Militarising Bulldozers: Demolition in Israel/Palestine as Settler-Colonial Policy

Settler colonialism describes a situation where a foreign people arrives in a country with the intent of taking it over and implementing a narrative about why the land belongs to them and why they are entitled to displace the native population. After a period of invasion and conquest, settler movements attempt to conceal and if necessary suppress their violent campaign by creating an illusion of peace and normality to create the impression that the country naturally and always has belonged to them. If they haven’t wiped out the Indigenous population entirely, they might even make gestures of reconciliation and other symbolic acknowledgements that something unjust may have occurred, but, well, that’s all in the distant past. This is the story of many countries where settler colonialism, while rendered a shady part of ‘our past’, still rules: Australia, of course, but also New Zealand, Canada, the United States, much of Latin America, South Africa, Tibet, Xinjiang—and Israel.

The history of Israeli Jewish settler colonialism has thus been buried under the false and self-serving narrative that Israel naturally and historically ‘belongs’ exclusively to the Jewish people and that the ‘conflict’ within and over its borders is either an attempt to prevent the Jews from ‘returning home’ and retaking ‘their’ country or, more charitably, a struggle between two legitimate nationalisms, Jewish and Palestinian. But settler colonialism it is, from Zionism’s claim of an exclusive entitlement to the land, to its ongoing conquest of the land, to its rejection of the existence of any Indigenous Palestinian people or their national rights in the country, to hasbara messaging and propaganda—using any means possible to project a normal country whose Jewish population is merely trying to live in peace despite illegitimate ‘terrorists’.

Only if one grasps the settler-colonial nature of Zionism can one truly understand Israel’s intention to transform Palestine into the Land of Israel. All of it. Not 78 per cent of it. Not a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one. Certainly not a single democracy offering equal rights to all its citizens. At best a country that is purely Jewish. But if that proves impossible—Palestinians make up the majority population today between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—then an apartheid state where Jews rule and control almost all the land, with the ‘Arabs’ (we don’t dignify their national identity by referring to them as Palestinians) confined to dozens of tiny and impoverished Bantustans.

The task, then, is less to conquer the country—that was done militarily in 1948 and completed in 1967—than to take possession of the land and displace the native population. In that sense, the bulldozer is more emblematic of Zionist settler colonialism than the rifle or the tank, for it is the bulldozer that has transformed the landscape from an Arab to a Jewish one.

The work of physical transformation began as soon as the Zionists could get started: in 1948, as the British withdrew, a war of all-out conquest began. The facts are well known. Some 750,000 souls, 85 per cent of the total population of what became Israel, found themselves refugees outside their own country, where they remain today, the number after several generations now at five million. More than 500 entire villages, towns and urban neighbourhoods were systematically demolished not in the heat of battle but after their residents had left or been driven out—sometimes years after. Around 52,000 homes and communal and farming structures were destroyed. The intent was to prevent the return of refugees and to take possession of their lands and properties.  

Of the 150,000 Palestinians who remained in the country, the war displaced 30,000 to 40,000. Not allowed to return to their homes (which were either demolished or turned over to Jewish Israelis) and wanting to remain sumud (steadfast) near their lands, this population of internally displaced Palestinians has today grown to 420,000. Forced to live in temporary encampments that have become ‘illegal’ villages, they are perhaps the most vulnerable Palestinian population, their homes illegal by definition and under constant threat of demolition. Even if they are not demolished, however, because of their ‘illegality’ these communities are not served by electricity, water, phone lines, sewerage, roads or other infrastructure.

By 1966, Israel had consolidated its hold over the country within the 1949 armistice lines (the 1948 or 1967 borders). Over two decades, while the Palestinian population of Israel was ruled by a restrictive and repressive military regime, it lost 98 per cent of its land. After massive land expropriations and the demolition of their communities, Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who had owned 97 per cent of the land in 1947, found themselves confined to 3.5 per cent, where they remain today. A year later, in 1967, Israel conquered the rest of Palestine: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. And the campaign of demolition resumed.

