(Jerusalem) - The Israeli government should immediately stop demolishing Palestinian homes and property in the West Bank and compensate the people it has displaced, Human Rights Watch said today.
Israeli authorities destroyed the homes and property of 18 shepherd families in the northern Jordan Valley on June 4, 2009, displacing approximately 130 people, after ordering them on May 31 to evacuate because they were living in a "closed military zone." Some of the families whose homes and property were destroyed had been living in their village since at least the 1950s.
"Giving families less than a week to evacuate their homes, without any opportunity for review or appeal, is as heartless as it is unfair," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Israel should have given these people due process to contest their displacement."
At 7:30 a.m. on June 4, witnesses said, around 20 Israel Defense Forces (IDF) jeeps, three bulldozers, and several white cars belonging to the Israeli Civil Administration Authority arrived and blocked off the dirt access roads to the shantytown of ar-Ras al-Ahmar. The demolition operation began at 8 a.m. and destroyed 13 residential structures, 19 animal pens, and 18 traditional, underground ovens, according to the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The 18 displaced families included 67 children, the agency reported. Israeli soldiers also confiscated a tractor, a trailer, and a portable water tank that residents used to truck in water, witnesses said.
Members of the Israel Defense Forces and the Civil Administration Authority delivered eviction and stop-construction orders to 30 families, comprising approximately 250 people, at about 5 a.m. on May 31 in ar-Ras al-Ahmar and the nearby community of Hadidiyya, according to witnesses and Tawfiq Jabarin, a lawyer for some of the families. The orders stated that 18 families in ar-Ras al-Ahmar were living in a closed military zone and gave them 24 hours to leave, without any opportunity for appeal.
Israeli authorities had declared the area a closed military zone years ago and could have issued eviction orders at any time. The District Coordination Liaison Office (DCL) of the Israeli Civil Administration told Human Rights Watch that the eviction orders were issued because "it is dangerous to live there. They [the residents] could be hurt by ammunition or military exercises." The liaison office did not explain the reason for issuing the orders long after the area was declared closed, but this practice is not uncommon, according to Israeli and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations.
Jabarin told Human Rights Watch that after the demolitions on June 4, "most of the displaced moved to a different part of ar-Ras al-Ahmar about 300 meters away, and the army came back again, at night on Saturday [June 6], and told them that they had to leave." The displaced are depending on emergency assistance, he said.
Under an Israeli military order from 1970, the government may evict persons living in a "closed military zone" without any judicial or administrative procedures. Section 90 of the order states that "permanent residents" can remain in an area later designated as closed, and that eviction orders cannot change their status as permanent residents. However, the Israeli High Court of Justice has ruled that because the shepherds in the area are pastoralists, the term "permanent residents" does not apply to them.
Residents say that ar-Ras al-Ahmar and al-Hadidiyya date from at least the 1950s. The Israeli settlement of Ro'i was built between the two villages in 1978. The two communities and Ro'i lie within "Area C" of the West Bank, over which Israel retains near-total control under the Oslo Agreements of 1995.
"It's astonishing to see Israel evict Palestinians from their villages in the West Bank, yet again violating the rights of the occupied population, while allowing a settlement which by law should never have been built in the first place, to remain," said Whitson.
On June 9, Jabarin said, the Israeli High Court of Justice temporarily enjoined the state from further demolitions against the people remaining in ar-Ras al-Ahmar. In al-Hadidiyya, Jabarin said, seven families who received stop-construction orders will have the chance to appeal and to apply for building permits at the hearing.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in December 2006, the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected a petition against earlier demolition orders for al-Hadidiyya, because the affected buildings were in an area defined as agricultural in master plans from the British Mandatory period and posed a security threat to the nearby Ro'i settlement. Israeli authorities demolished homes in al-Hadidiyya in February and March 2008, displacing about 60 people in all. Some of the displaced families returned to the area later, but due to repeated evictions over the years, more than a dozen households from al-Hadidiyya have been permanently displaced.
