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No Room For Fear In This Home Israeli Bulldozers Can Level Walls But Can’t Drive Palestinian Family Out Of House

Yusuf and Zuhoor al-Atrash’s house has been demolished twice by Israeli soldiers because the Arab family did not have the proper building permits. But the al-Atrash family, supported by their Palestinian neighbors and by Israeli peace activists, decided to do what very few Palestinians ever do: rebuild their house for the third time, directly challenging Israel’s policy of razing Arab houses that lack necessary permits.

On Sunday, three weeks after the most recent demolition, Israeli soldiers and border police responded to the challenge by arresting the couple and their two oldest children after the al-Atrashes tried to prevent the troops from entering the property. After the arrests, soldiers confiscated a cement mixer. The Israeli government now will likely destroy the concrete shell of a house that had been built over the ruins, said Peter Lerner, spokesman of Israel’s Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank.

Lerner said the family had a history of violence. “The soldiers came only to confiscate the tools being used to rebuild the house,” he said. “When we demolished the house in the past, the mother of the family threatened to blow the house up with the gas tank and threatened soldiers with a knife. They have a violent record, and that’s probably why they were arrested.”

The case could further inflame tensions in this most volatile of West Bank towns and draw new attention to the government’s policy of destroying homes for security reasons or if the owners lack proper permits. In past years, the government has destroyed several houses in areas under Israeli control that belong to relatives of Arab suicide bombers.

“This is the first family that we’ve encountered who said they were immediately going to rebuild their house after a demolition,” said Rich Meyer, 40, of Goshen, Ind., a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, which has tracking house demolitions for two years. “Usually, Palestinian families in these cases move back with their extended family. What the al-Atrash family did was the quintessence of nonviolent resistance.”

For more than two weeks, Meyer has lived with the 12-member al-Atrash family in three tents next to the building site. On Sunday night, he stayed with the couple’s eight youngest children in a tent. The oldest child is 13. Last week, in interviews over two days on their isolated hilltop, which is closer to the Israeli settlement of Beit Haggai than to downtown Hebron, the family said their first house was destroyed in 1988. For several years, they applied for a new housing permit, but were denied.

Finally, in 1995, they decided to rebuild based on the hope that the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would put a stop to the house demolitions. Instead, the demolitions have continued apace - more than 50 Palestinian homes were destroyed in 1997 for security reasons or lack of building permits - and in early March a bulldozer destroyed their second home.

“I have 10 children. Where can I go?” Yusuf al-Atrash, 38, said a week ago as men from a nearby village laid cement blocks. “From 1967 on, I never made any trouble for Israelis. Why are they making trouble for me? This place is mine, and before me it was my father’s, and before my father’s my grandfather’s, and before him my great-grandfather’s.”

The family has received much help. Palestinian villagers donated all the building materials. The Christian Peacemaker Team has kept a representative on the site since the demolition. And about 15 Israeli rabbis and peace activists spent March 19 helping the family rebuild.

At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Zuhoor al-Atrash saw a convoy of 10 Israeli jeeps approaching the house. She ran to the dirt road above the property and refused to budge. “A civilian person told police to take the lady,” said Bassam Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist who witnessed the confrontation. “Army and border police dropped her on the ground and started beating her with their feet,” he charged. “When her husband tried to interfere, they took the husband.”

Eid said about two dozen soldiers and border police took the cement mixer and left.

Lerner of the Israeli Civil Administration indicated that Israeli troops eventually will knock down the third al-Atrash home. No court order is needed, he said: “If they build on a ruins of a demolished house, then we will have to demolish it again.”

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