At least 6000 houses were demolished immediately following the 1967 war. Three entire villages—Imwas, Yalo, Beit Nuba—were razed in the Latrun area (now known as ‘Canada Park’), while dozens of ancient homes were destroyed in the Mughrabi Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City to create a plaza for the Wailing Wall. In 1971, Ariel Sharon, then leader of the Southern Command, cleared 2000 houses in the Gaza refugee camps—some say 6000—in what was popularly known as ‘the pacification of Gaza’. At least 2000 houses in the Occupied Territories were destroyed in the course of quelling the First Intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During this time, Israel dramatically increased its use of house demolitions as a punishment, demolishing or sealing more than 860 homes. Almost 1700 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories were demolished by the Civil Administration during the course of the Oslo ‘peace process’ (1993–2000).

Since the start of the Second Intifada in September 2000, between 4000 and 5000 Palestinian homes were destroyed in military operations, including hundreds in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron and other cities of the West Bank, more than 2500 in Gaza alone. Tens of thousands of other homes were left uninhabitable. Altogether around 50,000 people were left homeless. According to Amnesty International, more than 3000 hectares of cultivated land—10 per cent of the agricultural land of Gaza—was cleared during this time. Wells, water-storage pools and water pumps that provided water for drinking, irrigation and other needs for thousands of people were also destroyed, along with tens of kilometres of irrigation networks.

During the same period about 900 Palestinian homes were demolished by the Civil Administration for lack of proper permits.

During the Second Intifada (2000–2005), more than 628 Palestinian homes were demolished as collective punishment and for ‘deterrence’, affecting families of people known to be involved or suspected of involvement in attacks on Israeli civilians. On average, twelve innocent people lost their home for every person ‘punished’ for a security offence—and in half of the cases the occupants had nothing whatsoever to do with the acts in question. As part of Operation Defensive Shield, the Sharon government demolished 878 refugee homes and damaged more than 2800 others, leaving more than 17,000 people homeless, while destroying the entire infrastructures of almost all the Palestinian cities of the West Bank. In the years following the Second Intifada (2005–2009), another 900 homes were demolished by the Civil Administration for lack of proper permits.

During the three-week invasion of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead (December 2008 to January 2009), the Israeli military destroyed some 3540 homes, 268 factories and warehouses, as well as schools, vehicles, water wells, public infrastructure, greenhouses and large swathes of agricultural land, and 2870 houses were severely damaged. During Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli invasion of Gaza in July–August 2014, the Israeli military destroyed some 18,000 homes, damaged another 89,000 and left 60,000 people homeless.

Yet another front in the struggle for exclusive Jewish ownership of the country is East Jerusalem. Home to 350,000 Palestinians, the region is part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), along with West Jerusalem and Gaza, even though it has formally been annexed by Israel. All urban policy in East Jerusalem is guided by the goal of maintaining the 72 per cent to 28 per cent ratio of Jews to Arabs that prevailed in 1967—although it has been only partially successful: Palestinians currently make up 37 per cent of the city’s population. Still, a complex system involving the partisan use of planning and zoning mechanisms, land expropriation and house demolitions, and bureaucratic means of revoking Jerusalem residency has been developed to ensure the ‘Jewish character’ of the city. Palestinian residents are confined by zoning and public pressure to highly circumscribed parts of ‘East’ Jerusalem: only 11 per cent of East Jerusalem land, just 7 per cent of the city’s total urban space, is available for Palestinian housing and communal needs.

Despite an acknowledged (but intentional) shortage of 25,000 housing units in the Arab sector, the (Israeli) Jerusalem Municipality grants only 150 to 350 permits a year for Arab housing, while demolishing 20 to 50 homes a year. A total of 8000 Palestinian homes have been declared ‘illegal’; some 2000 demolition orders are outstanding. Permits, even when possible to acquire, are far too expensive for the average Palestinian resident, often reaching $20,000 to $60,000 in fees, surveys, engineering plans and connection to infrastructure. Even securing a building permit does not guarantee adequate housing, however.

