Israel’s occupation is a physical construct, bolstered by the building of both the separation wall and Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank, and by the destruction of properties and the seizure of Palestinian land.

 

Here, Al Jazeera profiles three Palestinian families who have been impacted by the occupation in very different ways.

Building
the occupation

Reporting:

Megan O’Toole

Photography/Videography:

Wojtek Arciszewski

Building the occupation

A story in three chapters

Demolition

Jabal Mukaber,

occupied East Jerusalem

One

Dawn was just breaking when Israeli forces began to smash the walls of Mohammed Allyan’s home with sledgehammers.

 

Mohammed stood outside in the chill winter air and watched as the house that had given shelter to generations of his family came apart, piece by piece. Doors were ripped off their hinges; walls broke into jagged holes. The small balcony, where Mohammed liked to sit with his coffee each morning and listen to the birds, disappeared into rubble and dust.

 

The demolition order was carried out in the first week of the new year, nearly three months after Israeli forces fatally shot Mohammed's son, 22-year-old Bahaa Allyan, who was accused in a deadly shooting and stabbing attack on a bus in the East Talpiot Jewish settlement last October.

 

"The first thing I said was that stone is not more valuable than the soul," said Mohammed, a 60-year-old lawyer with gentle eyes. He spoke with Al Jazeera from outside the tent where his family now lives, next to the smashed remains of their home in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabal Mukaber.

 

"I also realised that the way they were demolishing the house seemed vengeful. They were trying to do it in a vengeful way," Mohammed said, shifting his gaze from the wreckage towards the tent, empty of all but a few thin mattresses and a Palestinian flag.

 

"I was losing a place that we grew up in, a place that was home … [but it was] nothing compared to losing my son."

Dawn was just breaking when...

A poster of Bahaa Allyan hangs in the ruins of his family's home.

 

“To face the death of a child is a bitter thing”

 

"We view [punitive demolitions] as a form of collective punishment, which is used against innocent people - family members of Palestinians who have perpetrated horrific attacks against Israelis, but most of whom are either dead or under arrest and expecting very long prison sentences," Sarit Michaeli, a spokesperson for the Jerusalem-based human rights organisation B'Tselem, told Al Jazeera.

 

Asking Mohammed Allyan:

What do you remember the most about your home?

"It's a deliberate policy of harming innocent people for the actions of others … In some cases, the measures the authorities use to demolish the homes also harm neighbouring homes, which aren’t even inhabited by anyone related to the perpetrator,” she said.

Mohammed Allyan says Israeli forces demolished his home in a 'vengeful' fashion.

Although families whose homes are targeted for demolition can appeal to halt the order through the Israeli courts, such remedies are almost never granted, Michaeli added.

 

Al Jazeera asked Israel’s defence ministry to provide information on the state’s strategy of demolishing the homes of suspected attackers, including what process was used to determine the qualifying homes and what evidence existed to show that the strategy worked. Despite numerous emails and phone calls, the ministry did not provide a response.

 

In some cases, homes targeted for demolition are razed to the ground, while others are sealed with cement or smashed until they no longer provide shelter - as was the case for Mohammed Allyan.

 

His house, located on the middle storey of a short apartment complex, has now been reduced to a jumble of concrete rubble and hanging wires, with only the building’s structural support beams intact. The demolition order was issued in November, and after two appeals failed, it was carried out on January 4.

The walls of the family's home were smashed with sledgehammers.

Posters commemorating Bahaa have been hung in the ruins, where Mohammed’s grandchildren flit in and out. Black butterflies are painted on what is left of the walls.

 

 

 

The title of “martyr”, however, is not the part Mohammed wants to remember about his son.

“Like any Palestinian young man, [Bahaa] used to dream of freedom”

 

Mohammed cleared his throat and looked out across the horizon, as the afternoon sun began to sink lower in the darkening sky.

 

”Like any Palestinian young man, [Bahaa] used to dream of freedom,” Mohammed said quietly. “He had a lot of hopes and dreams, and he hoped for freedom, but the reality of the occupation … led him to try to find a way to resist, and this was the path he chose.”

Bahaa

Did you know, Bahaa

This morning, unlike others

I do not hear the singing of the birds

Nor the cooing of the dove

Or the rustling of the trees, and we

As if the birds and the trees

Left the morning in protest

Because of the mayhem of people.

Did you know, Bahaa

If humans had the heart of a dove

If they had the shade of a tree

You would not be now lying in the frost

The morning would not be without beauty

And we would only hear the mayhem of humans.

Be in peace

We are still strong

Poem by Mohammed Allyan

Construction

Hebron,

occupied West Bank

Two

Every morning, Osama al-Seikh asked himself whether he would come back home from work alive.

 

Around sunrise, the 39-year-old would leave his wife and four daughters in their modest home in Dura in the southern West Bank governorate of Hebron. After a half-hour trip to the Gush Etzion Jewish settlement, he would pass through a series of security checks, including a metal detector, before on-site guards allowed him to begin work. His job was to lay foundations for settler homes.

 

 

“They would curse at us; they would curse our mothers. They would say, ‘Arabs are not even safe in the grave,’” Seikh told Al Jazeera, clad in a brown corduroy vest and a keffiyeh, his eyes burning. “Younger children would throw stones.”

Every morning, Osama al-Seikh asked...

Yassine Hisham, left, and Osama al-Seikh have both helped build Israeli settlements.

Although settlers had security teams to protect them, “I had nothing”, Seikh added.

 

“Every morning when I left my house, I didn’t know whether I would come back alive or dead. It was like I had a going-away party for myself every morning,” he said. “I was risking my life to go and make 200 shekels [$50] a day to feed my family.”

 

Asking Osama al-Seikh:

Why do Palestinians work in Israeli settlements?

Approximately 58,000 Palestinians hold a permit to work in Israel, while an additional 27,000 work in Israeli settlements, according to the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Of those who work in settlements, more than half do construction.

Construction work is ongoing at this settlement in occupied East Jerusalem.

 

Despite the grim irony of their situation, young Palestinians are drawn to settlement construction work because they can earn two or three times as much as they would from a Palestinian employer, noted Samir Abdullah, the director of research for the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute.

 

“It was like I had a going-away party for myself every morning”

“Of course we don't want them to do it, and they don't want to do it. This is as if you are digging your own grave,” Abdullah told Al Jazeera. “They know these settlements are on their lands, and they are impeding Palestinian statehood and freedom. They are building their own prison - a system that will kick them out of their own country. Everyone who is there is doing so because it's the only way to get bread for their kids … There is no ability to give them an alternative."

 

Abeer Odeh, the Palestinian economy minister, acknowledged the lack of alternatives, noting that when young Palestinians find any opportunities, “they take them because they want to survive”.

 

Asking Yassine Hisham:

What are the obstacles to finding work in the West Bank?

“We are doing our best to facilitate and create jobs for [Palestinians]," Odeh said.

 

But such words ring hollow to Seikh and his friends, including Yassine Hisham, 23, who once worked in settlement construction but is now unemployed. Hisham, whose father passed away when he was a baby and whose mother has taken ill, says he has lost faith that anything will change.

 

As a Palestinian, building Israeli settlements “feels awful, but I never had any alternative”, Hisham told Al Jazeera, perched on a dark, floral-printed couch inside Seikh’s family home. His eyes distant, Hisham acknowledged that his dreams for a better future died long ago: “What am I supposed to do?”

“What I wish for the most is to be able to finish school”

For his part, Seikh stopped working in settlement construction late last year, as the anxiety of his daily trip to work began to exact its toll. While he can earn more than 200 shekels a day building settlements - compared to 60 to 80 shekels a day for similar work in Hebron - Seikh says he will work locally for the time being, simply because it is safer.

 

As he spoke, Seikh’s 63-year-old father, Rasmi, listened from an armchair across the room, occasionally nodding his head in agreement.

 

“We shouldn’t work in settlements,” Rasmi said. “The Israelis stole and built on Palestinian land. They try to make the younger generation forget their connection to the land. But the problem is, there’s no alternative.”

 

Still, Osama al-Seikh holds onto the hope that his days of building settler homes are behind him.

 

“What I wish for the most is to be able to finish school,” he said. “I left in ninth grade; I couldn’t keep going when my parents didn’t have enough food to eat.

 

“I just want us to live with dignity and freedom.”

Separation

Pisgat Zeev settlement,
occupied East Jerusalem

Three

For the past decade, Kiffayah Khatib’s home has felt like her prison.

