By Chris Doyle
18 February 2016
With the regional political temperatures boiling and the weather freezing, cynics might argue what better time for the Israeli authorities to to indulge in a new wave of home demolitions. Eyes are on Syria and in the United States; every Presidential candidate is vying to outdo the others in their pro-Israeli credentials.
That the Netanyahu coalition is significantly turning up the heat right now is then no surprise. President Obama is already as lame as most ducks ever get, and Europe simply has other issues to fight over. U.S. Presidential elections typically signal the worst times for Palestinians only trumped by Israeli elections in the bash the Palestinian stakes.
The great fear is that for Netanyahu this is just the hors d’oeuvres with the main course a mass transfer of population or a pressing of the fast forward button on a major settlement project such as E1 that splits the West Bank into two. There have already been at least 8 demolitions in this area so far this year.
Halting the demolitions is therefore vital to ward off any future violations. This settler-dominated Israeli coalition is sniffing every opportunity to expand its settler-colonial empire in the West Bank. The demolitions are one core part of bringing this about and one that Israel has practised around 50,000 times since 1967. There are three categories of demolitions – the punitive demolitions where Israeli demolishes the family homes of those accused of ‘terrorism’ (illegal as collective punishment), demolition of those homes without a permit and those that happen to be in an area needed for military or security purposes. For example, in the south Hebron hills communities that have lived there before the state of Israel existed are being removed because they now reside in Firing Zone 918.
So far in 2016, Israel has already demolished over 150 Palestinian homes and structures. Out in the hills of the West Bank or even in the Jordan Valley this is not easy at any time but the winter is harsh.
Back in December 2013, I was out in the West Bank, travelling with the former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as we toured almost exactly the communities that are being hit so hard now. The Israeli armed forces demolished homes in the Jordan Valley the day before the much predicted worst winter storm since the early 1950s. It was so cold that even Cairo got snow for the first time in over a century.
Still of course these Palestinian farmers were so much of a security threat in their shacks that they had to be demolished. At the time we were visiting another series of communities under threat in the south Hebron hills. Here we were given all the details about how these Palestinian shepherds had lost their caves, their lands and now even their U.N. canvas tents were under threat. We spent 90 minutes grimly trying not to betray our dearest wish to return to the warmth of our car. It was truly humbling. The leader of the community showed us their cistern destroyed amazingly by settlers who had driven a car down it.
For sure the Palestinians will go back, but their tents or shacks will be demolished again. Israeli forces make it punitive – in one round of demolitions in February, five solar panels were confiscated for good measure.
Both these series of communities are under huge threat. The current round of demolitions is not random or based on some legal technicality.
Israel is testing the boundaries of the possible and it is finding these are just as elastic as it had expected.
Beyond the immediate horror for those who have have lost their homes and livelihoods, there are broader reasons to be concerned. The Israeli government has every intention of emptying most of the Jordan Valley outside of Jericho by forcing farmers and Bedouin up into the Palestinian populated areas in the heart of the West Bank. It is a sacred mantra at the heart of Israeli politics that the Jordan Valley must be kept by Israel even if there is some leasing arrangement that allows them permanent military bases in this area that forms 20 percent of the West Bank. Moreover, Israeli planners do not want a Palestinian ‘state’ to have a land border with the Jordan river let alone any touching point with Jordan itself.
The demolitions are geared to pushing Palestinian farmers and Bedouin up into the central West Bank hills. The other consideration for Israeli strategic planners is that any Palestinian state cannot have access to the Jordan River or it would legally be able to claim a share of the water, a security issue for Israel. In the south Hebron hills too there is a strategic imperative. Clearing out Firing Zone 918 and the other areas south and south east of Hebron allows Israel to keep a corridor up to the settlements east of Hebron and also to the Jordan Valley. These pesky cave dwelling shepherds are in the way and must be moved. This was outlined all the way back in the Allon Plan drawn up after the 1967 war.
As ever, the other primary area for demolitions is Jerusalem. Conditions for the Palestinian areas will be kept as tough as possible to promote the cherished exodus from the Holy City. Getting a permit for a Palestinian is nigh impossible. The U.N. found that between 2010 and 2014, only 1.5 percent of 2,020 building permit requests submitted were approved.
Only this month the neighbourhood of Sur Baher has, with Belgian government funding, built its first ever playground, of course without permission. It is much needed of course contrasting with many Jewish communities in Jerusalem have 30 times more playgrounds than their Palestinian counterparts. Technically this threatening playground is liable for demolition and a fine.
As ever the international community is flailing in its response. Aside from many other considerations, much of the smashed debris of these structures were actually funded overseas. According to the United Nations around 20% of the demolitions in 2014 and 2015 were funded by international donors. Are they seeking reparations or even an apology?
There was a statement from the EU issued by a spokesperson not even Federica Mogherini. International law was not even given a look in. Perhaps the EU is feeling bruised because of the punishing verbal assaults on it by Israeli politicians because it had the temerity to issue settlement labelling guidelines, hardly a tough measure in the face of over four decades of war crimes, persistent and systematic violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Israel is testing the boundaries of the possible and it is finding these are just as elastic as it had expected. As 2016 progresses, demolitions, land confiscations and settlement expansion will undoubtedly increase as the “Zionist response” to the violent attacks on Israelis. There be no peace process or even a prospect of one but if the international community has an obligation it is to uphold its own laws and ensure no party exploits the impasse for its own ends. What Israel is really helping to demolish, in tandem with others notably Russia, are the very pillars of the international system itself.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honours degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.