In the path of bulldozers

American-born Israeli peace activist visits Chico

Jeff Halper moved to Israel 40 years ago, after years of activism in the United States.

Jeff Halper moved to Israel 40 years ago, after years of activism in the United States.

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“Governments will not do the right thing, if left to themselves.”

Jeff Halper didn’t waste any time getting to the point. His warm, avuncular tone and gentle demeanor seemed only to underscore the urgency of his message. “Unless you mobilize the people, and the people begin to put pressure on the politicians, unless it trickles up, you can’t influence policy.”

Halper, an American-born author, anthropologist and Nobel Peace Prize-nominated co-founder and director of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition (ICAHD), was a week into his month-long speaking and fundraising tour when he passed through Chico on Tuesday (April 9). His presentation on the Butte College campus was titled, “An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Occupation, Forging Peace, Fostering Human Rights.”

ICAHD is an Israeli peace and human-rights organization dedicated to the peaceful resolution of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The focus of its work is opposing the Israeli practice of home demolition, which has resulted in the loss of 28,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967.

An immigrant himself, Halper is perhaps better suited than most to address the issue of home, and the loss thereof. Born in Minnesota in 1946, he cut his teeth on the street tactics of the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s.

After attending rabbinical school, he immigrated to Israel in 1973. He co-founded ICAHD in 1997, and his work with that organization led to his 2006 nomination, along with Palestinian peace activist Ghassan Andoni, for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Asked to identify a common thread between his early stateside activism and current ICAHD tactics, Halper offered simply, “It was the people who mobilized in the civil-rights movement, the anti-war movement, and now with this occupation, with governments that wouldn’t have moved otherwise.

“Occupation can be a very abstract term,” he said. “Even for people in Tel Aviv it’s pretty abstract. Focusing on this dimension of the occupation, house demolitions, gives an opportunity to see the human cost of occupation; that this isn’t some abstract political concept.”

On June 10, 1967, Israeli military and police forces converged on the Moroccan Quarter in the Old City within East Jerusalem with a fleet of bulldozers and proceeded to demolish 350 Palestinian homes, mosques and other sites to open a plaza to increase Israeli access to the Wailing Wall, a Jewish holy site. This, said Halper, was the opening salvo of a war of occupation that continues today.

And this violence, he explained, loops directly back in the form of terrorist aggression toward Israel. According to research by one Gazan psychiatrist, 60 percent of young Palestinian suicide bombers have had their homes demolished.

Among the many human casualties of the Israeli demolition program is Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old college student from Olympia, Wash., who in 2003 was fatally run over by a bulldozer while defending a Palestinian home using nonviolent tactics. Corrie was in the region as part of her senior-year assignment to connect with her hometown’s sister city, Rafah.

ICAHD’s tactics are twofold, Halper said.

“If we can get there in time, we resist the demolition of Palestinian homes,” he said. “We chain ourselves inside the homes. We get on the roof. We get in front of bulldozers.”

If they can’t save a house, he said, they organize Israeli, Palestinian and international volunteers to rebuild. This calls for fundraising.

“These are political acts of rebuilding, these aren’t humanitarian acts,” he explained, “So we’re not going to get funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, or from the U.S. government.”

To date, they’ve rebuilt 186 homes. Fifteen of those have been demolished again (one of them six times).

“In the struggle for human rights, in the struggle for social justice, governments are not our friends,” he concluded. “Governments will not resolve conflicts; governments manage conflicts…. Whether it has to do with Palestine, or Congo, or Haiti, or domestic issues, anything that we want to do that smacks of justice, we the people have to do it.”