Peace by Pieces: Israelis Who Rebuild Arab Lives

It was a day of hamsin, a Middle Eastern heat wave - not a good day to be standing in the sun, much less building a house.

But the men of Anata, a Palestinian village on Jerusalem's outskirts, toiled at the edge of the desert, clearing the rubble that was all that remained of Salim Shawamreh's home. It had been demolished by the Israeli Civil Administration, which claimed the house had been built without the necessary permits.

Israelis were on hand this day, too: A dozen or so worked alongside the Palestinians. For the fourth day, Arabs and Jews had come together to help rebuild. They took short breaks, drinking from shared water bottles and snacking on pita and popcorn.

Mr. Shawamreh seemed optimistic that his new Israeli friends could make a difference.

"Working with these Israelis, we can see they're different from Israeli politicians," he said. "The way the Israeli government is going now, it looks like there will never be peace. But ... I hope this seed will grow and be a tree, and we will sit under the tree and there will be peace."

At least 20 other homes in the village of Anata have been served demolition orders. The Israeli government says the village, which sits near the northern ridge of Jerusalem, can't have new permits because the area around it is slated as agricultural land. But the steep, scrubby slopes here don't give the appearance of being readily farmable.

The Israelis helping to rebuild - in effect an illegal act - had various theories for what their government was doing. Most said Israel wanted to hold onto as much land as possible before the final round of negotiations with the Palestinians. Some accused their own government of "cleansing" all the land they could of Palestinians. A few accused the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of trying to spark Palestinian violence so he could break off peace talks altogether.

Whatever the reason behind the policy, the demolitions continue. Some 2,000 homes are on the waiting list, human rights activists say. B'tselem, an Israeli monitoring organization, says in the past decade more than 1,800 homes have been demolished.

Shawamreh bought the land to build a home for his wife and six children. He applied for a permit from the Israeli authorities, but never received an answer. Living with relatives in an overcrowded house elsewhere, he decided four years ago to start building anyway. A construction engineer by trade, he built the house with money he saved working in Saudi Arabia, some loans from family and friends, and his own labor.

In mid-1997 the demolition order arrived. After that, his family began wondering when the bulldozers would come. When they did, on July 7, a busload of Israeli activists were on hand.

The activists "returned in shock and with a feeling of powerlessness," says Rabbi Arik Ascherman. He says they watched the family being beaten, shot at, and pushed back with tear gas when they tried to resist. A few of the Israelis who tried to interfere were violently dragged away.

"There is a trend among Palestinian families to rebuild," says Mr. Ascherman. "They are choosing this form of civil disobedience. And to those families who choose to rebuild, we want to help them."

Ascherman, who represents Rabbis for Human Rights, has been leading an ad hoc Israeli Coalition for the Prevention of Home Demolitions. Its members are part of a small camp of Israelis who argue that even if they can't fight the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they can try to jar other Israelis into action.

"I don't think that it matters that our effort is small, what matters is it's being done," said Ruth Cohn, a painter. "This is a political campaign. We want the media to notice. The purpose of this is to make Israelis scream."

AS the day wore on, the builders shrugged off questions about whether their effort could be for naught. The army watched the reconstruction through binoculars from across the hillside - an indication that it would probably be demolished.

Three days later, Ascherman reported that the house was being bulldozed again. It happened just after dawn, leaving no time for television cameras.

The next day, Israeli peace activists announced they would have a demonstration and hand out pieces of the rubble, like chunks of the Berlin Wall, to try to drive home the impact of the demolition. But on the same day, two Israeli settlers were shot and killed. The activists decided to cancel. Still, they would return.

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