Israel Dramatically Ramping Up Demolitions of Palestinian Homes in West Bank

Israel has razed over 200 EU-funded buildings in the West Bank in the past two years. This year alone around 480 people, including 220 children, have been left homeless.

Palestinian child at Ein Rashash, this week. Israeli workers emptied the tents' contents outside before they were demolished.
Amira Hass

Since the beginning of this year, especially in early February, Israel’s Civil Administration has significantly increased the pace of Palestinian home demolitions in the West Bank’s Area C under full Israeli control (about 60 percent of the West Bank).

It has demolished 293 homes in just six weeks, compared with 447 for all of 2015. The average has surged to 49 from nine per week. The demolitions have left more than 480 Palestinians, including 220 children, homeless.

At the settlement subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, headed by Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi), MKs have openly pressured Civil Administration officials to step up the demolitions and evict Palestinian communities from Area C.

Over the years, they have accused the administration of being powerless or deliberate foot dragging. They have especially complained about European aid to Palestinian construction in these areas, and demanded that the authorities destroy buildings that international organizations, particularly European ones, have donated.

At a closed session of the subcommittee in August, the head of the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, Gen. Yoav Mordechai, said he had discussed the matter in April in a meeting attended by Justice Ministry and National Security Council representatives, among others. That month, COGAT issued rules for addressing illegal construction involving international organizations.

Mordechai said all illegal building involving European funding would receive an immediate order, and he would immediately send a letter to the embassy of the donor country protesting “that they are building illegally,” according to minutes of the meeting obtained by Haaretz.

Mordechai said he had held 30 meetings with international representatives between January and August 2015 in which the issue had arisen.

“In the last meeting with the EU ambassador, [I told him] that there are statutory processes and we would be happy to approve them in the planning process,” Mordechai said. “Thus legally sanctioned steps would be taken against any illegal construction and aid done without coordination, and that’s how we’re operating.”

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Israel has destroyed almost as many European-funded structures in 2016 (104) as it did in all of 2015 (108). The buildings are mostly for hygiene, agriculture, solar panels and prefab living quarters. One European organization calculated that the demolition rate had increased 230 percent over last year, and 689 percent for European-funded buildings.

On February 9 alone, the Civil Administration demolished no fewer than 15 European-funded structures in Khirbet Tana, including two tents where 13 people lived, three outhouses, two water tanks and eight sheep pens.

The Israeli force raided the village at around 8 A.M. and left at around noon. It included two yellow bulldozers, one white Civil Administration truck and military jeeps. A female soldier guarded the women and children. Another soldier watched the men while 15 Civil Administration employees emptied the structures of their contents before the demolitions.

Khirbet Tana is a village of cave-dwelling shepherds and farmers originally from the village of Beit Furik southeast of Nablus. Ancient wells, well-kept residential caves and a stone mosque with a curved ceiling show that this settlement, located near two springs and spreading out across the slopes of several hills with wadis in between, has existed for over 100 years.

“My mother gave birth to me in this cave in 1936,” Radwan Qassem told Haaretz. “I’m older than the State of Israel, and it does not allow me to live here.”

‘I’ll come back and demolish’

In 2011, the Civil Administration demolished a two-room concrete house with a balcony Qassem had built outside the cave, which the family had outgrown. Later, it demolished the tent the family had put up in place of the house.

The family returned and built another tent, which was demolished this month. It was their fifth Israeli demolition, says Qassem while lying inside the cave on a mat. The cave has all the possessions the family was able to snatch from the tent before it was demolished, including mattresses, kerosene burners, gas tanks, a small cupboard and a cooler. The Israelis also destroyed the pen.

“We sat and watched how they demolished the tent and pen,” says Afaf, Radwan’s wife. “And what could we do? I cried because of this horrible scene.”

Their neighbor, Jawaher Nasasreh, recalls that soldiers came to her family tent before the bulldozers arrived, “and they started cutting up the canvas with their knives,” while she wrapped slices of cheese in cloth and laid a metal tray on them, and then put two concrete bricks on top of that. She said the demolishing force spilled the water out of all their water containers.

“In other places they only knocked down the tent,” she says. “With us, they really destroyed things, maybe because my husband argued with them. My husband told the soldier: ‘I’ll come back and rebuild.’ And the soldier told him: ‘I’ll come back and demolish.”

The demolitions racked six families and 23 structures including a junk truck serving as a storage room and an outdoor oven in the cave.

After Khirbet Tana, Civil Administration inspectors and the army spent two full days demolishing structures in another eight Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley: Khirbet Ein Karzaliyah, al-Mukasar, Fasail, al-Misfah, Abu al-Ajaj, Khalet Khader, Bardale and Ein al-Beida.

The Israelis destroyed tents people were living in, huts, pens, herd enclosures, an access road (which makes it very hard to deliver humanitarian aid to the families), a two-kilometer pipe meant to provide water to 50 families in the area, storage facilities and a dairy. Some of the tents and the pipe were donated by international organizations. Fifty-nine people, including 28 minors, were left without a roof over their heads, B’Tselem reported.

After this demolition wave, Robert Piper, the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance and Development Aid for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said: “Most of the demolitions in the West Bank take place on the spurious legal grounds that Palestinians do not possess building permits, but, in Area C, official Israeli figures indicate only 1.5 percent of Palestinian permit applications are approved in any case. So what legal options are left for a law-abiding Palestinian?”

Younes Qassem, 7, of the Bedouin community Zawahreh in Ein Rashash, came home early from school in Kafr Duma on Tuesday. He saw the bulldozers and hordes of jeeps, the soldiers (Border Police according to one source) and the workers raiding the tents.

