Demolition of Palestinian homes combines brutality with cynicism
The statement released this month by Yvonne Helle, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Occupied Territories, was, as you would expect from a UN official, dry and matter-of-fact. It said: “Yesterday, 73 people, including 41 children, were displaced when Israeli authorities demolished their homes and other structures and destroyed belongings in the Palestinian community of Humsa Al-Bqai’a.”
The plain statement was an attempt to capture the attention of the international community and alert it that three-quarters of a small Palestinian community had lost their shelter, making this one of the largest forced displacement incidents in recent years. However, one could feel not only Helle’s heart-felt distress at the sight of people left homeless, but also a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness in the face of Israeli bulldozers crushing tents and shacks, while her bosses back in New York, along with the entire international community, did nothing to stop this atrocity.
Is this what the mighty Israeli army has been reduced to? Using excessive force to evacuate powerless people from the very little they have, but which are their homes nevertheless, using lousy excuses that convince no one, is a sign of moral bankruptcy combined with the arrogance of power. And to do it on the day of the US presidential election, with the attention of the world elsewhere, was a cynical act of cowardice.
No one could seriously claim that this community, the majority of whose members are children, was posing a security threat. And the excuse that the location was required for military training, or a “Firing Zone” as Israel calls it, is feeble to say the least. In a territory occupied by military force, every single square inch of land can, at any given moment, be closed for military operational reasons. This is often done locally and by low-ranking officers with no plausible explanation, while the local community is humiliated. This arbitrary behavior is in contravention of the Third Geneva Convention and its prohibition of “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” As an occupying force, Israel is obliged to treat the local population humanely at all times and protect it, “especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof.” In this case, the perpetrators of violence against the local population are the Israeli authorities themselves. Making scores of families homeless with no reasonable and agreed alternative is illegal and inhumane, and the Israeli courts that allow it to happen must be considered complicit in violating international law and in entrenching and perpetuating the occupation.
The case of Humsa Al-Bqai’a is far from being a one-off — not that this would have made it any more acceptable. Israel has, for decades, been reshaping and manipulating the boundaries and demography of the West Bank with a three-fold objective. First, to define the final borders between Israel and any Palestinian independent or semi-independent entity that might eventually emerge — one that will exist at the mercy of Israel’s caprices. Second, it serves to ensure the constant expansion of the settlement project and make it almost impossible to reverse under any circumstances. And, third, it is a means of constantly harassing and frightening the occupied population into submission.
In the case of the Palestinian farming and shepherding communities, of which the residents of Humsa Al-Bqai’a are a part, they are scattered around Area C, which comprises more than 60 percent of the West Bank and is under Israel’s near-complete control, including in terms of law enforcement, planning and construction. The international community has repeatedly warned that this swath of territory has been designed for almost the sole benefit of Israeli settlers or the Israeli military, in complete disregard of the misery it inflicts on Palestinian communities.
A favorite, but utterly disingenuous, claim by the Israeli government to justify the demolition of homes and other structures belonging to Palestinians is that they were built without planning permission, or that those who reside there have no legal right to the land. Technically, these structures and shacks were built without planning permission, but mainly because the Israeli authorities very rarely grant such permits. And, as the population of these communities grows, extra accommodation is desperately needed.
There is also the extreme irony — or, more accurately, the shameless audacity — of an oppressive occupying power, which has been considered illegal by the entire international community for more than 50 years, justifying leaving communities at the complete mercy of the elements, especially at the start of winter, because its buildings are “illegal.” Moreover, in the old and disturbing colonial approach to indigenous people, Israeli officials have expressed their intention to “settle” these communities in what they call “permanent sites,” which, according to the representatives of the occupation, will improve their standard of living. Obviously, no one would object in principle to an improvement in the living conditions of these communities. But forcing them into urban dwellings without consultation or consent and thus forcing them to abandon their traditional agricultural way of life should not be tolerated.
Making scores of families homeless with no reasonable and agreed alternative is illegal and inhumane.
One would think that, in the face of a common enemy in the form of the coronavirus disease pandemic, Israel would exercise more restraint in its practice of demolishing or confiscating Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank. Instead, while the world has been busy dealing with the pandemic, Israel has, since March, increased its demolition activities to an average of 65 incidents per month, leaving hundreds of people homeless. According to the UN, it is not only homes that are being targeted but also water, hygiene and sanitation facilities, as well as agricultural structures, many of which were given to Palestinians in the form of humanitarian aid.
I visited some of these communities as recently as last year. I enjoyed their hospitality in places such as Khan Al-Ahmar and Sosiya. It was heartbreaking to hear the terrifying stories of constant harassment by the military and settlers, and of living with the constant threat of eviction and their homes being reduced to rubble. For Israel to be dealing with these people in such an inhumane way is not about the nature of its relations with the Palestinians; these are the acts of a country that is losing its humanity.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg