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A Sad But Incomplete Story


One of the most moving and sad moments at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference that took place in Bethlehem early last month came on Wednesday, March 7, 2012 when Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, addressed the crowd.

During her talk, in which she described to the audience women she has met over the past few years who have inspired her peacemaking efforts in Israel and the West Bank, Hybels spoke movingly about a family whose one-story home in East Jerusalem was demolished by Israeli officials on Oct. 12, 2009 because it lacked a building permit. This is a common problem, Hybels said, because it's “very difficult” for Palestinians to get building permits.

The details of what happened on October 12, 2009 are pretty harrowing:

On that morning … while Isme drove her three young children to school, policemen broke into her home and demanded that her sick husband get out of bed and come outside. Isme returened home just in time to watch bulldozers destroy her home and everything in it. Though Isme owned the land on which their house was built, demolition had been a constant possibility because they did not have a permit to build their home, which is a common plight because it's very hard for Palestinians to get building permits.

According to her description of events, (which can also be seen in a blog entry written by Hybels a couple of years ago), the family's two daughters were able to recover from the stress of losing their home, but the family's eight-year-old son soiled his pants at school because of the fear and uncertainty of seeing how his parents were unable to provide a safe stable environment for him to grow up in. When Hybels visited the family two weeks after their home was demolished, they were living in tents from the Red Cross where their house once stood, she said. After telling this story, Hybels challenged the audience with the following statement:

The family owns the property on which the tents sit. Why was their house demolished. Why does this have to happen? And why is this OK? Is this OK? I've since heard that their house was rebuilt but still with no building permit so there's no guarantee of what will happen in the future, but as a wife and mother I look at this picture of this family and I cannot be silenced. I have to tell these stories. I have to make people aware.

Hybels is not the only one who did not remain silent. Attendees of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference would have to have a heart of stone not to feel the fear and uncertainty endured by this boy and his family.

But does the story Hybels told to several hundred people attending the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference actually check out?

This is a reasonable question to ask given the manner in which images and stories broadcast by Palestinian propagandists and ferried back to audiences by their friends in the West have been used to demonize Israel for the past few years. The Al Dura case comes to mind.

Building Permits

First off, is it “nearly impossible” for Palestinians to get building permits, as Hybels reported in her blog?

No. Statistics from 2008 and 2009 were included in a previous CAMERA analysis:

For 2008: western Jerusalem, 2,439 permits requested, 1,278 granted; eastern Jerusalem, 346 permits requested, 152 granted.
 
For 2009, from January 1 to April 22: western Jerusalem, 266 requests, 230 granted; eastern Jerusalem, 29 requests, 26 granted.

For 2008, the rejection rate for East Jerusalem was higher than it was in the rest of the city, but clearly, building permits are not "nearly impossible" to get, as Hybels reports. Some applicants are denied permits to build, but this is a fact of life in any municipality. And sometimes structures that are built without permits are demolished.

Illegal Construction a Problem

Did Hybels speak to city planners about what she saw? If she did, she would have learned that Jerusalem, like many other cities throughout the world, is suffering from what Justus Reid Weiner calls, an “epidemic” of illegal construction that undermines efforts to improve living conditions through urban planning. In his 2003 book Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs), Weiner wrote the following:

Illegal construction is fast becoming the norm throughout Jerusalem. Without knowing the exact number, it is fair to estimate that a thousand illegal units are built each year in the Arab neighborhoods of the City. As Hatem Abed El-Khader Eid, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council representing the Jerusalem district proudly announced, the municipal enforcement is totally ineffective. … [He] stated that over a four-year period the Palestinians have erected 6,000 homes without building permits, out of which only 198 were demolished. Eid declared, “we in the Palestinian Authority are willing to build ten homes for every house demolished by Israel.” Clearly, there is almost no deterrence in the current enforcement policy. The magnitude of the problem is most pronounced in the Arab neighborhoods where thousands of illegal units, many of them substantial structures, are scattered across the landscape, frequently on land that does not belong to the builder. (Page 129).

