The looming threat of mass Israeli house demolitions
Since veteran Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu formed his far-right coalition in late 2022, the policy of demolishing Palestinian homes and buildings has significantly accelerated.
The new far-right government includes the Jewish Power party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir as minister of national security, with powers over the police and border police who operate alongside Israeli soldiers in the occupied Palestinian territory.
As part of his coalition deal with Netanyahu, Religious Zionism leader, and finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich last week formally gained responsibilities over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and will have control over zoning, surveys, and sales of land for settlers.
Both far-right politicians support the annexation of the occupied West Bank and the expansion of Israeli settlements, with Palestinians fearful of a future in which powerful extremists will dictate government policy.
"Since veteran Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu formed his far-right coalition in late 2022, the policy of demolishing Palestinian homes and buildings has significantly accelerated"
Israel’s discriminatory and restrictive planning regime in the occupied West Bank severely limits Palestinians from building homes, commercial buildings, or agricultural structures.
Most house demolitions take place in Area C, the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control following the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Between 2009 and 2016, Israel demolished over 4,000 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C on the grounds of a lack of building permits, according to the United Nations.
Most Palestinian villages in Area C also lack basic services, with over 70% not connected to the water network.
In contrast, Israel has rapidly expanded illegal settlement construction in Area C since the 1970s, with over 400,000 settlers living in more than 135 settlements and 100 outposts, all with access to the full public amenities provided by the Israeli state.
Thousands of Palestinian buildings under threat
With demolitions gaining pace in 2023 under the far-right government, several key Palestinian areas are under threat.
Masafer Yatta in Hebron, home to some 2,500 Palestinians across 12 villages, as well as areas located between East Jerusalem and Jericho, most notably Khan Al-Ahmar, which is home to around 200 people, live under the threat of displacement.
In total, around 22,000 Palestinian homes have demolition orders pending in Area C, in addition to a further 20,000 homes in East Jerusalem. Most orders were issued under the pretext of lacking building permits, which Israel rarely grants to Palestinians.
Abdullah Abu Rahma, a Palestinian official with the Settlement and Wall Resistance Commission, told The New Arab that Israel issues between 700-1,000 annual demolition notices for Palestinian homes and other structures.
Since 2015, Israeli authorities have informed about 5,800 Palestinians that their property will be destroyed, according to a report issued by the Wall and Settlement Resistance Commission in 2022.
Out of the total number, at least 1,220 were notified in 2022 alone, while 715 of the buildings were demolished in the same year, the report said.
"What is new in the era of the current Israeli government is the acceleration in issuing demolition orders and implementing them immediately, without waiting for the legal procedures"
'A war of attrition'
Emad al-Khatib, in his 50s, is among dozens of Palestinian families facing demolition threats in the Wadi Qaddoum neighbourhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, where he pays taxes to Israeli authorities, under the pretext of "unauthorised construction".
"No one can imagine the miserable feeling when we are threatened at any moment to be thrown into the street without shelter," the father of eight told TNA.
According to plans issued by the Israeli-run Jerusalem municipality, the area on which the building is located is intended for an open area for sports or recreation, not for housing, al-Khatib explains.
"Since the demolition decision was issued, the 100 residents of the building have not been able to sleep for fear and panic that the demolition process will be carried out at any moment. We live in a war of attrition of nerves, and our fate has become unknown.”
While Palestinians in Jerusalem face demolition orders, settlement construction for Israelis continues apace.
Fakhri Abu Diab, the head of the Silwan Defense Committee, told TNA that a new settlement outpost was recently built near the Palestinian building threatened with demolition in Wadi Qaddoum.
“All Israeli procedures are an attempt to change the demographics of the city in favour of the settlers. Israel seeks to liquidate the Arab Jerusalemite presence in the city of Jerusalem, and to prevent the population's presence in it through the impossible conditions attached to issuing building permits."
Netanyahu vows to boost demolitions
Although the demolition of the Wadi Qaddoum building was recently postponed, likely under US pressure, Netanyahu vowed that settlement construction would go ahead despite the recent Aqaba summit, during which a joint statement suspending new settlement building was issued.
In January, Netanyahu had even boasted that his government had demolished 38 Palestinian buildings in the occupied West Bank since the beginning of the year.
Official Palestinian statistics confirm that about 87 buildings have been demolished, which is the highest number on record for one month.
Palestinian experts say that Netanyahu was attempting to placate his extremist partners in government after a settler outpost in the northern West Bank was dismantled the same month.
"Palestinian political analysts fear that the situation will only get worse as Israel plans to carry out more demolitions and enact new laws that would facilitate them"
“The situation in which the Palestinians rampantly build illegally, in an attempt to set facts on the ground, is over," Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.
Salama Jaber and his 15-member family, along with other Palestinian families in the small community of Khalat Taha in the south of Hebron in the West Bank, were some of those whose homes were demolished for the expansion of the Neguhot settlement.
Jaber decided to live with his family in a tent adjacent to their demolished house in order to prevent settlers from seizing his land and annexing it to the settlement.
"We are living a renewed catastrophe in light of this Zionist oppression that wants to end our existence on the land at any cost," he told TNA.
“Every time the army uses the excuse that the construction took place without a permit from it in an area classified as C, and when we try to obtain a permit, they refuse. Life here is dangerous, but it is impossible to leave,” he stressed.
Things are getting worse
Palestinian political analysts fear that the situation will only get worse as Israel plans to carry out more demolitions and enact new laws that would facilitate them.
“It means that about 50,000 homes and facilities will be under demolition threats, displacing a quarter of a million Palestinians under the pretext of regulating construction,” Nihad Abu Ghosh, an expert on Israeli affairs, told TNA.
So far under the new Israeli government, laws have been passed to ban the Palestinian flag, deport Palestinian prisoners and strip them of their citizenship, while draft legislation has been approved to legalise the death penalty against those charged with ‘terrorism’ offences.
Adel Samara, a Ramallah-based political expert, told TNA that demolitions are an old policy pursued by successive Israeli governments against the Palestinian people.
“But what is new in the era of the current Israeli government is the acceleration in issuing demolition orders and implementing them immediately, without waiting for the legal procedures”.
Sally Ibrahim is a Palestinian reporter with The New Arab based in the Gaza Strip.