While Israel, as the occupying power in the West Bank, may in some cases lawfully require residents to leave their homes, it must not do so arbitrarily and must afford affected persons meaningful due process. Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), among other treaties to which Israel is a party that apply in the West Bank, prohibits arbitrary or unlawful state interference with anyone's home.
Israel's policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian residents of the West Bank, while allowing the construction and growth of nearby settlements, is discriminatory. The prohibition against discrimination is spelled out in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and codified in the major human rights treaties that Israel has ratified, including the ICCPR, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Ongoing home demolitions prevent residents of the West Bank from enjoying the right to adequate housing. In its General Comment 4, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors the compliance of states parties to the ICESCR, held that "the right to housing should not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense which equates it with, for example, the shelter provided by merely having a roof over one's head or views shelter exclusively as a commodity. Rather it should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity."
Some of the displaced people from ar-Ras al-Ahmar were previously displaced. One of Jabarin's clients, Abderrahim Hossein Bisharat, moved to ar-Ras al-Ahmar after Israeli authorities demolished his home in the nearby village of al-Hadidiyya, twice, most recently in 2008.
Background and Accounts
According to Bimkom, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that specializes in planning and zoning issues, Palestinians in the West Bank commonly build homes without first applying for building permits because the application process is expensive, time-consuming, and usually unsuccessful. Israel denied 94 percent of Palestinian building permit applications in the West Bank between 2000 and 2007, according to the UN (OCHA), and there are approximately 3,000 Israeli demolition orders outstanding in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. In 2009, prior to the demolitions in ar-Ras al-Ahmar, Israel demolished another 27 Palestinian structures in the West Bank, displacing 120 people.
Earlier in May, OCHA reported that Israeli authorities distributed seven stop‐work orders for construction in Khirbet Samra, north of al-Hadidiyya, affecting 35 persons, including 22 children; and six demolition orders that gave 25 persons, including 15 children, in the Qalqiliya governorate a maximum of 48 hours to evacuate. Their homes may be demolished at any time.
Abu Ahmad, a 62-year-old resident of ar-Ras al-Ahmar, was visiting the nearby village of Tammun when a relative called to tell him his home was being demolished. Ahmad told Human Rights Watch he tried to return, but that Israeli soldiers stopped him until 10 a.m., when it was too late. "Of my property, they destroyed a water tank, three sheep pens, and two tents," he said. "There were 10 of us living there. Now our house is destroyed, and we have nowhere to go. We had to put up a plastic sheet over where our home was." Abu Ahmad added that he had moved to ar-Ras al-Ahmar after Israeli authorities repeatedly demolished his residence in al-Hadidiyya, most recently in 2008.
Ahmad's son, Salah Abdallah Bisharat, 28, was living in his father's household when the demolition was carried out. He told Human Rights Watch that a bulldozer and 14 Israeli army jeeps arrived at the family's residence at 8 a.m. The soldiers ordered the family to leave their home, entered it themselves, and removed some of the pieces of furniture and set them aside, and then demolished the tents and sheep pens. Bisharat is now living with his wife and three children in a tent 200 meters from the demolition site.
Fathi Khodirat, a fieldworker with the Ma'an Development Center, witnessed the demolitions in ar-Ras al-Ahmar on the morning of June 4. He told Human Rights Watch:
"The soldiers knocked everything down; they even confiscated a tractor that belonged to someone who was just stopping by to collect animal waste to use as fertilizer. But these people can't leave this area. They depend 100 percent on raising animals. Some of them moved here after their homes were demolished in other villages. Today, they're still living there, or a few hundred meters away from where they were, and they have nothing."
Israeli authorities have repeatedly demolished homes and other property in al-Hadidiyya in recent years. Abu Saqqir, a 59-year-old man who was born in the village, told Human Rights Watch:
"In my own case, they've demolished my home four times. Now, we just have some pieces of wood and a tent to live in."