This reality is not often conveyed to Western audiences, in part because journalists and so-called peace and justice activists use home demolitions to portray Israel as guilty of ethnic cleansing. Weiner writes:

Demolitions offer a dramatic opportunity for critics of the Municipality to create street theater. For the benefit of the media audience they emphasize one particular component of enforcement/deterrence. Television cameras and print journalists gravitate to demolitions because a structure being knocked down produces compelling footage, as a cordon of soldiers and police are jeered or pelted with stones by neighbors. This drama is conveniently translated into the image of a large, poor Arab family, forced out of their house in the middle of a rainy winter, on the order of the Mayor. It is therefore easy for the poorly informed public to align its sympathies with the ‘victims' of the uncaring Municipal bulldozers. Why should the media, international or even Israeli, search to find the deeper causes and motives bound up in this enigma? Other components of this controversy, such as the daily brick-on-brick expansion of illegal construction, attract almost no coverage, even as it is simultaneously going on across the street. (Page 98).
 
The Demolition
 
The scenario Weiner describes seems to have taken place with the home demolition Hybels described at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference. Palestinian leaders got a lot of mileage out of the home demolition in question, which took place after a three-month lull in demolitions. In addition to receiving lots of attention in the local media, it got on the radars of United Nations and officials from the U.S. State Department.
 
The home was one of three structures that were destroyed that day, the other two buildings (or groups of buildings) that were uninhabited. Maan News Agency covered the Oct. 12, 2009 destruction of a home in an article published that day. It reports:
Israeli forces arrived with bulldozers and besieged the At-Taleiqi family home on before forcibly evicting the five family members who were inside, onlookers told Ma'an.
 
Residents watched as Israeli troops assaulted Amjad At-Taleiqi, the owner of the 70-sqaure meter house, when he attempted to resist the demolition of home.
 
The man's hands were bound until the house was demolished, they said.

The family had reportedly received a warrant from Israeli authorities a year earlier informing them the house would be demolished because it was built without a permit from the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem Municipality.

Another article published by the Palestine News and Information Agency on Oct. 13, recounts how the destruction of a family's home generated an angry response from the Saeb Erakat, chief of the PLO's negotiating team:

Dr Erakat called on the international community to support the five members of the Al-Taleiqi family who lost their home as a result of today's demolitions, and to step up its pressure on Israel to stop all settlement construction and home demolitions in occupied East Jerusalem.
 
"Home demolitions are but one example of the way Israel's occupation targets all Palestinians without exception. Today, another Palestinian family has been added to the growing list of those made destitute and homeless by Israel as it tries to force more and more of East Jerusalem's majority Palestinian population from the city.

If home demolitions are a tactic used to drive Arabs from Jerusalem, it is not working very well. As stated in a previous CAMERA analysis, “The Muslim/Arab population of Jerusalem has been growing faster than the Jewish population for decades. According to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Jerusalem was 25.8 percent Arab in 1967. By 2009, the city's Arab population increased to 35.7 percent.”

Some Discrepancies

Interestingly enough, while Hybels reports that the father was recovering from heart surgery at the time of the demolition, this detail did not make it into the other articles.

This is not the type of detail they would omit, because it serves to show just how heartless the Israelis are, a point Palestinian news outlets emphasize on a regular basis.

The weekly bulletin published by the United Nations about Israeli activities in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem made no mention of the man's heart ailment, nor did the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

There are other discrepancies.

For example, Hybels told the audience that the children were at school while Maan news agency reports that onlookers said the entire family was inside prior to the demolition.

Question of Ownership

There is another, more serious discrepancy. In a cable sent from the American consulate in Jerusalem to the State Department in Washington, D.C., three days after the home was demolished, the an American diplomat in Jerusalem reported the following:

UN OCHA and local media report that the Al Marwaha property belonged to Amjad Al-Taleiqi, who five months ago converted a stable into a small three-room residential structure, in which he lived with his wife and three children. Prior to the demolition, al-Taleiqi received several eviction warnings from Israeli Border Police. On Oct. 13 [the day after the demolition], Jerusalem Municipality officials showed PolOff [political officer?] a demolition order summary, which cited the al-Taleiqi property for being built on open public land. According to the summary, the property was surveyed in February 2008 by the Municipality's Department of Building Monitoring, and its demolition was approved by the Municipality in May 2008. The summary notes that earlier requests to delay the demolition were rejected by the court.

