A SMALL group of Palestinian activists is reopening West Bank houses sealed by Israeli authorities during 27 years of military rule.
Escalating a campaign by the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence (PCSNV) launched last week in this town east of Jerusalem, two Palestinian activists, Danny Kuttab and Hossam Shaheen, used sledgehammers on Wednesday to open up the sealed first story of the Aliyan family house in the Jebel Mukaber neighborhood inside the Jerusalem municipal boundary.
The Israeli response was swift. Four members of the Aliyan family were arrested that night, a search was launched for ``additional people involved'' yesterday, and the structure was immediately resealed. It was closed by military order in 1976 after Muhammad Aliyan was imprisoned for planting explosive devices, according to police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby.
The tug of war, waged between Palestinian activists and the Israeli government, reflects the fact that the issue of sealed homes was left unsolved when self-rule was launched last month in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.
Center staffers say they have reopened 67 West Bank homes since June 17 and plan to open more than 300. The staffers were, however, unable to produce a list of the houses. Israeli authorities say the number of reopened houses is closer to 30.
The Center, apparently stung by Israel's response, issued a statement yesterday suspending the campaign late yesterday for one week ``in order to give mediation a chance to resolve this humanitarian issue.''
Officials will reseal
``Any house opened without authorization will be resealed, and the people responsible for unauthorized openings will be punished,'' said an Army official, who declined to be named. But besides the Masri and Aliyan homes, authorities have not resealed any of the other reopened houses, the activists and Army officials say.
The Aliyan arrests were the first since Mubarak Awad, head of the PCSNV, launched the campaign in Azzariya by forcing open sealed doors and windows of the one-story Masri residence shut since May 1989.
Sealings, a practice adopted from British mandatory authorities who governed Palestine until 1948, bar families of Palestinians blamed for violence from accessing their homes.
Palestinians frequently term it a collective punishment, while Israeli authorities have described the practice as a deterrent to terrorism.
Israeli soldiers, moving to discourage the reopening campaign, resealed the Masri home Sunday.
Mr. Shaheen and Mr. Kuttab, Mr. Awad's aides, then moved the campaign to Jebel Mukaber. The action touched a raw nerve among Israeli authorities who view Jebel Mukaber, annexed along with the rest of East Jerusalem in 1967, as part of Israel's capital. ``The law is the law. We plan on closing the house today,'' Mr. Ben Ruby said. ``As long as there is no order to reopen the house, it will remain shut.''
According to Shaheen, the house openings are intended to boost Palestinian support for peace arrangements with Israel. ``We will be happy if Israel opens up the houses, because the reason for closing them has ended,'' he says. ``We support the peace agreement, but it is difficult for people to have a strong belief in peace if their houses are closed.''
More than 2,000 Palestinian homes have been sealed or demolished in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since Israel captured the areas during the 1967 Middle East war, says the Palestinian Al-Haq human rights organization.
Israeli officials say the Palestinian campaign to reopen houses is out of place, since talks are to commence in the coming weeks on Palestinian authority in the rest of the West Bank. Moreover, they say, the punishment of sealing homes has fallen into disuse since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took office two years ago.
``Israel is still the authority in the West Bank,'' government spokesman Uri Dromi says. ``We have had a breakthrough with the Palestinians, but that does not mean everything is changed, forgotten, or discarded. The way to bring change is through negotiations, not unilateral actions.''
``If I have done something, my family should not be harmed,'' says Khaled Batrawi, a field worker at Al-Haq. Al-Haq says the practice violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and other international pacts, and has demanded Israel ``revoke orders preventing Palestinians from rebuilding and unsealing their homes and immediately reopen sealed homes.''
Masris moved next door
The Masris, a family of seven, have rented a house next door to the one sealed in May 1989 following the arrest of 16-year-old Samer Masri, the eldest son. He was released two years ago and works as a waiter in an Israeli restaurant in Jerusalem.
Hoda Masri, Samer's mother, says he was imprisoned for being in a group of youths who stoned the car of a Jewish settler. A nearby house belonging to another youth was demolished by the Army. Israeli Army officials said such measures were taken ``only in cases where people killed Jews or Arabs or carried out some other serious attack.''
``It is no good to open the house if the soldiers close it up again,'' says Mrs. Masri, walking in the garden outside the sealed home. ``If Mr. Awad comes back, I'll say no. I ask that the authorities and not Mubarak Awad open my house. My family must return to its house.''