Explained

Why Israel Still Hasn't Evacuated the Bedouin Village That Sparked a Diplomatic Firestorm

Some Khan al-Ahmar residents feel like pawns on a political chessboard as their fate is being argued over by Israel, the PA and the ICC. This is where things stand with the disputed territory that Netanyahu has avoided demolishing

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian students make their way to school in the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar that Israel plans to demolish, in the occupied West Bank October 16, 2018.
\ Mohamad Torokman/ REUTERS

One look at Khan al-Ahmar tells the story of the impasse that has been reached in the government’s war to demolish this small Bedouin village in the West Bank.

The roads that were built in preparation for the eviction remain empty. The metal gate erected at the entrance, on the slope from Route 1 down toward the Dead Sea, is wide open. Ironically, the plan to demolish the village, located near Route 1 and the settlement of Kfar Adumim, has greatly improved access to it, at least for now.

>> Khan al-Ahmar ruling gives green light for mass expulsion of Bedouin villages | Analysis

Khan al-Ahmar has become an international symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian battle for control over Area C, the part of the West Bank assigned to full Israeli control by the Oslo Accords. And ostensibly, the freeze on the eviction proceedings is meant to allow the state to resume negotiations with the residents, due to heavy diplomatic pressure and fear of proceedings at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Palestinian activists sit in front of a tent of supporters of the West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, Sunday, October 21, 2018.
Majdi Mohammed,AP

But in practice, there’s no evidence of any such talks. The assessment in political and diplomatic circles is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is mainly trying to buy time until one of the two main sources of pressure — the ICC and the settlers — eases off.

Khan al-Ahmar is home to a few dozen families from the Jahalin Bedouin tribe, which originally lived in the Negev but was expelled to the West Bank in the 1950s. They live in shacks and tents that also shelter their sheep.

Israel has been trying to evict them for decades. There is documentation of settler leaders demanding their eviction as far back as the 1970s. At some point, Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank began planning the eviction, and for the last 10 years, right-wing activists, including the Regavim organization, have been campaigning to accelerate the process.

From a zoning standpoint, the buildings were erected without permits from the Civil Administration on land defined as state land. That’s the official reason for the eviction, which was upheld by the High Court of Justice. Yet over the years, several settlement outposts in similar situations have been legalized.

The village’s proximity to Kfar Adumim and the highway have also been cited as justification.

On the other hand, international law holds that forcibly evicting an occupied population is illegal, and the international community has mobilized to defend the residents. Inter alia, a school made of tires was built there with European funding.

At first, the state planned to relocate the villagers to the Jahalin West site near Jerusalem. But during the High Court hearings, it proposed an alternative site, closer to a sewage treatment plant near Mitzpeh Yeriho.

>> The Khan al-Ahmar demolition will be ugly | Opinion

In September, the High Court definitively rejected the residents’ petition. They were then told they had to demolish their own homes. At the same time, the state began planning to forcibly evict them.

But last month, when everything seemed ready to roll, Netanyahu surprised everyone by halting the process. Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said he did so to once again try to negotiate, based on proposals received from various parties. But what those proposals are, if they even exist, remains unknown.

Netanyahu’s order to postpone razing the village infuriated legislators from the Habayit Hayehudi party, two of whom — Moti Yogev and Bezalel Smotrich — have pushed heavily for the eviction. They termed the decision “unprecedented weakness.”

Their party’s cabinet ministers, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, joined in the criticism. So did then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the decision to delay the eviction had been made “in utter defiance of the defense minister’s position and despite his vehement objections.” Netanyahu was forced to bring the postponement to the security cabinet for approval.

What happened at that meeting, where the ministers approved the temporary postponement, was revealed later in speeches by Lieberman and Bennett. Prior to his resignation as defense minister, Lieberman sounded more conciliatory.

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“If the prime minister and the attorney general say, ‘Let’s try once more to exhaust the attempt to negotiate for a voluntary eviction; that’s important from a legal standpoint,’ I don’t see any problem,” he said, speaking at a conference in Jerusalem. “I think this decision was correct in light of the attorney general’s request that we try to make one more attempt at a voluntary evacuation. But the moment the security cabinet decided that Khan al-Ahmar will be evacuated, it’s an irreversible process.”

In other words, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told the ministers that the postponement was legally necessary. The idea was to give negotiations a last chance.

The reason lies in the statement published by the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, a few days before Netanyahu announced the postponement.

