Middle East Eye / December 29, 2021
The Atrash family has been building its new home for three years. Israeli forces destroyed it in two hours.
Lying in bed early on Tuesday morning, Marwa al-Atrash, her husband Maher, and their five children were still just waking up when they got a call from their neighbours. Israeli soldiers were about to destroy their home.
“It was around 8am when the neighbours called, telling us to come quickly, and that there were bulldozers and hundreds of Israeli soldiers outside our house,” an exhausted Marwa told Middle East Eye.
Marwa, 25, and Maher, 45, woke their sleepy children and rushed them out of their rented flat and headed to Qalqas, a neighbourhood on the edges of Hebron in the southern occupied West Bank, where their new home was being constructed.
“When we arrived, we saw hundreds of Israeli soldiers surrounding the area, and bulldozers destroying the house,” Marwa said. “I started yelling and doing everything I could to try and get to the front door and into the house.”
“I thought that if I could get into the house, then they wouldn’t be able to destroy it,” she added, recalling her desperation to save her family’s new home. They had been building it for the past three years.
“But when I tried, the soldiers started pushing me, grabbing me, and hitting me with their guns,” she said.
“In the end I couldn’t save our home. Within two hours, the house was destroyed, and they left us with the rubble.”
Videos of Israeli forces demolishing the Atrash family home, as Marwa and her mother screamed and fought with soldiers, went viral on Palestinian social media on Tuesday.
A clip of a distraught Marwa comforting her 13-year-old step-son as he cried watching the soldiers has been shared tens of thousands of times.
In the video, a distraught Marwa can be seen wiping away the boy’s tears, saying: “Don’t be upset, we will build another [house], even better than this one.”
“When I saw my son crying and screaming as he watched the soldiers destroy his home, all I could think about was how this was going to affect him for years to come, for the rest of his life,” she said.
“I wanted to take away his pain and suffering in that moment. I was worried that he was going to fall into a depression,” Marwa said. “I can’t describe what we were feeling at that moment.”
Standing next to the rubble of their home with his wife and five children, all aged between three and 13, Maher said the events of Tuesday were the toughest moments of his life.
“We poured years of our lives and hard work into building this house, to build a future for our children,” he said.
“It was a dream of ours to live in our own house as a family, instead of constantly moving between rental houses.”
After three years of construction, the family had been putting their final touches to the house, and were close to moving in. In recent weeks, the family had been slowly taking their belongings into the house, in the hope they’d be able to move in in the new year.
“They didn’t even give us a warning, or a chance to take out all our belongings from the house,” Maher said.
“They just destroyed it all.”
Maher said that, over the years, he and his family had put close to 350,000 shekels (around $112,000) into the construction. He said he still owed around 150,000 shekels to contractors and others.
“All of these years of hard work, and they destroyed it in minutes. And there was nothing we could do to stop them,” he said.
“We screamed, and cried, and begged them to stop, but at the end of the day, we were standing in the face of an army who wanted to destroy our home. What could we do?”
‘I don’t need their permission’
The Israeli forces who demolished the Atrash family home said it had been built without a permit issued by the Israeli Civil Administration, which controls Palestinian construction in more than 60 percent of the occupied West Bank.
Maher received the demolition order for his home on 27 October, when Israeli authorities posted a notice, written completely in Hebrew – a language Maher does not understand – on the front door of the house.
“I thought that they would give us another notice with a 48-hour warning before the actual demolition, but they didn’t. They just came and demolished it,” Maher said.
When asked why he did not attempt to appeal against the demolition order with Israeli authorities, he said he knew it would never amount to anything:
“They never approved any of our permit applications, so why would they suddenly agree to an appeal?
“This is my land, I own it. I should not need permission from the occupier to build my own house on my own land.”
The Atrash family home is one of more than 850 Palestinian homes and structures destroyed by Israel in 2021, according to documentation compiled by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
More than 80 percent of the demolitions this year, which have displaced more than 800 people, took place in Area C of the West Bank, in which the Israeli government has full security and civilian control.
In order to build homes in Area C, Palestinians must apply for permits through Israel’s Civil Administration, even if the land is privately owned. Palestinian construction permits in Area C are rarely approved.
Reality under occupation
According to Peace Now, a settlements watchdog, in the nine years between 2009 and 2018, Israeli authorities issued a total of 98 construction permits for Palestinians, out of 4,422 permit requests that were filed.
Between 2012 and 2021, Israel approved plans for 55,704 new units in Israeli settlements across the West Bank, which are illegal under international law.
“The occupation destroys hundreds of Palestinian homes in the West Bank annually, but allows settlers to expand and live freely, even though their presence here is illegal,” the mayor of Hebron, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, told MEE.
“Jewish settlers who came from Europe and America and the rest of the world are given government-subsidized housing in settlements across Area C,” Abu Sneineh added.
“But the Palestinians who actually own the land cannot even build their own houses, on their own lands.”
Abu Sneineh rejected the premise under which the Atrash family home, and hundreds of others, was destroyed.
“The Israelis tell the world that they demolish our homes because it’s Area C, and that we built ‘illegally’ here. But that’s all part of their facade,” he said.
“What they fail to tell the world is that we build our houses without permits only because the system they have put in place has made it impossible for us to get such permissions.
“This is the reality under occupation, and the world must wake up.”
As he looked over the rubble of his home, Maher said he had no plans of giving up.
“I will put up a tent here, and stay in a tent if I have to, but I am not leaving,” he said.
“This is just one of the tactics that the Israeli occupation uses to try to cleanse us from this land, by controlling the land, and our homes.
“They want to force us out of our homeland, but we are here, and we are steadfast. Even if they demolish our home a hundred times, we will keep rebuilding it; we will not leave.”
Akram al-Waara is a Palestinian freelance video journalist based out of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank