|By Amira Hass
Three architectural styles of buildings and two types of ruins dip among plump, round-cheeked cactuses and elegant almond trees, densely filling a mellow valley before climbing, scattered, over the hill slopes. These buildings tell the story of Beit Mirsim, a Palestinian village just touching the southern part of the Green Line (the 1948 armistice border between the West Bank/Jordan and Israel). They tell not only the story of destruction by the victorious Israeli Army, but also of the continuing effects of the Six-Day War of 1967 on people’s lives.
During the Six-Day War, an Israeli Army unit ordered the villagers of Beit Mirsim to evacuate their homes, which were situated hard by the Jordanian border. Half of the village’s agricultural lands had already been lost to Israel after the war of 1948, and this time the villagers had refused to leave the hills overlooking the village. To this day, the villagers can recall clearly how, in a matter of hours, the valley was filled with the heart-breaking sounds and scenes of explosives tearing away their homes made of big, heavy stones, with arched windows and doors. Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF) destroyed houses in several villages adjacent to the Green Line or in the eastern Jordan Valley. Only in Beit Mirsim and a neighboring village did people return.
The laws of armed conflict permit the deliberate destruction of property under certain circumstances. Article 52 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions sanctions such attacks, but only on “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.” This provision addresses the situation of military forces making a direct attack on civilian objects and property for the purpose of destroying it.
In the view of the villagers of Beit Mirsim, their homes neither offered the IDF’s Jordanian adversaries definite military advantages nor impeded Israel’s own military plans in that particular sector. In their view, the destruction of their homes had little to do with concrete military advantages at the time. They believe their homes were destroyed in order to cause them to leave the zone permanently, not by the exigencies of battle. The destruction of homes in order to persuade the civilian population to flee permanently violates the laws of armed conflict.
It is not known whether Israeli commanders at the time of the destruction would have agreed that it served no concrete military purpose. As a general rule, however, under battlefield circumstances, in which concrete military advantages must be weighed against collateral damage, under conditions of uncertainty and imperfect information, and often with great speed, there has been great hesitation to second-guess the judgment of commanders who must make this determination.
Since it is anything but clear that the destruction of Beit Mirsim offered definite military advantage to Israeli forces, it can be argued that what the Israelis did was a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I. According to the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907—which the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled applies to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—it is illegal “to destroy or seize the enemy’s property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.” They also state that “private property… must be respected.”
Provisions of the laws of armed conflict also govern the conditions under which property may be destroyed as collateral damage. It may not exceed the threshold of military necessity, and may not be wanton.
Another legal basis for evaluating the destruction of houses at Beit Mirsim is the Fourth Geneva Convention, which expressly forbids destruction of civilian property under conditions of occupation except as justified by military necessity. Israel states that the de jure applicability of the Fourth Convention is “doubtful” and since 1967 it applies the “humanitarian provisions” of the Fourth Convention to the occupied territories, without specifying which provisions. No other country recognizes Israel’s selective interpretation of the 1949 Conventions. The Fourth Convention holds that “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” is a grave breach.
Nonetheless, the issue at Beit Mirsim, as in any instance of what seems at first glance like a possible case of destruction, is that of military necessity. And because commanders can always make such a claim that the exigencies of war compelled them to act as they did, enforcing prohibitions against destruction of enemy property will always be problematic, and their claims of military necessity, or, for that matter, their entirely legal wish to pursue military advantage, will be difficult to refute.
Military necessity or no military necessity, the people of Beit Mirsim are tenacious about their homes and village. They were so persistent about staying there that in 1967 Defense Minister Moshe Dayan personally went to negotiate with them.
“General Dayan came to speak with us,” recalled Abu Sherif, now seventy. “At last he agreed that we build one room, in place of each demolished house. We told him: ‘But General Dayan, one room is not enough for a family of ten.’ And he replied, ‘We hope that things will improve and that with the course of time you will be able to build more.’” The second architectural generation was then born: tiny one-room constructions, made of smaller stones.
After the 1993 Oslo agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government, villagers began building once again—without waiting for redeployment of Israeli troops or Israeli building permits which never come. They built a third generation of houses, spacious, ugly-looking, made of naked concrete. In the course of 1997, fifteen of the thirty families still living there received orders to stop “illegal” construction and demolish their own houses. One was blown up—smashed, gray concrete blocks, a broken tap, cramped and twisted black iron bars which crawl upward out of the rubble.
Construction was then stopped.