Israel to Demolish Entire West Bank Bedouin Village, Ending Year-long Legal Battle

The village, along with its school made of tires, has become the flagship of the fight against the removal of Palestinians from Area C, which is under full Israeli control

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Children in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, West Bank, May 15, 2017.
Children in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, West Bank, May 15, 2017.Credit: ליאור מזרחי
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The High Court of Justice has approved the planned demolition of a Jahalin-tribe village at Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank, along with the village’s school made out of tires – allowing the demolition at any time the government sees fit as of next month.

On Thursday, the court rejected two petitions against the demolition by village residents and parents of children at the school who come from surrounding Bedouin communities. Justice Noam Sohlberg wrote in the ruling that the structures were built illegally and that no reason existed for the court to intervene in the defense minister’s decision to demolish them. Justices Anat Baron and Yael Willner concurred.

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In August, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that his ministry was preparing to remove the residents from Khan al-Ahmar and Sussia after all requests by the villages for a master plan and building permits where they had lived for decades were turned down. The petitions by the Jahalin residents were filed by attorney Shlomo Lecker. Over the past decade, both communities have become the flagship of the fight against the removal of Palestinians from Area C, which is under complete Israeli civil and military control.

The state is demanding that the approximately 200 residents of Khan al-Ahmar and Abu Hilweh move to an area that has been allocated to them by the Defense Ministry's Civil Administration on land in the area of the town of Abu Dis (land that was declared state land). Houses will be built on the lots where the Civil Administration is preparing infrastructure. A new school is also to be built in that area.

The 'Tire School' at Khan al-Ahmar.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, West Bank, May 15, 2017.Credit: ליאור מזרחי

The area is on the edge of a half-urban Bedouin community where the state settled dozens of Bedouin families at the end of the 1990s, after it evicted them from an area where they had lived for decades that was earmarked for the expansion of the city of Ma’aleh Adumim. Some of the families were forcibly evicted at the end of the 1990s, while others agreed to move to the town following negotiations and in exchange for financial remuneration and grazing land.

The High Court ruling may become a precedent for dozens of other Bedouin communities that oppose the Civil Administration’s intention to concentrate them in permanent towns in the West Bank, including a town near Abu Dis (known as Jabel Jahalin or Kafr Jahalin). Thus they will have to urbanize their lifestyle.

Justice Sohlberg said he was aware of the Bedouin opposition to the proposed alternative, but stressed that the discussion was about the demolition of buildings that were built without permits – and that he did not believe that the alternative was “so extreme in its unreasonableness” that it made the demolition order illegal.

He said he was aware “of the petitioners' claims that the alternative of Jahalin West [the area allocated by the Civil Administration] does not suit their needs as residents and as schoolchildren. In fact, it cannot be implemented.” And it was clear to him that “the proposed plan is not to the satisfaction of those in possession of the buildings.” But he said the question was not whether the state's plan met the requirements of the law, but whether the demolition order met the requirements of the law.”

In the area between Jerusalem and Jericho are dozens of Bedouin communities, many belonging to the Jahalin tribe. They all once lived in the Negev and migrated with the seasons among a few permanent stops. After 1948, Israel evicted many Bedouin communities from the Negev and they moved to the West Bank. When Israel took over the West Bank in the Six-Day War, it began to restrict their movements between their seasonal habitations and block access to water sources and pastureland by declaring large military firing zones.

The trend worsened in the 1990s while negotiations for the Oslo Accords were underway, with the expansion of the settlements and the construction of bypass roads. After West Bank Palestinians were banned from entering Jerusalem, the Bedouin in the area lost the main market for their products.

The Bedouin communities, including the one slated for demolition at Khan al-Ahmar, lived at those sites for decades as well as on the land of Palestinian villages – some of which are registered as public or private land and some of which the Civil Administration declared state land. Nevertheless, Israel did not prepare master plans and declared illegal their tents and tin shacks, lean-tos and corrals.

Since 2009, the Jahalin community at Khan al-Ahmar and Abu Hilweh has been fighting the demolition orders for its buildings and bans on construction of public buildings such as a clinic and a school. During this time, the Jahalins were represented by Lecker, as are other Bedouin communities in the area. The European Union has opposed the removal of the Bedouin, saying such a step violates international law because it is forced displacement.

Many civil society groups – in Israel and around the world – have joined the Bedouin’s struggle against their eviction, joining the residents and Lecker in the hope that Israel's international interests would prevent the eviction.

These interests have caused the postponement of the Civil Administration's demolition orders and led the residents of the nearby settlement of Kfar Adumim to submit four petitions to the High Court since 2009. Three were denied and the High Court ruled that the government retains the right to decide when to conduct the demolition; the government intends to cluster all the Bedouin communities in a number of permanent towns.

The fourth petition, which was withdrawn Thursday after it was rendered redundant, is what finally spurred the government to declare its intentions to implement the demolition orders.

At the same time, over the past four years the settlers' supporters in the Knesset, led by the subcommittee on West Bank settlement issues of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, have increased pressure on Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to carry out the demolition orders. In meetings of the subcommittee, settlement leaders have said the land is needed for expanding settlements.

The settler supporters have received backing from settlement leaders, especially in the Ma’aleh Adumim area, and from the nonprofit group Regavim.

Lecker told Haaretz in response to the ruling: “Justices Sohlberg, Baron and Willner decided today to remove all protection of the High Court of Justice in the face of the state's actions in Area C and allowed the state to demolish in another week the only shelter for dozens of Bedouin families from Khan al-Ahmar and the school in which 165 children study, as well as the sheep pens that provide shelter for 850 sheep.”

Lecker called the ruling precedent-setting and, referring to the International Criminal Court, said “the High Court of Justice has legitimized the carrying out of serious crimes against defenseless populations under the state's control for 51 years. In my opinion, this ruling provides a broad opening for intervention by the court in The Hague in the state’s actions.”

As he put it, “I would like to note that until now I opposed steps that called for the court in The Hague to be involved in what is happening in the territories under Israel's control.”

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