Silence over Israel’s demolition frenzy

Silence over Israel’s demolition frenzy
Comment: The staggering increase in the demolitions of Palestinian homes is paralleled by international silence, despite the systematic nature of the Israeli operations, writes Joseph Willits.
7 min read
01 Apr, 2016
February 2016 was the worst month for demolitions of Palestinian structures since 2009 [Getty]

Bulldozers have been kept busy across the West Bank this year, and so have the Palestinian communities, clearing up and rebuilding after their homes have been razed in Israel’s staggering increase in demolitions of Palestinian structures in 2016. This is made worse still by a deafening silence from the international community. 

This silence is particularly reprehensible given that the motives behind such demolitions are the propping up and expansion of illegal settlements, and part of an increased land-grab policy by Israel in the West Bank. It is not clear what security purpose home demolitions have ever served, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to regard them as anything other than a coordinated policy to forcibly displace vulnerable Palestinian communities from certain areas of the West Bank. The international community is acutely aware of this, and yet much of the silence still remains.

February 2016 was the worst month for demolitions of Palestinian structures by Israel since the UN agency OCHA began systematic documentation of such demolitions in 2009. 237 Palestinian structures were demolished. But why the dramatic increase now?

With an Israeli Prime Minister in Bibi Netanyahu trying to secure his staunchly right-wing coalition, and many voices on the right urging him to demonstrate more firmness in the West Bank, and a US President with less than a year left in office, it might seem as if the time is ripe to carry out such demolitions to guarantee certain applause on a domestic level and minimal outrage at a international one.

A cynic could also suggest that as the UK is in battle-mode over the EU membership referendum on 23 June, there are limited resources in other areas of British foreign policy. In the meantime, the EU is distracted by refugees and the Brussels attacks. Demolitions therefore, are likely to be well down on the list of priorities.

In 2016, around 370 Palestinian structures in the West Bank and 36 in East Jerusalem have been demolished (figures up until 21 March 2016, according to the UN). This has meant that 486 people in the West Bank and 48 in East Jerusalem have been displaced.

The numbers this year provides us with a grim average of 31 Palestinian structures demolished each week by Israel in the West Bank, and 41 Palestinians made homeless each week as a result. The total demolitions in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2015 is 521 (108 of which were donor funded structures).

Therefore, by 21 March 2016, 83% of the total demolitions for the whole of 2015, have already been razed to the ground.

Such figures demonstrate a troubling increase in the demolitions of Palestinian homes and other structures, a silence over such demolitions, and the blatantly clear motivation behind Israel’s bulldozing plans. The demolitions are neither sporadic or just for the sake of it. They are carried out in specific areas, notably in the Jordan Valley, East Jerusalem and E1 and the South Hebron Hills.

You only need to look at a map detailing the recent demolitions, or those over the course of last year, to see that this policy is systematic rather than arbitrary. The UN assesses that over half of the people displaced in 2016 were those living in five communities that are inside areas designated by Israeli authorities as “firing zones”. 18% of the entire West Bank is declared as a “firing zone” despite the fact that over 6,000 Palestinians in 38 communities live in them.

It is nearly impossible for Palestinian communities to obtain building permits, yet all of the grounds for demolition in Area C, and most in East Jerusalem, are that the structures lack Israeli-issued building permits.

Cases from the West Bank

In February 2016, I led a Caabu and Medical Aid for Palestinians delegation of British Labour Party Parliamentarians to the West Bank. The delegation visited the communities of Susiya and Jinba in the South Hebron Hills with the Israeli human rights organisation, Breaking the Silence.

Figures demonstrate a troubling increase in the demolitions of Palestinian homes and other structures, a silence over such demolitions, and the blatantly clear motivation behind Israel’s bulldozing plans.

Susiya has had a fair amount of international attention, with calls from the US, the EU and UK to prevent the demolition orders on all of the community’s structures from being carried out. The British government describes itself as “a strong supporter of Susiya” and, in June 2015, the UK’s Consul General in Jerusalem, Dr. Alastair McPhail, hosted an Iftar during Ramadan in Susiya, where he said:

“Demolitions of property and the evictions of entire communities from their villages cause great suffering to ordinary Palestinians and are harmful to the peace process. They are, in all but the most limited circumstances, contrary to international humanitarian law.”

Today, Susiya remains under threat. The demolition orders still stand, as do the community’s buildings for now, and so does the diplomatic significance. If Susiya is one of the West Bank’s key test cases for the flagrant violation of international law in demolishing its homes and displacing its people, then if the demolition goes ahead, the international community will have collectively failed. There will be no Susiya that the British Government can say it is a “strong supporter of”. They will further incapacitate themselves to deal with incidents that are completely contrary to international law.

We also visited the community of Jinba in the Massafer Yatta area of Hebron, located in ‘firing zone 918’. On 2 February 2016, Jinba was one of two villages (the other being Halawah) where 22 homes were demolished, homes to over 100 people.

Many of the structures included buildings funded by aid agencies and international organisations, including tin toilets believed to be funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Israel’s systematic policy of Palestinian home demolitions makes the international community look emasculated and powerless.

On 22 March 2016, Jinba endured more demolitions. A tent which housed six people and two livestock pens were demolished, and a solar panel confiscated. This is not unique to Jinba, but such demolitions and the result of them, affect every aspect of life in their communities, from where to sleep and where to go to the toilet, to being able to boil a pan of water, wash your body or your clothes, and how to care for your livestock – both livelihood and food source.  

Jinba is one of twelve villages in this area that has been waging  a 17 year old legal battle to stop the demolitions and forced evacuations. The latest demolitions, coming a day before a high court hearing against attempts to forcibly transfer them from their land, were seen by residents as a message from Israeli authorities.

Another high profile case is the community of Khan Al Ahmar in the Jordan Valley (another which the delegation visited), which faces numerous demolition orders. The intimidation from settlers and Israeli soldiers alike continues.

The community’s school and kindergarten both have demolition orders on them for security reasons. Swings which were erected in the playground of the school had also been confiscated. The children now swing off the framework rather than swings originally provided by the Italian Government.

Next to Khan Al Ahmar is the illegal Israeli settlement of Kfar Adumim, home to Israel’s current Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and former Minister of Construction, Uri Ariel. A sewage pipe to the settlement comes out of the ground right next to the school, to add yet more stink and unpleasantness. The threat of demolition and displacement still remains, despite numerous high profile visits, including the then Foreign Secretary William Hague and the Minister responsible for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood.

The list of demolitions which have taken place and communities affected keeps on growing. On 3 March 2016, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said that demolitions were a "damaging trend" that is harmful to peace and prospects of a two-state solution.

This begs the question that if things have been said before and there is an awareness of such a “damaging trend”, then why are the demolitions still taking place? Israel’s systematic policy of Palestinian home demolitions makes the international community look emasculated and powerless. But as the international community’s foreign ministers posture and issue their condemnations, more homes, tin toilets and livestock pens are demolished, more communities trampled upon.

Joseph Willits works at Caabu (Council for Arab-British Understanding). At Caabu, Joseph has led cross-party Parliamentary delegations to Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, and has spoken to schools about Islamophobia, Arab and Muslim stereotypes, multiculturalism and the situation in Syria, as part of Caabu’s education programme. Follow him on Twitter: @josephwillits

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.