On the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a human rights organization founded 10 years ago by Israelis is raising its profile and seeking more support from Americans.
But the organization’s name might be misleading. The Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) is not just focused on preventing the Israeli army’s destruction of Palestinian property — a cause that gained international notice in 2003 when American activist Rachel Corrie was crushed by a bulldozer while protesting such actions on the West Bank.
The group is also politically active against what it calls “apartheid” in Palestinian territories — a term that drew sharp rebuke from Israel supporters this year when used in the title of a book by former President Jimmy Carter.
The group’s newly formed U.S. arm took out a full-page ad in The New York Times on Sunday seeking donations. But the ad did not use the word “apartheid,” as it does on its Web site.
“Within the next year — four at the most — an expanded Israel will officially and unilaterally impose an apartheid regime over the remaining tiny, isolated and impoverished islands of a Palestinian Bantustan,” ICAHD asserts on its Web site. “This is the only way to interpret the ‘convergence plan’ that Ehud Olmert, Israel’s new Prime Minister, has laid out in great detail, though it merely completes an apartheid trajectory begun immediately after the 1967 war.”
While acknowledging that Israeli policy is not the same as the racist policies of South African apartheid, the group insists that “a system of institutionalized discrimination means that Israel’s form of apartheid conforms in principle, conception and structure to apartheid. While some may object to the use of the term on the grounds that it deflects debate from the issues, while ‘dispossession,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘colonization’ and other terms may be more descriptive for what is occurring in Israel-Palestine, apartheid is the only term existing that gets to the deliberately structured, permanently institutionalized form of systemic discrimination underlying Israel’s ‘convergence plan’ that perpetuates the Occupation forever.”
The Times ad asks for help in rebuilding homes destroyed this year.
“Construction, not destruction, is one meaningful step toward peace for both Israelis and Palestinians,” reads the ad. “It benefits us all.”
In a phone interview from Jerusalem, ICAHD founder Jeff Halper said the ad does not detail the organization’s apartheid philosophy because “you can’t put everything in an ad.” He said the term was “not really provocative, but descriptive.” He said Israel destroys homes because they are built without permits, but does not grant Palestinians permits in the first place.
“We use apartheid language very precisely,” said Halper, 61, a Minnesota native who has lived in Israel for 35 years. Formerly a professor of anthropology, he now devotes his time to ICAHD. He said the organization was founded in 1997 after Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister on a right wing, security-heavy platform.
“Netanyahu was a wake-up call after the false hope of [Yitzchak] Rabin and [Shimon] Peres,” he said. “A number of Israeli peace organizations came together.”
ICAHD only recently began fund-raising in the United States, opening an office in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Israel has destroyed some Palestinian homes for a variety of reasons, from lack of proper permits to the creation of bypass roads to retaliation for terrorist attacks in the hopes of turning family members against potential terrorists.
In 2005, Shaul Mofaz, then Israel’s defense minister, put a halt to Israel’s policy of demolishing the homes of terrorists on the recommendation of a military committee, which found the tactic was largely ineffective in its goal of deterring suicide bombings.
Rather, Maj. Gen. Udi Shani, who headed the commission, found that the hostility the demolitions created outweighed the benefits of the tactic.
In response to recent violence, Israel has since resumed the demolitions on a limited scale.
ICAHD planned a rally this week at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, followed by a trip to the Silwan neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem to kick off a reconstruction campaign. Halper said an anonymous Jewish donor had pledged $1.5 million to rebuild some 300 homes destroyed this year. While that sum would build only meager homes, he said it was the point that mattered. “The functional home we build for family of 10 is like a walk-in closet for Americans,” he said. “But for Palestinians it’s meaningful.”
In addition to opposing home demolitions, which have been criticized by many Israelis on political, legal and military grounds, ICAHD is equally critical of Israel’s construction of a West Bank barrier — which the government and many supporters say has reduced terrorism, while critics charge it is laying the groundwork for a unilateral border.
Funded by individual donors as well as human-rights grant money from countries such as Ireland and Austria, ICAHD wants to kick off a coordinated campaign among Israelis, Palestinians and other international activists to thwart Olmert’s convergence plan, the status of which is unclear in Israel’s present political turmoil.
Tikkun magazine founder Rabbi Michael Lerner, who advocates Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, said he endorsed ICAHD’s work because it brings “honor to the Jewish people by reminding the world that many Israelis and Jews do not support the ethically unsupportable policies of the Israeli government in regard to demolitions of Palestinian homes.”
But Rabbi Lerner said in an e-mail message it was “a mistake to use the word apartheid.” And he has said previously that Carter’s use of the term detracted from the point of his book.
According to ICAHD, “95 percent” of home demolitions have “absolutely nothing to do with terrorism or security.”
A spokesman at the Israeli Consulate here did not immediately respond to a request for information about the demolitions.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the 95 percent figure cited by ICAHD was “absolutely wrong” and insisted that many of those homes that were destroyed “were built illegally and block roads and are encumbrances.”
ICAHD, said Hoenlein, was “trying to talk about demolitions without presenting the reason or truth for it. They couch it in more moderate terms but the anti-Israel purpose is clear.”