While Israeli contractors are allowed to build hundreds of per cent the size of the property (that is, two to six or more storeys), Palestinian buildings must be confined to just 25 per cent of their land. Jewish Israelis, then, are able to acquire roomy apartments in medium- or high-rise buildings, or are able to purchase spacious ‘villas’—some of them, ironically, marketed as ‘Arab-style’ housing—while Palestinians with large families are forced to live in small, single-storey houses. Additional rooms added as the family grows—or because of the inability of married sons to obtain building permits for their own families—are often demolished. Palestinians thus suffer from overcrowded conditions: 2.2 persons per room on average for Arabs; 0.8 persons per room in the Jewish sector. Jewish Israelis also have access to spacious accommodation on both the eastern and western sides of the city. Between 1967 and 2003, Israel built some 90,000 housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, all with government subsidies. None were built for Palestinians.

Forced displacement is not always enforced through demolitions. Massive new Israeli settlements/neighbourhoods have been established throughout and around East Jerusalem in order to isolate the Palestinian population in small and disconnected enclaves, and to prevent the development of the Palestinian side of the city. In recent years the Israeli authorities, together with the settler associations, have begun taking over established Palestinian neighbourhoods—Silwan, now named by the Israelis ‘the City of David’; Sheikh Jarrah; Ras el-Amud; Jabal Mukaber; parts of the Old City itself—evicting families from their homes and turning them over to Jews.

Altogether, then, from the start of the Occupation in 1967 through to 2021, more than 55,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed in the OPT under a variety of pretexts. Many homes, it must be noted, were those of refugees who had already lost their homes inside Israel in 1948. Why does all this matter? Are we speaking of an Israeli–Arab ‘conflict’, or the resistance of an Indigenous people to ongoing colonisation? Is the solution a two-state solution, even though we know that as a settler-colonial movement Zionism will never accept less than the entire country, that the two-state solution has already been buried under massive Israeli settlement and that the international community displays no will whatsoever to force Israel back to the 1967 borders? Or should we be looking for a process of decolonisation—the establishment of an inclusive and democratic state—as the only way to resolve a settler project in a just and workable way?

The conflict paradigm has led us to reduce a century-long process of colonial expansion over all of historic Palestine to a limited struggle to ‘end the occupation’ over only a small portion of it (22 per cent). By focusing solely on the OPT, the conflict model leaves Israel ‘proper’ out of the picture altogether. In so doing it legitimises, or at least ignores, Zionist colonialism over the vast majority (78 per cent) of Palestine. Even the broader term ‘apartheid’ does not do justice to the situation. When the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, joined recently by Human Rights Watch, uses the term apartheid, it refers only to Israel’s occupation, again, not to Israel itself. What that ignores is the structural inequality of Israel itself. This is a self-proclaimed ‘Jewish’ country whose systematic taking of the land and destruction of the properties of its own (Arab) citizens is clear, that prohibits its Arab citizens from living in Jewish areas and whose Jewish Nationalities Law officially subordinates equal civil rights to superior ‘Jewish values’ in Israeli courts. Apartheid applies to the entire country—Israel and the OPT—just as it did to all of South Africa, and not only to the Bantustans.     

Settler colonialism necessitates a process of resolution that fundamentally dismantles the colonial structures of domination and control—a process of decolonisation, not merely conflict resolution. Occupation and apartheid are sub-issues that will be resolved only as part of a broader decolonisation. Only that will end ‘the conflict’, not limited Palestinian sovereignty over a small piece of their country.

