Bedouin Home Demolitions in Israel Double in 2017

Over 70% are dismantled by owners, under the state’s threat of heavy penalties

Israeli policemen stand guard as bulldozers demolish homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, which is not recognized by the Israeli government, near the southern city of Beersheba, in the Negev desert, on January 18, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The number of illegal structures demolished last year in Bedouin communities nearly doubled over 2016, with over 70 percent of them dismantled by the owners themselves under threat of heavy financial penalties.

According to the Public Security Ministry, in 2017 there were 2,220 structures demolished overall, compared to 1,158 in 2016.

Police see the rise in owner-demolitions as a positive trend, because it prevents confrontations between the police and the Bedouin community, which the police prefer to avoid. The events at Umm al-Hiran last January that ended with the death of a policeman and a resident caused tensions with the Bedouin that police must still deal with.

The Bedouin, meanwhile, say that there is “behind the scenes” pressure, along with overt threats from the authorities, including the police, that lead people to demolish the structures themselves. Khaled al-Ja’ar, a resident of Rahat, built a small home on the family plot in 2015 for his son, who was getting married, to live in until his own home in Rahat was built. After the illegal structure was discovered, law enforcement began trying to persuade him to demolish it himself.

“They warned me ‘either you demolish those structures or we execute the [demolition] order,’” al-Ja’ar said. “After that a guy from the Yoav [police] unit came to explain that on Wednesday they were coming to demolish it. He told me that he didn’t have to come to tell me, but that he ‘was coming as a friend.’ He said he didn’t want to come to do the demolition and make problems. Then policemen started to come one after the other, telling me that if I don’t take it down myself, I would have to pay for the demolition costs, including the police forces and the engineering equipment,” al-Ja’ar said, adding that he demolished the home because he feared for his family. One of Ja’ar’s sons, Sami, had been killed in a confrontation with police in January 2015.

“I demolished it because I didn’t want anyone in my family to be harmed,” al-Ja’ar said. “When you hear what happened at Umm al-Hiran, when [Justice Minister] Ayelet Shaked chooses the Supreme Court justices, when her party colleague [Bezalel] Smotrich comes from the Regavim association [a right-wing group that monitors illegal Arab construction], when the policeman who shot my son was never prosecuted, can I rely on the state to protect me?”

Haya Noah, director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, who has been involved with this issue for 20 years, says that the threats and pressure have their effect; some 70 percent of the residents, she says, end up demolishing their own structures, with 22 percent doing so even before receiving a demolition order.”They’ve developed a mechanism of intimidation that makes in unnecessary to file suits afterward,” she said.

Demolitions of illegal structures in the Negev

The Israel Lands Administration doesn’t deny this policy. In a press statement in 2015, which is quoted in a report of the Negev coexistence forum, Ilan Yeshurun, director of the land preservation division’s southern region, says, “Inspectors make it clear to the trespassers that they are operating against the law and if they are evacuated they could be subject to lawsuits and demands to cover the costs. We have seen that this enforcement is indeed effective.”

That same report, however, notes that despite the widespread use of such threats, in practice the state rarely sues. In response to a Freedom of Information request to which the ILA responded in September 2015, up to that time only four suits had been filed to recover the costs of demolition, and only two of those were related to Bedouin in the Negev – the demolition of a mosque in Rahat and the evacuation and demolition of the village of Al-Araqib.

The 2017 figure for demolitions is the highest since the state started keeping track in 2013. Since the number of demolitions jumped from 697 in 2013 to 1,073 in 2014, the number had remained fairly steady. The highest rise in 2017 was in the number of structures that were demolished by the owners themselves.

The state defines “structures” very broadly; no one was living in many of those mentioned in the report. The 2017 demolitions included 279 gates, 58 earth barriers, 163 sheds and 735 structures classified as “other.” The Public Security Ministry said most of the structures categorized as “other” were demolished during the construction phase.