According to the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, an Israeli NGO, the Israeli government has demolished 28,000 Palestinian structures since the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967, resulting in the homelessness and suffering of untold numbers of people. There is little ambiguity about the morality of this form of ethnic cleansing, and even most Israeli legal scholars agree that it is in contravention of international law.
The Israeli authorities usually demolish Palestinian homes for one of three reasons – building without a proper permit, building in a location deemed unsuitable by the government, and collective punishment. One of the communities affected was the small Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir, located in the South Hebron hills, where the Israeli authorities demolished six structures, rendering 31 residents, nearly half of its population, including 19 children, homeless.
The official reason for the demolition of the buildings in Umm al-Kheir was that the locals did not have the proper building permits. Israel refers to the Oslo II accords, which give it the power to control construction in Area C, the part of the West Bank over which it has complete control. In June of 2015, +972 Magazine, a left-leaning news blog, reported that only one percent of land in Area C is designated for Palestinian construction, and that 94 percent of Palestinian applications for building permits are denied. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO, of the 1,640 applications for permits to build in Area C that were submitted by Palestinians between 2009 and 2012, only 37 were approved.
The disparity between the amount of land allocated to settlers and that zoned for Palestinians is enormous. According to a report by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) from 2015, more than 13 times as much land is approved for a settler as for a Palestinian – about 790 square meters per settler, and 60 square meters per Palestinian. Thus, pressure from settler land grabs as well as the Palestinians’ increasing population leaves the latter no choice, especially in areas of high-density population, such as East Jerusalem. They have to build without the proper permit. It is then only a matter of time before the bulldozers appear.
Khirbet Tana lies in the north, not far from the city of Nablus, and it suffered a fate similar to that of Umm al-Kheir a day later. The bulldozers came and demolished 34 structures, which displaced 69 Palestinians, including 29 children. 2016 has been a terrible year for the people of this small hamlet, as this was the fourth visit paid to them by the Israelis during the last two months. According to a statement released by OCHA, many of the destroyed buildings had been provided by relief agencies, including a school. In this case the buildings were destroyed not because of improper permits but rather because the village is located in a firing zone.
A firing zone is an area designated by the Israelis to be used only for military exercises. According to OCHA, 18 percent of the West Bank falls into this category. The immorality of removing civilian populations from their lands for the purpose of military training is obvious, but what’s worse is that over 80 percent of firing zones are not actually used for this purpose.
Some Palestinian structures are demolished because of their location, even if they do not lie in a firing zone. A homeowner in Idhna, a village near Hebron, told me when I visited in 2014 she was informed that her home was demolished because it lay too close to the Apartheid Wall. Her neighbour had it worse. She was not given any reason at all for the destruction of her home.
A week before the destruction in Umm al-Keir and Khirbat Tana, in the middle of the night of March 31, the army demolished part of the house of the family of Ihab Maswada, who had been killed in December after he used a knife to attack a settler in Hebron. Soldiers had threatened to destroy the house a few days after the stabbing, but the demolition order did not come until recently.
The reason for this home demolition was clearly punitive, although the authorities prefer to use the term deterrent. Israel claims that a potential terrorist would think twice before mounting an attack if he knew that his family’s home would be destroyed as a consequence. There have been several studies questioning this point of view. For example, Israeli journalists Amos Harel and Avi Isacharoff reported in their book The Seventh War that there was no evidence that punitive home demolitions were effective as a deterrent. In fact, the reports show that the number of violent attacks following the implementation of the policy actually increased. In 2005, an Israeli military committee examined the issue, as well, and arrived at the same conclusion.
Shortly thereafter, the government of Israel heeded the committee’s recommendations, and, except in a small number of cases, the practice of punitive home demolitions was discontinued until 2014, when it was resumed with the destruction of the homes of the suspected kidnappers of three settler teenagers.
While the end result in each of the three above-mentioned cases is the same – homeless Palestinians – they illustrate the three main categories of justification that the forces of occupation provide for destroying the homes of Palestinians. But the real motive behind the demolitions is much more nefarious.
OCHA reports that during the years 2012-2015, an average of 50 homes were demolished in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem every month. So far this year, the army has destroyed 539 structures, a rate that is more than three times higher. In all of 2015, 453 buildings were demolished, so the sharp surge in this kind of activity is an extremely recent phenomenon. The reasons for this sudden increase are unclear.
Is it simply a result of the shift to the right of the views of Israeli society vis-à-vis the Palestinians? Or are the Israelis beginning to feel the pressure of the efforts, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, of some sectors of the international community to call into question Israel’s policies? In this case, might they believe they have to consolidate as much control and seize as much land as possible before an agreement is forced upon them? Perhaps it is a combination of these factors.
One thing that is clear is that the Israelis are getting impatient. There are currently 11,000 buildings in Area C that have been slated for demolition but as of now are still standing. As far-right Israeli NGO’s such as Regavim send their drones over the West Bank in search of suspicious Palestinian construction, one wonders what this latest increase in ethnic cleansing means for the long-term future of the Palestinians.
Perhaps it will lead to an intensification of the international community’s efforts to call Israel to account for its illegal and immoral activities. In the short term, though, it appears that its only consequence will be to make life more difficult for the Palestinians.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Ethnic cleansing in Palestine: home demolitions on the rise’.