The outlines of what might emerge out of decolonisation are clear:

  • The historic land of Palestine belongs to all who live in it, Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews alike, as well as to those who have been expelled or exiled from it since 1948;
  • The implementation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants in accordance with UN Resolution 194;
  • Any future system of government must be a constitutional one, founded on the principle of equal civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens. The current Israeli regime of ethno-religious nationalism must be replaced by a constitutional democracy based on common citizenship, thus enabling and fostering the emergence of a shared civil society. The non-sectarian state will not privilege the rights of one ethnic or religious group over another and will respect the separation of state from all organised religion;
  • The recognition of the diverse character of the society, encompassing distinct religious, linguistic and cultural traditions, and national experiences. Constitutional guarantees will protect the country’s national, ethnic, religious and other communities.
  • There must be just redress for the devastating effects of decades of Zionist colonisation in the pre- and post-state period, including the abrogation of all laws, and ending all policies, practices and systems of military and civil control that oppress and discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, religion or national origin. Attempts must be made to restore to the Palestinians their national, family and individual properties, and a system of reparations must be established. Israeli Jews must acknowledge both the national rights of the Palestinian people and past colonial crimes. In return (and in light of the egalitarian democracy that would have been established), the Palestinians will accept them as legitimate citizens and neighbours, thereby signalling the end of Zionist settler colonialism.
  • Putting into place an inclusive economy offering economic justice, sustainability, meaningful employment and just compensation, most likely on an eco-socialist basis; and
  • Acknowledging a connectedness to the wider Middle Eastern and global community that requires engagement in creating new regional and global structures of equality and sustainability, upon which the success of local decolonisation ultimately depends.

How, then, do we stop the bulldozers? Politically, this will happen when a new, inclusive political community arises, replacing an ethnocratic colonial state with a democracy. In this scenario, Israeli Jews, while able to retain their religious, ethnic and even national identities and narratives as in any pluralistic democracy, will be expected to live within the new, wider civil society of the new state, as equal citizens. Palestinians, meanwhile, will win their sovereignty back, and the right to determine their own lives, albeit in a multicultural democracy

Strategically, Zionist settler colonialism will end in Palestine/Israel as it did in Algeria and South Africa: when Palestinians, supported by anti-colonial Jewish Israelis, succeed in mobilising international civil society—the people of the world—behind a clear, just, inclusive and compelling political endgame. That has already happened to a significant degree. Israel may be strong among governments, but it is losing its case for apartheid in the court of public opinion. This is precisely the time, as Israel strives to transform its hybrid regime of settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation into a permanent political reality and thereby create its own version of a single Jewish state, to focus on a just political settlement. 

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About the author

Jeff Halper

Jeff Halper is the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a founding member of the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC). His latest book is Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism and the Case for One Democratic State (Pluto Press, 2021).

More articles by Jeff Halper

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There is, unfortunately, only one territorial principle operating throughout the history of civilisation, and which extends into the history of the whole animal kingdom: if you can’t defend it, you don’t own it.
That principle was found out the hard way by my own (largely Irish) ancestry when their lands were siezed by the invading armies of Henry VIII of England, which rule was consolidated by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads following the English Revolution of the 1640s. (had I lived at that time, I would have inclined to become a Royalist. (Anyone but Cromwell and his bloody Puritans.)
The Palestinians (the ‘Philistines’ of the Bible) have had the misfortune to have their country conquered many times, the decisive one which sealed their modern fate being that of the Ottoman Turks, whose empire was defeated by the Allies in the First World War, and its Nazi succeessor in the Second World lWar ikewise, leaving the way clear for the victorious WW2 allies.
IMHO justice would have decreed that the Jews be given a homeland in say, Bavaria; the part of Germany where Nazism got its start and major support. The Wailing Wall, Temple Mount and all other Jewish venerable places could have been excavated and shifted to Bavaria at far less cost in lives and money than the Palestine ‘settlement’ to date. But in the opening phases of the Cold War,the US wanted the Germans on side. So the people who copped it in the neck (yet again) were the poor bloody Palestinian Arabs.

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