This week we’ve been marking the 50th “anniversary” of the 1967 War in which Israel conquered the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza (and the Golan Heights), launching an occupation that grows stronger by the day. But was 50 years ago today, June 11, that the Occupation actually began — and it began with the demolition of Palestinian homes.
On the night of June 11, 1967, as the Six Day War was drawing to its close, 135 Palestinian families living in the Mughrabi Quarter of the Old City, an 800 year-old neighborhood adjacent to the Western (or Wailing) Wall, were rousted from their beds as Israeli bulldozers summarily destroyed their homes and the quarter’s two mosques to make a plaza for Jewish worshipers in front of the Wall. It marked the first act of Occupation. Until this moment decisions had been made by the Israeli government and army regarding strategic and tactical military operations that had to do with the conduct of the war. The demolition of the Mughrabi Quarter had nothing to do with the war itself. It was a pro-active operation that establish the first of thousands of “facts on the ground” that have rendered Israel’s Occupation permanent and irreversible.
The demolition of the Quarter was illegal. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the destruction of private property except in cases of “immediate military necessity,” which this was not. It was also done with no official authorization by Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jewish West Jerusalem, backed by Shlomo Lahat, the newly-appointed military governor of East Jerusalem (and later mayor of Tel Aviv) and Uzi Narkiss, the head of the IDF’s Central Command.
Already the under-handedness that characterizes Israeli policy ever since was evident. Knowing that the demolition was illegal and unauthorized, and knowing that the international community would condemn any such wanton demolition by the Israeli authorities, Kollek enlisted private contractors who used their own equipment, in the dead of night, to demolish the homes, protected and aided by Israeli soldiers. (The contractors later established the “Order of the Kotel” honoring those who “purified the Kotel plaza for the people of Israel.”)
Some of the residents did not leave willingly. There is testimony that people were forced out only when the bulldozers actually began demolishing their homes on top of them. One elderly Palestinian woman, Hajja Rasmia Tabaki, could not get out in time and was killed when her home was demolished on top of her. We remember her as the first victim of the Occupation. Indeed, many of the ancient homes collapsed on each other, creating a kind of crater of rooms that was covered over to make the wide and extensive plaza. The furnishing and private items of the residents remain buried under the plaza.
Over the 50 years since this first act of non-military related demolition, Israel has demolished around 50,000 Palestinian homes, 99% of which were demolished either as “collateral damage” in military assaults on Palestinian cities and communities or because Israel has refused to allow Palestinians to build new homes for the past half-century, and demolishes their homes when they do. To those 50,000 homes must be added another 60,000 demolished by Israel in the wake of the 1948 war, when half the Palestinian population was driven from the country, and thousands more (we do not have exact figures) demolished inside Israel since 1948 — homes of Israeli citizens, all of whom of course are Arab. (Al-Araqib is a Bedouin community in the Negev that has been demolished 109 times, and rebuilt each time by residents and Israeli activists.)
The demolition of the Mughrabi Quarter may have been the first act of Israeli Occupation, but it was merely the continuation of policy of ethnic cleansing that began twenty years before and continues apace until this day.