Coming face-to-face with the man who destroys Palestinian homes

A Palestinian woman next to demolished home after they were torn down by Israeli bulldozers in the village of Khirbet al-Halawah, in South Hebron, Hills, West Bank (Oren Ziv -Activestills)

Yuval Abraham

+972 Magazine  /  March 20, 2022

Standing in the main hall of Israel’s Supreme Court last Tuesday, I came face-to-face with the man responsible for demolishing Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank. The man doesn’t physically carry them out, but rather orders them, and sometimes even shows up to see the demolition take place. I’ve seen him before in the South Hebron Hills: his name is Nir (last name unknown), he works in Israel’s Civil Administration — the arm of the Israeli military that governs the occupied territories — and he has been doing this job for years.

We were both in Jerusalem for the same reason: to attend what was likely the final court hearing to determine whether Israel would demolish eight Palestinian communities and expel 1,300 residents from Masafer Yatta — a small region of the South Hebron Hills, where the families have been living for generations — so that the Israeli army can use it as a “firing zone.”

During the hearing, which was presided over by three judges, members of the Israeli Defense Ministry sat alongside a dozen residents from Masafer Yatta, who were given one-time entry permits to attend their own hearing in Jerusalem. From across the white hall, I could recognize Mohammed Abu Sabha, whom I had seen just a few months ago in the village of al-Fakheit. The last time I saw him, he was holding his little son who was screaming, a moment after a bulldozer demolished their home. They destroyed everything except a sheep pen. At night, I saw Mohammed move the sheep to a tent, after which he laid out mattresses, in the foul-smelling pen, for his wife and small children. They slept there.

The hearing came to an end and everyone left the court. Shoes squeaked on the immaculate floors of the hallway. That’s when I approached Nir.

“You have spent your entire life causing pain to others,” I told him.

Nir replied: “Let’s walk to my car.” I agreed, curious where our conversation would go.

As we walked, Nir spoke: “I’ve been working in [Masafer Yatta] since before you were born, and I’m telling you — none of the Arabs’ homes that are there today were there before, in 2000, when I began to work for the Civil Administration. They lived in caves.” 

I could tell Nir wanted, for whatever reason, to continue speaking to me. “Okay, so what?” I responded. “They built new homes outside the caves for their children. That’s natural.”

“But they built them illegally.”

“That’s because you won’t let them build legally.”

“They receive foreign funding to build, from Europe,” said Nir. “Can my daughter get up one morning and just build like that? Can you? You would love to be able to build like that.”

He pressed a buzzer and the doors of the Supreme Court swung open. We were outside when I suddenly remembered: Nir was the one who oversaw the demolition of the home of Farisa Abu Aram, an elderly Palestinian woman from al-Rakiz, along with three other homes. I had filmed him. I remembered how he wished Farisa a good morning before he destroyed her home. She and her children slept outside on ripped mattresses. I asked if he remembered her. “Yes, yes. I remember,” he said.

A month after the demolition, an Israeli soldier shot and gravely wounded Farisa’s 26-year-old son, Harun, in the neck; soldiers had come to their home to confiscate a generator he had been using to rebuild the demolished homes.

“Do you remember that incident?” I asked him.

“Yes, I do,” he responded, as his expression hardened. “It was an unintentional discharge, from what I can recall.”

Putting aside my bewilderment at his reply, I said: “Before you go, just know this: I was there [in al-Rakiz] yesterday. They live in a cave. Farisa and her son Harun. He has been paralyzed since the shooting. He cannot move his body. Right now he’s on a mattress in that cave. They don’t have a home anymore, since you demolished it. His mother bathes him with a bucket, because they have no running water. She washes off his pus with a hose. It requires three people to carry him out of the cave. His mother has no ability to build a wheelchair accessible house, because you’ll demolish that too.”

Nir was getting angry. “Tell me, what do you think? That we’re heartless? We can’t sleep the night before the demolitions.” He was silent for a few moments, before adding: “I choose to do this. To enforce the law — and the law is fair.”

On my way back to the court, I saw Mohammed. His family had already built a tin shack where their home used to be in al-Fakheit. Nir, or one of his colleagues in the Civil Administration, will certainly demolish that as well.

“We’re all with you,” I told him. “Insha’allah things will be good. How was the hearing?”

“I didn’t understand a word,” Mohammed replied. “Everything was in Hebrew.”

It hit me that they had sat there, dozens of Palestinians, listening to a judge politely discuss their potential expulsion in a foreign language. I felt guilty for speaking with Nir, as if I were betraying the families. I am also part of this Jewish-Israeli tapestry — journalist, lawyer, lawmaker — all of us speaking to one another about them. And, of course, we are the ones who get to decide their fate.

It makes no sense that Nir determines where Farisa can or cannot build. Nor does it make sense that three Jewish-Israeli judges will soon decide whether the army can or cannot expel 1,300 Palestinians from their homes. That is why we need to end the occupation, support Palestinian sovereignty, and transform this regime into one based on equality and freedom for all.

Yuval Abraham is a journalist and activist based in Jerusalem