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How long will Khan al-Ahmar, an embattled Bedouin hamlet in the occupied West Bank, stand? The Israeli bulldozers have already been spotted, and Israel’s High Court has given its permission for the demolition. Despite this, the war over the fate of the village has reached an impasse.
Israel has demolished thousands of Palestinians homes. Since November 2014, in response to Palestinian attacks, these have included homes belonging to “suspected terrorists” and their families. This measure is meant to deter such attacks. Ironically, nine years earlier, Israel abandoned the same practice at the request of its own army. According to Major General Udi Shani, Israel had caused more harm than good by inciting hatred among the Palestinians.
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions estimates that between 1967 and 2015, Israel razed 48,488 Palestinian structures. There is no evidence that the supposed deterrence has enhanced Israeli security.
Human rights groups regard the demolition of Palestinian homes as a ‘collective punishment’. The policy of punitive house demolition is, by definition, meant to harm people who are suspected of no wrongdoing but are related to Palestinians who attacked or attempted to attack Israeli civilians or security forces, according to B’Tselem, a human rights NGO. ‘In almost all cases, the individual who carried out the attack or planned to do so no longer lives in the house, as they were killed by Israeli security forces during the attack or were arrested and face a long prison sentence in Israel,’ the organization stated in a November 2017 article on the issue. Collective punishment is illegal under international law. The demolition of houses without overwhelming military justification is a grave breach of the Geneva Convention and could potentially lead to a war crime charge.
Israel only demolishes houses owned by Palestinians. When a Jew does any harm, for instance, when in 1994 settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque in occupied Hebron, no one even considered sending bulldozers to his family home. The exception to this is when Israel decides to remove settlements, as it did in the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.
In the case of Khan al-Ahmar, the threat of demolition serves yet another goal, that of expanding settlements. The Bedouin village is situated in an area Israel has designated as ‘E1’, the largest planned settlement in the West Bank.
With the Bedouins removed, Israel can control the entire centre part of the West Bank, from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, and could cut the territory in half, denying Palestinians the possibility to travel from north to south or vice versa.
In an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, David M. Weinberg, vice president of and a senior research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS) and Israel office director of Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), argued that ‘building 50,000 homes on Jerusalem’s eastern edge is critical for the future of the city and for Israel’s security’. Apart from the fact that this is illegal under international law, the veracity of his statement is questionable. In December 2017, the Israeli think tank Molad showed that the settlements not only do little to protect Israelis but put the country’s national security under heavy pressure. The scattering of Israeli citizens across the West Bank hinders the work of security forces, makes huge demands on the defence budget and complicates the work of the army because there are longer clear lines of defence.
According to Weinberg, the argument about bifurcation of the West Bank is a ‘red herring’, since any arrangement in E1 would involve ‘bypasses, underpasses, detour roads and shared spaces’, he argued. ‘Outrageously’, he continued, ‘the EU is even funding the establishment of unauthorized Palestinian and Bedouin settlements in E1, to create “facts on the ground” and prevent Israeli development in this zone.’
The alleged illegality of the structures that are to be demolished is an argument that is often heard whenever the topic of Israeli demolitions is discussed. Is the EU really funding illegal structures? Of course not. It is the Israeli development in this area that would be illegal under international law.
The claim that the Bedouins have built illegally on state lands since the 1950s also ignores the fact that the land is owned by Palestinians in Anata, a town in the central West Bank. According to Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, a British-Israeli activist who has been fighting for the Bedouins for over 20 years, the Bedouin residents of Khan al-Ahmar, refugees from the Negev desert in 1951, possess a lease from those Palestinian landowners.
In an article on the news website +972 Magazine, Godfrey-Goldstein notes the ‘common misconception’ that the Bedouin are nomads. ‘Traditionally landowners, moving seasonally as semi-nomads on their own desert lands, Negev Bedouins have been prevented by Israel from submitting their land deeds to the Israel Land Authority; they are then accused of squatting on their own lands, at risk of being moved, to facilitate the myth of a land without people.’
The same procedure still haunts the Bedouins that are still present in the Negev. For example, the village of al-Araqeeb, five miles north of Beersheba in Israel proper, has been demolished by the Israeli authorities well over 100 times. According to Zochrot, an Israeli NGO working to promote awareness of the Nakba, the Palestinian exodus of 1948, the village of al-Araqeeb was established during the Ottoman period, on land that the inhabitants purchased at the time.
In addition to the incessant bulldozing, the inhabitants of al-Araqeeb do not receive basic services. The village is not connected to the national electricity grid; the residents use generators and solar panels. The same goes for their water supply; they are forced to transport water in containers.
The inhabitants of Khan al-Ahmar face the same prospects, unless they accept Israel’s offer to move – to a garbage dump in East Jerusalem.