Palestinian village of Umm al-Khair targeted as Israel steps up illegal home demolitions in the West Bank

5 min read
02 July, 2024

Last week, Israeli soldiers carried out standing demolition orders for ten homes in Umm al-Khair, a Palestinian village in northern Masafer Yatta, occupied West Bank, leaving scores of families homeless, as demolitions and forced displacement intensify.

In the 1980s, Israel designated a large swath of Area C — the section of the West Bank under Israeli military control — as a “Firing Zone,” closed for military practice.

For generations, hundreds of Palestinian families lived in the "Firing Zone" before Israel began its forcible transfer campaign, expelling residents.

When the residents did not leave under duress, Israeli forces destroyed their homes.

The community of Umm al-Khair has had a standing demolition order, which the Israel Civil Administration has executed with bulldozers and assistance from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). 

The demolitions are occurring amid Israel’s ongoing siege on Gaza, which has killed at least 37,900 Palestinians, with a further 87,060 wounded, and has left much of the enclave in rubble, despite the brutal war being labelled a “textbook case of genocide.”

However, Israel’s violations of international law haven’t been isolated to Gaza. With settler attacks at an all-time high and near-daily instances of forcible transfer, Israel is stepping up its assault on the West Bank.

Israeli destruction of Umm al-Khair in the Occupied West Bank [Theia Chatelle]

Umm al-Khair is just feet away from the illegal settlement of Carmel. 

From the windows of the village homes, one can see the security fence and shooting outposts.

Although Israel publicly claims that the demolitions are for “national security purposes,” it is evident that removing Palestinian homes will allow Carmel to expand.

The Israeli soldiers arrived around 8 a.m., according to Fatima Nawajah, a local peace activist, and the demolitions started just two hours later.

The Israel Civil Administration didn’t allow the village’s residents to enter their homes or other structures before the demolitions started.

Consequently, not only were their homes destroyed, but so were their belongings.

The day after, the residents of Umm al-Khair, along with families from neighbouring villages, picked through the rubble looking for anything they could salvage.

Residents could also be seen constructing makeshift tents with rebar and tarp to provide temporary shelter for those whose homes were destroyed.

According to B’Tselem, 24 Palestinians, including 12 minors, were left homeless as a result of the demolitions.

Amani, who also lives in Umm al-Khair, said, “Israel destroyed the most important structures in the village. Anything built with concrete, anything we depend on, they destroyed it.”

Amani’s family home was destroyed during the incursion, leaving his father and mother without a place to stay.

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Also among those who had their homes demolished during the Israeli operation is Eid Suleman, a Palestinian activist and artist.

Residents indicated that Eid likely had his home demolished while others were spared due to his outspoken criticism of the Israeli occupation.

"This isn't the first demolition and it won't be the last, but they know to target me because I speak up against the occupation," Eid told The New Arab.  

In 2022, the IDF killed his father with a jeep during an operation in the village. Over 15,000 people attended his funeral.

Eid lives in the village with his daughter, Anna, who wants to study in the US to become a doctor.

Anna said that this isn’t the only difficult part of living in Umm al-Khair, but that after October 7, settler attacks on the village have increased, leaving the villagers in fear of being killed by a settler while the Israeli military looks on.

"I have been learning English from my father with the hope that I can study in America. They destroyed our home, but now we have to rebuild," Anna adds.   

Personal belongings amid the destroyed homes in Umm al-Khair [Theia Chatelle]

After Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled in 2022 against an injunction prohibiting the demolition of homes in Firing Zone 918, Palestinians in Masafer Yatta have been living in limbo.

Their homes could be demolished at any moment, with no legal recourse available from Israel.

Umm al-Khair is one of nearly a dozen Palestinian villages south of Masafer Yatta at risk of demolition.

Its case is particularly tragic, as its residents are refugees who were expelled from what is now Be’er Sheva during the Nakba. Other villages in what is termed “Masafer Yatta” are Bedouin.

Israeli “protective presence” activists affiliated with various left-wing organisations have stepped up their patrols in Masafer Yatta in hopes of staving off the worst of settler violence.

Two activists were present in Umm al-Khair the day after the demolitions.

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They station themselves in villages throughout Masafer Yatta in hopes that their presence will discourage settlers from showing up in the villages and wreaking havoc.

"The settler attacks are only getting worse," Sophie, an Israeli peace activist from Tel Aviv tells The New Arab.

"We need a constant presence in the village to keep the families safe, even if we can't stop the demolitions. If we leave, the Israeli army can declare a closed military zone and prevent us from entering." 

Even then, since October 7, Israeli settlers feel increasingly emboldened and calls for Israel to annex the West Bank officially have only made things worse.

In December, facing escalating settler violence enabled by far-right Israeli officials like Minister of National Security Itmar Ben-Gvir, the 250 residents of Khirbet Zanuta decided to evacuate, leaving everything behind.

At least four other villages in Masafer Yatta are now empty after their residents made the same decision.

After the demolitions in Umm al-Khair, the Israeli Civil Administration issued a 96-hour notice of demolitions in the neighbouring village of Halet a-Daba.

Dozens of homes have been demolished in Masafer Yatta since the start of the war, and it doesn’t appear the Civil Administration has any plans to halt its demolitions.

For now, the families of Umm al-Khair have decided to stay and rebuild.

Amani hopes the families now living in tents will have homes to return to by the end of the year.

Even then, they do so with the risk that Israel will decide to demolish the homes to expand the nearby settlement.

Theia Chatelle is an experienced conflict correspondent based in Ramallah. She writes for Al Jazeera and The Nation and is pursuing an M.A. in American Studies at Yale University. Outside of her work, she enjoys mountaineering and speaks several languages fluently