Israel's High Court: Bedouin Homes in West Bank Will Not Be Demolished, for Now

In deliberations on two petitions against the expulsion of Bedouin communities the justices criticized the Civil Administration: ‘What can be demolished today can also be demolished a year from now.’

Civil Administration workers demolishing Bedouin structures in the West Bank on Monday, October 10, 2016.

Two separate High Court of Justice hearings last week considered two petitions against plans to uproot Bedouin communities – one by 26 communities represented by attorney Shlomo Lecker and the other by the village of Duqaiqa represented by attorney Netta Amar-Schiff of Rabbis for Human Rights. In both deliberations the justices evinced a moderate degree of displeasure with the state’s conduct.

Both hearings concern the political and planning reality in the West Bank that was formulated in parallel to the Oslo process: prohibitions on construction and development by Palestinians in Area C, campaigns of demolishing buildings constructed without permits out of sheer necessity and plans to concentrate the Bedouin in permanent townships in order to clear territory for expanding Jewish settlements.

The first deliberation last Monday – the shorter of the two – touched on the plan for the mass and by far largest uprooting being planned by the Civil Administration for years: the expulsion of thousands of people from a large (but as yet unknown) number of Bedouin communities at the periphery of East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, and their relocation in territory allotted to them north of Jericho (the Ramat Nu’eima plan).

The discussion was supposedly on a procedural matter: the delay in the submission of proof of the state’s claim that Civil Administration representatives had spoken with the Bedouin before they prepared the master plan for a permanent township (by means of an independent Palestinian planning firm in Ramallah, Asia). Lecker insisted that no such consultation ever took place.

The Ramat Nu’eima plan was deposited for objections in August and September 2014. Dozens of objections were submitted pointing to its extreme unsuitability to the Bedouin way of life and the needs of the entire population in the area. In parallel, in December 2014 Lecker petitioned the High Court to suspend the advancement of the plan because it had been made without any consultation with the target population, and according to the information in his possession had been expanded during the course of five months in 2012 from a relatively small plan involving a few hundred people from the Rashaida tribe into a town intended for 12,000 people from a number of Bedouin tribes.

Lecker cast doubt on the ability of Civil Administration officials to have spoken with representatives of all the thousands of people within such a short time. The state responded that if the court did not reject the petition outright as it requested, “The respondent is prepared to submit a response that will detail the processes of consultation in question.” However, by Monday October 31 no such document had been submitted.

Attorney Yitzhak Bart from the State Prosecutor’s Office appeared at the hearing with a chart which he said detailed the meetings between the inhabitants and Yuval Turgeman from the Civil Administration, who is in charge of remodeling Bedouin dwellings in the West Bank.

According to the transcription of the hearing, Supreme Court President Miriam Naor said: “I’m not hearing oral elaborations here, I don’t understand what is happening here.”

Bart replied: “It’s a matter of a technical hitch.”

“What is the source of the hitch?” asked Justice Esther Hayut. “On your part, was the request for the material not submitted in time or did you put it together at the very last minute?”

“There was difficulty in obtaining the data,” Bart replied.

Justice Daphne Barak-Erez asked: “You are saying, Sir, that the data are Mr. Turgeman’s. What was difficult? Did the person exist or did he not?”

“The person existed and there was a difficulty in transmitting information,” Bart replied.

“You are standing before us, Sir, and not giving answers,” said Hayut. “If there was a lack of cooperation you will tell us that there was a lack of cooperation.”

To this Bart replied: “As Your Honors say, I do not feel comfortable giving details about this petition. I have an obligation of trust to Your Honors and also to the public interest. I requested [the proofs] What is bothering Your Honors is the conduct of the state bodies sources [meaning the Civil Administration], and I definitely accept that.”

When he suggested allowing Turgeman, who was present in the courtroom, to reply to some of the questions, the justices reminded him that the procedure at the Supreme Court is to rely on documents submitted in due time, so that the other side will be able to respond to them. Lecker said he had already announced that he would file a complaint with the police to the effect that the state had submitted a false statement to the court.

In the end, the state was given two weeks to submit the material in writing and Lecker was given another 45 days to respond to the long-expected state’s document. The court also ruled that the state will pay Lecker 7,000 shekels in court costs. And in the meantime, for this reason and because of the many objections, the Nu’eima plan has been suspended, although the pressure on the Bedouin by means of demolitions is continuing.

Surprising cynicism 

On Wednesday, in the church-like courtroom of the High Court, sat eight male residents of Duqaiqa, in the southern West Bank. They followed Justices Salim Joubran, Neal Hendel and Uri Shoham as they deliberated on their petition against the Civil Administration, which had rejected the master plan drawn up for the village by Rassem Khamaisi.

The state asked the justices to reject the petition and acknowledge its authority to immediately demolish some of the buildings in the village of 300 inhabitants, to demolish more buildings later on and relocate all the inhabitants in the nearby village Humeida.

Amar-Schiff asked the court to prevent the demolitions and order the state to reconsider planning solutions in coordination with the inhabitants taking into account their way of life and history in the place.

