Analysis

Bedouin Village Demolition: Judicial Backing for Israel's State-sanctioned Abuse

The legal thesis that zoning laws must be respected is seemingly persuasive, however this would be true about a planning system that serves the interests of the population in a nondiscriminatory way

A Palestinian man walks in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the occupied West Bank July 6, 2018
\ MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

Wednesday’s ruling by the High Court of Justice permitting the evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar shouldn’t surprise anyone. After the previous ruling, rejecting petitions to stop demolitions in the West Bank village, the die was cast. The new petitions served as a delaying tactic, aimed, perhaps primarily, at trying to reestablish the village in a different location, one that would be reasonable and in tune with the residents’ way of life.

Therefore, the court was on solid legal ground in rejecting the petitions. If there is something surprising about the ruling, it was actually the cautious, perhaps even suspicious attitude that the majority of the justices (Supreme Court Deputy President Hanan Melcer and Justice Anat Baron) expressed toward the state’s arguments about the pretexts for the evictions: the need to build a major road and even concern for the welfare of the community’s children.

Palestinian children line up at the start of the new school year, in the West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, Monday, July 16, 2018
Nasser Nasser,AP

Anyone familiar with the reality on the ground, and in the territories in general, knows that often the reason for removing Palestinian residents is the desire to replace them with Jewish settlers, whether by expanding an existing Jewish community or establishing a new one. This rumor apparently reached the justices’ ears, as they wrote that if it turns out that the land is used for something other than the state’s declared purpose, the petitioners could return to court.

As far as the settlement enterprise is concerned, there’s no great reason to celebrate here, and the joy expressed by the defense minister was premature. Nor can one ignore Melcer’s criticism of the state’s hasty rejection of an alternative proposal submitted by the petitioners. “The plan in question was rejected only a few hours after it was submitted by the planning bureau administrator, and apparently this was not done by the agency authorized to do so,” he said.

Since the campaign had already been decided in the previous ruling, it’s worth reviewing its problematic nature. The legal thesis is seemingly persuasive in its simplicity — zoning laws must be respected, and anyone who violates them and builds without a permit deserves to have his home demolished. Otherwise, there would be no value or validity to planning and building laws.

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However, this would be true about a planning and building system that serves the interests of the entire population in an egalitarian and nondiscriminatory way. Things are completely different if we are talking about a discriminatory system whose purpose is to serve Jewish settlement, one that is politically motivated by the intent to take control of Area C — areas of the West Bank under full Israeli control, according to the Oslo Accords — by expanding the settlements to facilitate the annexation of the territory to Israel.

To this end, the system works to push out the Palestinians as much as possible. Instead of allowing them to plan and build, it chokes them with zoning that doesn’t meet their basic needs and the denial of building permits. Its main function is to demolish homes that residents build without permits because they have no choice and to remove them from the land.

If this is indeed the case, it should be fixed by doing away with the entire planning and building system and replacing it with a different system that operates under accepted legal concepts like equality and the public good. And I haven’t even said anything about international law regarding Jewish settlement, due to lack of space.

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Giving legal backing to the orders of an oppressive system as described above isn’t justice but annexation. Such a judicial system isn’t worthy of the name, and the distance between it and justice is like the distance between east and west.

I cannot determine whether the above description of the planning and building system in the territories is complete and accurate. But there are disturbing signs that corroborate this description. It is clear that there is a struggle between the two peoples, the Jews and the Palestinians, over control of the land, especially in Area C, and the difference between them that the force is entirely in our hands.

The political plan described above is the declared plan of Habayit Hayehudi, and, as is well known, the other coalition parties are happy to ride their coattails. There is no similarity between the extent and intensity of the planning and construction carried out by the state in the areas of Jewish settlement and what takes place in the area of Palestinian settlement. The very comparison is ridiculous.

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Unlike under Jordanian law, which prevailed in the territories prior to the occupation, the Palestinians have been removed from any role in planning and building decisions, a move of questionable legality and one that is tainted with discrimination, lack of good faith and extreme unreasonableness. There is a considerable gap between the planning and building policy in the 1970s — when the system really did work to benefit the Palestinians — and the policy from the ‘80s onward, in which the approach was reversed in accordance with the change in policy toward the territories.

The percentage of cases in which building permits are approved for Palestinians is minuscule, which leads them to avoid applying for them because there is no point. Those familiar with these issues say the approved plans for Palestinian construction are far from filling their needs and are aimed and limiting the area at their disposal to a minimum.

The court could have learned of the “purity” of the planning authorities’ intentions toward the Palestinians from the plan, which the authorities at first attempted to conceal, to move the Khan al-Ahmar residents to the vicinity of a large sewage treatment facility, which would never have been approved for Jewish settlement. But the court refused to be impressed by the smell.

Justice cannot be done if you look at reality from the roof without examining the structure on which the roof is built. While it would have been an exceptional move, the court would have done a great service to Israel’s values if it had examined the nature of the planning and construction system in whose service it has placed itself, giving it the power to destroy a person’s home. The court might then have refrained from ruling that in the realm of planning and building in the territories, the same law must be applied to Jews and Arabs.

It’s important to be clear that the court, as the court itself clarified, did not order the demolition but merely permitted it. Responsibility for what comes next, in terms of reason, human sensitivity, public morality, Israel’s image and status and its relations with the free world, lies entirely with the government.