Hybels reported that the family owned the property on which their home was built and that it was demolished because it was built without a permit. The diplomatic cable reports that Jerusalem officials state otherwise – that the home was demolished was built on “open public land.”

So which is it? Does the family own the property or not?

For many people, particularly peace activists intent on assailing Israel, details like this are unimportant. A home has been demolished, a family put out into the street and an eight-year-old boy is having a tough time dealing with the humiliation endured by his family.

And it is all Israel's fault, full stop.

Nevertheless, most people would understand that if someone built or renovated a home without a permit or on property they did not own, the home would be demolished. In this case it appears the family did both.

Most people would also wonder why the family waited until the demolition actually took place before moving from the property. They might also ask if it is really a good idea to rebuild a home once a previous structure has already been demolished.

There is another question worth asking: Why is it that the story about the same event presented to a local audience and to a Western audience in such different ways? The story told to the local audience emphasized the father's defiance. The story Hybels told at Christ at the Checkpoint emphasized his vulnerability.

Was this story repackaged for different audiences as part of the street theater that Weiner wrote about?

Some readers may be shocked at the manner in which CAMERA is examining the story told by Lynne Hybels at Christ at the Checkpoint. Hybels is a well-meaning evangelical Christian intent on drawing attention to the suffering of the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
 
Not the First Time
 
The problem is that Palestinian activists have become particularly adept at using their well-meaning allies in the West to spread misinformation. Again, the Al Dura case comes to mind.

For another example, take a look at the picture below.

Mt of Olives destroyed church_web.jpg
 
This picture appears on page 54 of Our Story: The Palestinians published by Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem in 1999. The book was edited by Sabeel founder Naim Ateek and Hilary Rantisi (who currently works works as director of the Middle East Study Initiative at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government).
 
The photo shows a priest from the Greek Orthodox Church standing on a pile of rubble. Behind him, amidst the rubble of cement, wood and rebar, sits an icon of Christ the Pantocrator (“ruler of all”).

Both the priest and the image of Christ behind him peer accusingly at the camera lens, as if to say that the viewer's indifference has contributed to this outrage.

A cursory examination indicates the photo is likely staged, with the icon of Christ – which shows no sign of damage – strategically placed on top of the rubble. It was undoubtedly put there after the building was demolished – unless of course the icon miraculously emerged unscathed after landing inexplicably on top of a pile of rubble as the building was being knocked down.
 
Miracles do happen, but please.

It appears the demolition took place in 1992, was the cause of great outcry, receiving coverage, for example in The New York Times and The Jerusalem Post. A photo similar to the one above appeared in the The New York Times prompting the following response from Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolleck:

To the Editor:
 
Despite the impression created by a staged photograph published in The New York Times – with icons and candelabra carefully placed among the ruins – or by the claim of the accompanying caption, the partially finished empty shell of a building demolished by the Jerusalem Municipality was not a place of worship, though it was intended to become one when completed ("Amid Controversy, Jerusalem Destroys Church Built Without Permit," July 25).
 
Given the sensitivity of the case, we tried for a long time to find an amiable solution to the flagrantly illegal construction by the Greek Orthodox patriarchate. Had work ceased on the site until proper building permits were obtained, as the patriarchate twice solemnly promised to do, razing the structure would not have been necessary. The municipal building code applies throughout the city, to synagogues as well to as to churches, to small-property owners as well as to rich and well-connected ones like the Greek Orthodox patriarchate.
 
When a municipal representative asked the Patriarch if he would contemplate building an illegal structure in Amman, Damascus or any European capital, he responded, "I would not do it even in Athens." So why in Jerusalem? (New York Times, Aug. 8, 1992)
Yes, Jerusalem is a holy city. Nevertheless, homes and other structures that are built illegally in Jerusalem are sometimes demolished. Peace activists and religious leaders in the West need to be careful, because Palestinians have become adept at using this reality to defame Israel.

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