It was hard to ignore the elephant in the courtroom at the High Court of Justice on Monday – the European Union. It financed the prefab structures that the state seeks to demolish on both sides of the Hizma-Anata road east of Jerusalem. The prefabs were built because the tents, huts and shacks of the Bedouin residents had become unfit for human habitation.
At Monday’s hearing, the state asked the court to reject a petition filed in January 2014 against the demolition orders. If the court complies, 62 buildings will be destroyed – buildings that house some 430 people, including 250 minors, from the Jahalin Bedouin tribe.
Government attorney Udi Eitan told the court that the buildings were in the E-1 expanse east of Jerusalem, “which was defined not long ago as the area’s top enforcement priority.” The settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim sees E-1’s 12 square kilometers as its natural land reserve. Moreover, building there would create contiguity between the settlement and Jerusalem.
Though Israel froze construction plans for E-1 due to vehement American opposition, it hasn’t frozen its plan to evict the Bedouin who have lived there since before 1967. The eviction would facilitate expansion by nearby settlements.
Despite agreeing that the Bedouin buildings were illegal, the justices were astounded that the state sought to destroy an entire community without offering the people an alternative housing solution.
“What would happen tomorrow morning if we rejected the petition?” asked Supreme Court President Miriam Naor. Eitan replied that this question was being “considered,” but “at the moment, there’s no valid plan.” Justice Esther Hayut then commented that while “there’s no argument” over the buildings’ illegality, “the question is what the solutions are.”
Later, Naor returned to this question. “Theoretically, it’s very easy to reject the petition, to say this is illegal construction and all’s well and good,” she said. “But we’re still asking, over and over, what’s the solution?”
Eitan again responded that since E-1 is high priority for enforcement, this trumps other considerations – like delaying the demolitions until alternative housing is ready.
But attorney Shlomo Lecker, who filed the petition, has represented Bedouin communities east of Jerusalem for decades, and in all the other cases, he said, the evictions were delayed because alternative housing hadn’t been prepared. He therefore accused the state of discriminating against his current clients. He also noted that all the buildings slated for demolition were donated by the EU.
The state’s brief didn’t mention the EU at all. But in recent months, the state has shown what it thinks of EU humanitarian aid to Palestinians living in Area C – the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control, where Israel doesn’t allow Palestinians to build.
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Between January 1 and March 7, Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank significantly increased the pace of demolitions. It razed 354 shacks, tents, pens and other constructions – 70 percent of the total razed in all of 2015. To put it another way, that’s an average of 71 buildings a week, compared with 17 in 2015.
About a third of the demolished simple constructions – 120 – were financed by donor countries, mainly in the EU. That compares with 108 in all of 2015.
Evidently, years of pressure by the settler lobby have borne fruit. From presentations at Knesset committees to publications by the group Regavim to complaints by Ma’aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel, the settlers and their supporters have repeatedly denounced the EU’s involvement in Area C, and especially in E-1.
An Israeli source who requested anonymity told Haaretz that the person behind the accelerated demolition of EU-funded buildings over the past two months was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Representatives from the EU, the United Nations and international organizations who were in the courtroom wondered whether the state’s brief wasn’t meant as a political message – that the EU should stop funding Palestinian communities threatened with eviction in Area C.
Jahalin Bedouin have lived in the area since Israel expelled them from their original homes in the Negev (Tel Arad and Be’er Sheva) in the 1950s. The land is privately owned by residents of nearby Isawiyah and Anata.
Over the following decades, these Bedouin have seen the settlement of Anatot built north of them and Ma’aleh Adumim spread out over the hills to the east. But they have continued to live in shacks and tents, earning their living by doing shepherding, guarding and construction work.
Monday’s hearing never addressed the most fundamental question: Why are people who have lived in the area since long before the settlements were established not entitled to continue living there, to connect their houses to infrastructure and even build for their children?
The prefab buildings were donated as humanitarian aid because storms in recent years had destroyed or badly damaged the community’s tents and shacks. Both the donors and the Bedouin made sure the new buildings occupied exactly the same space as the old, Lecker told the court. In his view, they’re necessary renovations, not new construction.
Moreover, he said, only five of the buildings are actually in E-1, and even they are on the area’s outer edges. Thus the argument that E-1 is a high-priority enforcement area is inapplicable, he said.
Of the three justices, only Uzi Vogelman discussed the history and size of the community. “This isn’t an isolated case of a certain agricultural or nonagricultural building” that could be demolished easily, he said.
“This is a problem that has existed for at least 50 years. It’s impossible to solve it by delay. There’s a reality of life, and in the past there were proposals for mediation.... When you’re talking about a group of hundreds of people, you have to look at it from a broad viewpoint and not a technical one. Without knowing where they’re going – this is something that can’t happen.”
Lecker requested and received a 60-day extension to add new information to the petition and respond to the state’s claims. Then there will probably be another delay while the state responds. Meanwhile, the threat of demolition hovering over the community will be postponed for another few months.