“I have been following with concern the planned eviction of the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank,” she said. “Evacuation by force now appears imminent, and with it the prospects for further escalation and violence. It bears recalling, as a general matter, that extensive destruction of property without military necessity and population transfers in an occupied territory constitute war crimes under the Rome Statute.”  

Bensouda also reminded the parties that her office is already conducting a preliminary inquiry into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before deciding whether to open an investigation.

>> The eviction of Khan al-Ahmar stinks up to high heaven | Opinion

But as the political discord between Lieberman and Netanyahu increased due to the escalation in the Gaza Strip, the former’s opposition to the postponement grew accordingly. He refused to negotiate with the villagers’ lawyer because the Palestinian Authority was paying his salary. Finally, in his resignation speech, he declared, “I thought we had to evict, but unfortunately, in this case too, the prime minister issued a written order and prevented the eviction.”

Bennett, in a speech where he almost resigned but didn’t, painted a similar picture. Netanyahu froze the eviction because he was worried over “what they’d do to us in The Hague,” Bennett said.

Legal and diplomatic sources said Israel isn’t necessarily concerned about an investigation into Khan al-Ahmar itself. Rather, it’s worried about the ICC’s preliminary inquiry, a report on which is expected to be published soon. Its conclusions might also include the court’s decision on whether it has jurisdiction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at all.

Israel has argued vehemently that it doesn’t, inter alia because Palestine isn’t a state and therefore can’t join the ICC. At an academic conference last week, Mendelblit even said that he’s considering submitting “a detailed, reasoned argument on my own behalf about the International Criminal Court’s lack of jurisdiction in this context.”

The person in Mendelblit’s office who’s responsible for contact with the ICC, Roy Schondorf, has held many meetings on this issue and even presented some of his conclusions to a Knesset committee in closed session.

Last week, the internet news site Walla reported that Schondorf recently received a message from Bensouda’s office indicating that from the standpoint of international law, there’s no legal barrier to demolishing the village. The Justice Ministry flatly denied this report, saying there was no such message, or even anything “in a similar vein.”

After Lieberman announced that he wouldn’t negotiate with the villagers’ lawyer, Tawfique Jabareen, because the PA was paying his salary, he resigned. If Israel doesn’t want to talk with us, then good luck with the negotiations, the villagers said, and cut off contact. And indeed, since then, there have been no talks.

Civil Administration officials said that efforts to open negotiations are continuing. Israeli activists helping the Bedouin, including some residents of Kfar Adumim, confirmed that the Civil Administration had tried to contact the residents through them, in order to bypass the PA, but to no avail.

The state claims the PA has encouraged the residents to adopt a rejectionist stance in order to turn their struggle into a battle of principle over control of Area C. Officials from both the Civil Administration and the Justice Ministry said the residents have adamantly refused to accept any proposal for relocation.

But conversations with the residents and people close to them naturally paint a different picture.

When speaking to the foreign or Palestinian media, they declare their intention of remaining where they are forever. Before he resigned, Jabareen also told the media that if evicted, the residents would return to the site immediately. Israel can demolish the buildings, he said, but it can’t evict an occupied population.

Eid Abu Khamis Jahalin, one of the leaders of the villagers’ struggle, sent the same message in statements to the international media in recent days. Even if Israel demolishes the village, he said, we will rebuild it again and again.

But when the microphones aren’t present, residents say the situation isn’t that simple. Some even admit, fearfully, that they are mere pawns on the political chessboard and are forced to do what the PA tells them.

The PA has indeed been very visibly present in Khan al-Ahmar ever since it became a symbol, even after the lawyer it hired officially resigned. Shortly before that resignation, the tire school hosted a cartoon competition sponsored by the PA, in which Israel was depicted, inter alia, as an octopus strangling the Palestinians.

Some village residents don’t identify with that rhetoric. But they feel that nobody is representing them and their interests.

The sense that the village is trapped between competing political pressures also emerges from statements by Israeli government sources in recent weeks. “They’ll be evicted in the end because there’s no choice; the political pressure is too great,” one said. Even Netanyahu insisted that the postponement was merely temporary and “of short duration.”

But on this question too, the true answer is evident at a glance. The state promised the High Court that the villagers won’t be evicted until an alternative site is ready. But the alternative site in Azzariyeh, near Jerusalem, has been dismantled, and the site near Mitzpeh Yeriho has never been built.

Building the Azzariyeh site took several weeks. Thus as long as no work is being done to build an alternative site, the promise that the eviction would happen “very soon” evidently isn’t anywhere close to being kept.