He told Haaretz he was afraid, even though his family’s tent had not been demolished. It was the first demolition of this community, which lives (with permission) on land owned privately by village residents in the area, east of the village Mughayer and the Alon Highway.

Forty-three structures in two hours

This community is originally from the Negev; it was expelled after 1948 war. The people settled in the southern West Bank and in the 1990s migrated north.

On Tuesday, a few hours after the force that demolished the Bedouin’s structures left, the women and children were still meandering among the mattresses, blankets, food sacks and animal feed that rolled around in piles among the rocks. Shreds of plastic, the canvas and iron rods from which the tents were built, were lying on the ground next to water tanks and an overturned water trough.

Similar to testimonies from Khirbet Tana, the women talked about an armed female soldier who kept watch over them and the children, and an armed soldier who watched the men as workers threw the contents of their tents on the rocks. Meanwhile, bulldozers leveled the huts and tents.

In some places, Civil Administration workers spilled the sacks of flour, salt and sugar on the ground. Forty-three structures were demolished within two hours, among them 10 residences, 25 pens and eight outdoor kitchens. Almost 60 people, among them 38 children, lost their shelter.

The villagers of Khirbet Tana and the Bedouin of Ein Rashash make a living as shepherds and from selling cheese and meat. The first concern in both communities after the demolition was rebuilding the sheep pens and returning immediately to shepherding. The two areas attract many Israeli hikers, among them settlers.

“When their vehicle gets stuck on the way to the Ein Rashash spring, we rescue them,” a community member said. “We use a tractor to pull their stuck vehicle.”

The hikers visit regularly even though the Israel Defense Forces declared the two areas, in which these two communities live, a closed military zone. Members of the two communities say that if there are training exercises, they only take place in a small part of the area.

Khirbet Tana is located in an area that was declared Closed Military Zone 904a, which covers 42,500 dunams (10,500 acres). The army trains on less than 8,000 dunams of that zone, about 19 percent. It trains often in some parts, rarely in others.

The Zawahreh community lies in Closed Military Zone 906, whose size is 88,000 dunams. The army regularly uses about 2,600 dunams of that area (2.9 percent) and sometimes uses about 9,400 dunams (10.6 percent), based on calculations by researcher Dror Etkes in his report “A Locked Garden” for the NGO Kerem Navot.

Zone 906 includes around 8,000 dunams of land registered as privately owned by local villagers. Declaring the area a closed military zone prevented Palestinian farmers from working their land, which became gradually became barren and therefore served as pasture for the Bedouin families. The Zawahreh tent is on this private land, on the edges of the firing zone. The community moves to a tent camp outside the firing zone every summer.

Attorney Shlomo Lecker represented the Zawahreh community in a case against the Civil Administration in the High Court of Justice. The state rescinded the evacuation orders it had issued in 2010 (in response to Lecker’s case that the residents were permanent residents inside a closed military zone), and replaced them with demolition orders sent to the residents last November.

In the name of the residents, Lecker petitioned the Civil Administration on December 1 to wait five months until the community moved to the tent camp outside the firing zone. According to the residents, they could pay for the costly move after the winter and spring seasons when they sell most of their cheese products. The demolition on Tuesday was the response.

Radwan Qassem of Khirbet Tana recounts the history of run-ins with his village.

“In 1967 the Jews shot our sheep,” he recalls. “In 1971 they took the shepherds in a helicopter to Jericho and we paid a ransom for them to be released. In 1973 they took the sheep to Jericho, and we paid to redeem them. And then came the demolitions.”

The demolitions were conducted in the 1990s during the Oslo peace process and the spread of illegal Jewish outposts. In 2011 the army and Civil Administration demolished 12 ancient caves. A petition to the High Court of Justice stopped the cave demolitions. The judges proposed that the sides reach a compromise. The state demanded that the residents evacuate their homes and land and receive entry permits into the area for agriculture and shepherding, but without sleeping there overnight.

The residents refused, attorney Tawfeeq Jabareen, who submitted the petition, told Haaretz. He said the judges weren’t impressed by his explanations that the community and its way of life, which depends on pastures, preceded the establishment of the state and the declaration of firing zones. The judges were only excited by the information he provided about outposts of the settlement of Itamar, which are also in the firing zone.

The state said it had evacuated an outpost known as the “Itamar Cohen compound” (which came back with a new building), and claimed that other outposts, especially the one known as Hill 777 or Arnon Hill which was established in 1998 and in which permanent structures are built on the edges of the firing zone and on top of a hill. So they had less of an effect on the training exercises.

According to the testimony of a resident of another Palestinian village in the area, recorded in “A Locked Garden,” the army stopped training in the areas under the outposts’ control and moved to other areas in the firing zone to train. Because of the outposts, the Palestinians cannot return to work their land.

In the state’s response to Jabareen’s petition, the attorney general’s office stated that “the exercise training areas are the land resource for building security forces and especially building the IDF... With the development of more advanced weapons and larger firing ranges arises the need for areas that continue to grow, both in Israel and in the West Bank. Land is a resource in short supply.”

It said that “notwithstanding the security threats to Israel and the Judea and Samaria region expansive areas were required for the purpose of training army units.”

And thus, justices Elyakim Rubinstein, Salim Joubran and Uzi Vogelman rejected the petition in November, and the residents knew they had to prepare for the impending demolition.

The Civil Administration said that based on its authority, it “carries out enforcement against illegal structures in line with priorities and operational considerations.” It did not respond to the question of whether the surge in demolitions, especially of European-funded structures, stemmed from pressure by the Knesset subcommittee. Nor did it respond to a request to provide its data on the demolitions.