,” another for “two cisterns and a lean-to,” another for “an electricity line and cable.”

One document is High Court of Justice decision No. 8902/06: an interim injunction issued by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein on November 23, 2006, to stop the demolitions, which notes: “This injunction shall not apply in the event of the need for demolition for urgent combat purposes and salient security reasons.” Justice Rubinstein did not bother to specify the security reasons or, more importantly, whose security he had in mind.

The spokesperson of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories offered this response to a query from Haaretz: “The structures in question were built in an illegal manner, without a building permit, on an archaeological site called 'Abu Sud,' and for that reason they were demolished. Furthermore, the structures were rebuilt upon the ruins, even as the matter was under consideration by the High Court of Justice, which is a gross violation of the law. The requests for a building permit were rejected, and an appeal to Supreme Court was also turned down. It should be noted that the owner was offered the opportunity to rebuild within the planned area of Al-Khader, the adjacent village, but the owner rejected the offer and instead illicitly continued to build [at the original location].”

We make our way through the compound. Four shacks belong to Moussa’s immediate family – his two wives and two of his sons and their families – and another, in the back, is inhabited by relatives, members of the family of Ismail Moussa. A makeshift water tower, an electricity pole and the shacks, each crowded with women and children.

A television is on in one of the hovels, tuned to Israel’s Channel 10, with simultaneous translation into Arabic provided by the local Bethlehem channel. The program: “Kahane Lives: The Life and Death of the Extremist Right-wing Leader.” The family was watching.