Israel increases rate of home demolitions as peace talks chug along

Human rights activists say home demolitions show that protection for Palestinian human rights is missing from the peace process.

Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters
Israeli soldiers scuffle with Palestinians near a truck loaded with items European diplomats wanted to deliver to locals in the West Bank herding community of Khirbet al-Makhul, in the Jordan Valley, Sept. 20.

Burhan Bisharat lost his home last week to an Israeli army bulldozer, but he retains the Palestinian ethos of hospitality, pressing his interviewer to drink more tea as he recounts how he has slept amid the ruins of the dwellings of this tiny village in the occupied West Bank.

''Living on the ground with no cover is hard,'' says the father of eight who, like a dozen other men from Makhul, has been sleeping out in the open because the army blocked them from receiving humanitarian relief tents after the demolition. On a scorching summer day, Makhul's men crowded under the only tree in sight for shade, while a group of Israeli soldiers stood guard nearby to ensure they did not attempt to rebuild shelter. 

Israeli Defense Ministry officials say the demolition of Makhul was a necessary law enforcement measure against unlicensed construction and they stress that the Israeli Supreme Court last month rejected a petition against the order.

But human rights groups are condemning the demolition, the latest of operations in which hundreds of residential and other structures were destroyed this year in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They say the army's handling of Makhul, as well as repeated settler attacks on Palestinian property, highlight that the US-brokered peace process launched earlier this year fails to protect Palestinians from Israeli abuses. 

United Nations statistics show that the rate of demolitions rose in the last year, many of them occurring as US Secretary of State John Kerry prodded Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiation table. In August, a month after peace talks resumed, Israel leveled another small Palestinian community in East Jerusalem, Tel al-Adassa, forcing its residents to leave to the West Bank. They lacked Israeli identity papers, but dated their stay in the vicinity to the 1950s.

Three other small Palestinian communities near here – Ras al-Akhmar, Hadidya, and Khumsa – now face the imminent threat of being leveled like Makhul.

''There is always talk of a settlement freeze but it is not just building new homes for settlers but destruction of homes for Palestinians that have nowhere else to go that needs to be front and center during peace negotiations,'' says Bill Van Esveld, who is based in the West Bank and monitors the Middle East for Human Rights Watch.

Uneven negotiations

On Sept. 16, at 5 a.m., the Israeli army set about destroying Makhul, ordering its residents to vacate so that the bulldozers could demolish the corrugated metal dwellings and animal sheds.  The remnants of the demolition were visible on the hillside more than a week later: piles of scrap that had been the ramshackle homes for just more than a hundred people, according to their lawyer Tawfiq Jabarin.

Some Makhul residents trace their presence there to before Israel's victory in the 1967 war, although Israeli officials said most had dwellings in other locales and lived there just part of the year. Mr. Bisharat rents his land in Makhul from a private Palestinian owner who lives in the northern West Bank town of Tubas.

''I rent 7,000 square meters,'' says Bisharat. ''We plant our land with wheat, barley, lentils and other grains. We produce milk, cheese, butter, eggs, and meat. This is our style of life and we are not going to change it.''

According to UN figures, 862 Palestinians have been displaced by Israeli demolitions since January alone, including those at Makhul, up from 886 in all of 2012.

Menachem Klein, a dovish Israeli political scientist, says that reflects an Israeli desire to ensure that at the end of negotiations Israel will retain control over almost all of Area C, which makes up the majority of the West Bank and is under Israeli administrative and security control.

''The peace talks just push Israel forward to create facts on the ground in Area C to determine the outcome of the talks,'' he says.

He said Israel carries out demolitions in Area C in the hopes that it will force Palestinians to relocate to Areas A and B, which are under Palestinian self-rule. Israeli officials deny there is any policy to do this and stress that demolitions are strictly a matter of law enforcement. Speaking of the destruction of Makhul, Israeli Defense Ministry official Guy Inbar asks, ''If you want to build a tent in Central Park will the New York police allow it?''

The lack of protection of human rights during the negotiations, coupled with the weakness of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, have left the Palestinians of Area C vulnerable to demolitions and other challenges, Mr. Klein says. "The sides should have been made to commit to human rights from Step 1, not at the end of the process," says Klein, who teaches at Bar Ilan University.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas exacerbated the situation by agreeing to an American demand that the Palestinians not lodge any petitions against Israeli actions with international legal bodies for the duration of the negotiations, says Shawan Jabarain, head of Ramallah-based human rights group Al-Haq. 

''This is more than a mistake, it's a catastrophe. It's like when one is being beaten and you take away from him the ability to go to court and the police,'' he says.

Israeli officials say that they are willing to talk to the Palestinians about all issues, including human rights, but stress it is a two-way street.

The main human rights violation, they say, is continued killings of Israelis, highlighted by the slaying of two soldiers early this week, one of whom was off duty. ''We've got human rights concerns as well,'' said Paul Hirschson, a foreign ministry spokesman. ''This includes the right to breathe.''

Six Palestinians have been killed in Israeli army operations in the West Bank since the talks resumed, according to Al-Haq. 

Room for everyone?

Mr. Van Esveld argues that the demolition in Makhul and a refusal to allow humanitarian organizations to provide temporary tents for the families amount to a forced transfer of population because they could no longer live there without shelter – a violation of the Geneva Convention. 

''All the criteria appear to be met for this to be considered forcible transfer, which is a war crime,'' Van Esveld says.

On Tuesday, Israel's High Court of Justice issued an injunction giving Mahkhul's residents the right to pitch tents for the next two weeks, when a court deliberation will be held.

David Elhayani, chairman of the council representing the 21 settlements in the Jordan Valley, denies there is any effort to reduce the Arab population, calling the accusation "blood libel." Mr. Elhayani says there is plenty of room for more settlers, especially in the northern Jordan Valley, where Makhul was situated.

''There are no Palestinian villages in the northern Jordan Valley,'' Elhayani claims. 

While inaccurate today, Palestinians worry that statement could be a harbinger of the future. Amid the metal scraps that until recently were Makhul, Bisharat says bitterly: ''The world does nothing to help us. Where are the human rights? Am I not human?'' 

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