For the justices’ consideration, two fascinating opinions by architect Alon Cohen-Lipshitz and anthropologist Shuli Hartman from the non-profit organization Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights were submitted in due time. Their professional opinions explain the long historic link between the Ka’abne-Farijat tribe and the place where they currently live, and their way of life that show the planning logic behind pitching tents or moving them.

Joubran, the president of the bench, said in his opening remarks directed mostly at attorney Tadmor Etzion from the State Prosecutor’s Office that this issue must be resolved by dialogue between the sides and not in court. Etzion reminded the court of the Civil Administration plan to relocate the inhabitants to a nearby village and the rejection of the master plan the village had submitted. Joubran noted that here, as distinct from other places, there is not even a reason for the expulsion – such as a military need for a training area.

“Let’s say you evacuate them today, what are you doing with the lands tomorrow morning?” he asked.

“At the moment, nothing,” Etzion replied.

Joubran thundered: “Is than that an answer? I don’t want to express myself sharply: If there is not an urgent need to do something with those lands tomorrow morning, it is necessary to sit down with them.”

Etzion said the inhabitants have no proof of ownership of the lands in Duqaiqa (a claim refuted by the anthropologist’s professional opinion and other documents Amar-Schiff submitted). 

Joubran asked her: “Is anyone demanding ownership of those lands?”

Etzion’s reply: “No.” 

Justice Hendel joined in: “You are not explaining why they cannot stay in the initial [current] place.”

Etzion repeated that it is because of the lack of linkage and other reasons (like proximity to the Green Line and the impossibility of providing proper services to the community in its current location).

To this Joubran replied with surprising cynicism: “Do they really plan for the inhabitants’ welfare in the territories? When was the last time there was a decision about parks, sports facilities and so on? Is there a planning committee and have buildings been built according to those plans?”

Etzion replied: “They have not yet reached that planning stage.” 

An inadequate stipend from the insurance

After making their position clear to Etzion, the justices turned to Amar-Schiff and expressed their displeasure with the fact that despite earlier court rulings – to the effect that the inhabitants will not continue to build without permits – more and more buildings have been added (about which Joubran commented: “We saw in the pictures that the buildings aren’t villas and I don’t know if it’s even possible to call them buildings.”)

Hendel scolded: “If they continue to build illegally it’s impossible to convene seriously. You are simply obligating the court to respond in a way it does not want to respond If they are continuing, there is no point in us sitting. If there is a ruling and they are disobeying it – what for?”

Amar-Schiff tried to explain that there are tents that change their location because of seasonal changes, but Civil Administration inspectors (who go from one locality to another and check numbers and sizes of shacks) consider them “new,” and there is construction necessitated by reality because of natural population growth or damage from natural causes. However, the justices cut her off again.

Hendel: “Madame, you are saying that there is justification and you will continue doing this. But we are in the court’s field and we will continue to take you into consideration, though on condition that you honor the court’s rulings.”

Shoham said: “You are the petitioners and you have to proceed on the straight and narrow, and you are far from doing that. And this could be a reason for rejecting the petition outright.” 

Hendel reinforced his colleague: “It is as though someone were getting a stipend from the National Insurance Institute and says it isn’t sufficient and therefore he has to steal Your replies are getting in your way. We want to protect the place, but there mustn’t be any illegal construction.”

Here Joubran took the opportunity once again to suggest that the state goes back and talks to the inhabitants. Hendel said that in his estimation if a tent collapses or “a window breaks,” the repairs will not lead to demolition orders. In this way the justices extracted from Amar-Schiff the promise that the inhabitants will not add any structures.

Etzion asked to consult with her superiors, and left the courtroom. Six people left the room with her, among them Daniel Halimi, head of the Civil Administration’s planning bureau, and an inspector – both from the Civil Administration – and a female officer in uniform.

About 20 minutes later Etzion and her six companions returned to the courtroom with the authorization in principle, but made it clear that the state intends to implement its authority to demolish the buildings that were constructed after the petition was submitted in 2014. The justices expressed their firm opposition to this. Etzion again asked permission to go out to consult with the others, came back a second time and again explained the difficulty with relinquishing enforcement of the demolition orders. The judges again expressed their displeasure. 

Joubran said: “This is irritating me a bit. What’s the urgency for demolishing those buildings within 90 days? What security need is there?” 

“What can be demolished today can be demolished a month from now, a year from now or never,” Hendel said. “What is important is that there be no additional construction. If you are about to demolish, we haven’t done a thing. What we are doing now is putting a suspension on the whole situation on the ground. It is not correct to say that you are in negotiations if you come in the morning and talk and then the next day you demolish.”

Hendel and Joubran hinted that they could issue an interim injunction against the demolitions. “There is not going to be any international disaster if the houses are not demolished,” said Joubran. “Demolishing during dialogue is like inviting someone for a cup of coffee and punching him on the way.”

Etzion went out (with her six companions) to consult for a third time and came back with consent. The ruling: There will be talks, the inhabitants will not erect additional tents and tin shacks and the state will not implement demolition orders.