 

 

Unlike their cousins up the street whose land was annexed after the 1967 war, Khatib and her family were never issued with Jerusalem ID cards, and instead still hold their West Bank IDs. As a consequence, "We are not allowed anywhere [in Jerusalem] other than in this house,” Khatib, 70, told Al Jazeera from inside the family’s sun-filled living room.

 

“Once we cross the checkpoint [from Hizma], this is the only place where we are legally allowed,” Khatib added, gazing out the window with cloudy eyes, while resting her gnarled fingers on the lap of her royal blue dress. “If we visited our relatives up the road, we would be arrested."

For the past decade, Kiffayah Khatib’s home...

Khairi Askar has been battling in court for decades to protect his land.

 

When the wall cut through Hizma, Khatib’s family was stranded on the “Israeli side” - unable to move freely around Jerusalem because they are technically still West Bankers, but also unable to visit their old friends, go shopping or spend time in Hizma without crossing through an Israeli checkpoint.

 

The family’s situation is by no means unique, noted Dror Etkes, an expert on land and settlement policy in the West Bank.

“If we visited our relatives up the road, we would be arrested”

“There are many thousands of people who are living in an area where they need a special permit from Israeli authorities in order to be in their homes,” Etkes told Al Jazeera, noting access to municipal services in seam zones is frequently lacking. “[All aspects of] everyday life, the ability to run your life on a normal basis, to help guests … to go in and out whenever you want - all these things are very complicated, and the smaller and more isolated the family and the community is, the harder it is.”

 

In response to questions from Al Jazeera about the efficacy of the separation wall and about claims that it has exacerbated divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel’s defence ministry maintained the structure was a legitimate form of defence against “indiscriminate terror”.

 

“Israel’s government recognises that the construction of the security fence can introduce hardship into the lives of Palestinians and Israelis and it regrets those hardships,” the ministry said in a written statement, noting that “all attempts to minimise such problems have been made”. Less than one percent of the West Bank Palestinian population will end up on the Israeli side of the wall, the ministry noted.

Kiffayah Khatib, left, and her daughter Umm Kalthoum say the wall has severed their connection to their old community in Hizma.

 

The separation wall has compounded their difficulties, severing their connection to their old community in Hizma, Askar told Al Jazeera. Holding a cigarette in one weathered hand, he gazed out across his back porch towards the adjacent Jewish settlement, whose red brick pavement abruptly ends at his property line - replaced by grey, cracked concrete.

Asking Khairi Askar:

How has Israel's separation wall affected your family?

 

“When there are funerals or weddings, no one can come here to celebrate or mourn with us,” he said, slumping slightly in his chair, his thin jacket open in the warm winter air. “It’s as if we are in two separate countries.”

 

But Askar says he will never retreat to the West Bank: “There is nothing more important than my land and my home. This is where I belong. I don’t want to live anywhere else.”

The Jewish settlement of Pisgat Zeev is located in occupied East Jerusalem.

Khatib, who lives with about two dozen family members, is also determined to remain in place, despite the daily hardships that affect all facets of their life. For years, their home was not connected to Jerusalem’s municipal water supply, and they still lack access to sewage services and rubbish pick-up. They cannot go into Jerusalem to shop, yet there are restrictions on the types of products they can bring home from the West Bank: “Eggs, chicken and meat give us problems; it all depends on the mood of the officer at the checkpoint.”

 

Medical care is also a challenge, as the family must cross into the West Bank for hospital visits - a daunting prospect for Khatib’s two daughters, who suffer from ataxia, a neurological disorder that affects muscle movement.

Asking Kiffayah Khatib:

What has changed for you since Israel built the separation wall?

Khatib squinted as she glanced onto her back porch, where a laundry line swayed gently in the afternoon breeze. Her adult daughters, Umm Kalthoum and Khitam Khatib, sat listlessly in wheelchairs, their faces distant and drained.

 

“Since they erected the wall, we've been suffering … and if I didn't have grandkids [to help out], I'd be in a lot of trouble,” Kiffayah Khatib said. “If I have to take my daughter to the bathroom and she falls, I can't pick her up. No one can visit me; no one can help me.

 

“I am alone."

Building the occupation

Reporting:

Megan O’Toole

Photography/Videography:

Wojtek Arciszewski

Design:

@AJlabs

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