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(Jerusalem) – Israeli military forces should cease actions in a West Bank Bedouin community that were apparently intended to displace the residents without lawful justification. The military demolished all homes in the community on September 16, 2013, and blocked four attempts by humanitarian groups to provide shelters, with soldiers using force against residents, humanitarian workers, and foreign diplomats on September 20. Under international humanitarian law in effect in the occupied West Bank, the deliberate unlawful forced transfer of a population is a war crime.

An Israeli court in August rejected a petition against military demolition orders by residents of Mak-hul and other Bedouin communities, on technical grounds. On September 24, more than a week after Mak-hul was demolished, the court temporarily suspended any further demolitions.

“The Israeli military should end its unjustified attempts to forcibly remove a decades-old community,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director. “Israeli forces didn’t just rough up diplomats, they demolished every single building in Mak-hul and ordered the residents to leave and never come back.”

Israeli forces demolished all 58 buildings in Mak-hul on September 16, displacing at least 48 residents, according to UN reports. The soldiers then blocked and confiscated two aid deliveries and demolished shelters built by another humanitarian group with the wreckage left over from the first demolitions, residents and humanitarian workers said.

Numerous witnesses said that on September 20, Israeli forces threw “sound bombs” – disorienting, non-lethal grenades that make a loud noise on impact – at diplomats and aid workers attempting to deliver tents and other aid. Israeli forces also assaulted two Bedouin residents, who were later hospitalized, arrested three, and confiscated the truck and its cargo, witnesses said.

On September 24, the Israeli High Court of Justice issued a temporary injunction, preventing the military from “transferring the [residents] from their village and demolishing the structures in the village,” unless demolitions were “required by imminent military needs and by clear operational security considerations.” The ruling gave the Israeli authorities until October 8 to show a valid legal cause to justify demolishing the structures in the community.

As well as halting all demolitions in Mak-hul, the Israeli military should permit humanitarian assistance, and allow the community to rebuild, Human Rights Watch said.

On August 25, the court had rejected a petition against the demolition orders in Mak-hul and in other Bedouin communities, ruling that the petitioners’ requests for building permits did not prove their connection to the land as required by Israeli military orders, and because not all of the petitioners shared a common legal claim. The ruling ordered the 21 petitioners to pay the Israeli authorities 10,000 Shekels (US$2,825).

Residents said that since September 16, military officials have repeatedly told them to leave and not return to the site of the community. Israeli forces’ blocking of humanitarian assistance into Mak-hul for more than a week has deprived residents of adequate shelter in the community and food for their sheep, on which their livelihoods depend in a desert environment.

The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits “[i]ndividual or mass forcible transfers” of civilians within an occupied territory “regardless of their motive” except if carried out for the safety of civilians during hostilities or for imperative military reasons. Even when such forced transfer is permitted, it must be temporary and the residents allowed to return as soon as possible. Deliberatelyviolating this prohibition is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and is prosecutable as a war crime.

Israeli officials justify demolitions of Palestinian structures not for security reasons or the safety of the population but on the administrative grounds that the structures were built without building permits, in areas not zoned for residential construction.

Residents of Mak-hul said they had lived in the area since 1967, renting the lands from Palestinian landowners. In 2009, the Israeli military’s civil administration, which controls land use and planning in “Area C,” delivered “stop work” orders prohibiting any further construction in Mak-hul, residents said. Residents hired a lawyer in 2013, who notified them that the Israeli military said it had delivered demolition orders to them in 2012. But residents told Human Rights Watch that they had never seen the orders.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases in other West Bank communities in which the civil administration left demolition and stop-work orders on rocks or suspended from tree branches rather than delivering them to homeowners.

B., a resident of Mak-hul, said that the residents’ lawyer later obtained a 10-day delay on the demolitions, which expired at noon on September 16. However, B. said, “the army showed up here at 5:30 a.m. that day. By 10 a.m., they had finished destroying every single building.”

Three Mak-hul residents told Human Rights Watch that Israeli forces closed off the two intersections near Mak-hul, and entered the community with five four-by-four vehicles, several bulldozers, five military vehicles, and a military personnel carrier. One resident, Y., said that after demolishing his home, the forces left, but that an officer returned at 1:30 p.m. “and told us to leave the area and not come back, and then when I walked away from him and took my sheep to graze he followed me and threw a sound grenade at me.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) attempted to deliver emergency shelters that same day, but Israeli forces confiscated the shelters; aid workers were able to distribute only some hygiene and kitchen supplies, a spokesperson told Human Rights Watch. On September 17, the ICRC returned at 8:30 a.m. with a truck carrying tents, mattresses, blankets, and other supplies.

Y. told Human Rights Watch:

They set up two of the tents, and then the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] came. One of them said his name was Hamoudi and that he was in charge of the area. We sat in the two tents and the soldiers demolished them over our heads, by hand. The ICRC couldn’t stop them. They took the tents and put them in the personnel carrier, and they made the ICRC drive away the truck with the other tents.

The ICRC spokesperson said that the IDF had confiscated emergency shelters and prevented the delivery of others.

On September 18, a Palestinian humanitarian group sent workers who helped Mak-hul residents build shelters from scrap metal left by the original demolitions. At 7 p.m., Israeli forces returned and demolished three reconstructed shelters, residents said.

Foreign diplomats visited the area to observe the demolition site on September 19. The following day, diplomats from Australia, Brazil, the European Union, France, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and representatives from the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) accompanied humanitarian workers attempting to deliver assistance to Mak-hul, according to witnesses and news reports. Israeli forces quickly arrived and ordered the workers not to unload the materials.

The Israeli military spokesperson’s office stated that on September 20, “dozens of Palestinians and foreign activists” in the area “disturbed public order and created a provocation during a violent attempt to set up tents illegally,” and “assaulted and threw rocks toward security forces who came to maintain law and order and disperse the violent gathering using nonviolent means.”

However, one witness told Human Rights Watch:

There was no spark or triggering incident. The army had a lot of time, and they prepared stun grenades and threw them at the group of diplomats, aid workers, and residents around the truck…There was no need for using force.

Two residents of Mak-hul were hospitalized after soldiers injured them during the confrontation.  B. told Human Rights Watch that several soldiers pushed Ahmad Khalaf Salam Bani `Odeh, in his early70s, off the roof of a car he had climbed on during the confrontation; as of September 22, he was still in the hospital.

Soldiers hit another resident, Muhammad Ali Mahmoud Basharat, in his 50s, in the face and stomach when he tried to intervene with soldiers who were arresting his two sons, Munzer, 22, and `Asem, 33, who remain in detention. Basharat was taken to a hospital and released the following day. Israeli forces also arrested Yusef Basharat, 35. It was not clear why the men had been arrested, but videos showed some men attempting to hold onto the truck with the humanitarian materials to prevent it from being confiscated.  

Also on September 20, B. said, he tried to build a small shelter for a newborn lamb, “because it can’t just be out with absolutely no shelter, and two army jeeps that were nearby saw me and came and ordered me to stop. I told the soldiers, ‘What are you doing? It’s just for the sheep,’ but they didn’t care.”

Y. told Human Rights Watch:

Now our sheep have been without shelter for days, they are in danger of dying. We’re being suffocated. There’s no security for me here. When the sun sets I feel frightened the army will come back.

In May, residents said, the military burned the fields to the east of Mak-hul, making it impossible to graze sheep there as they had done in past years. The military considers the area surrounding Mak-hul to be a closed military area, to which it prohibits access.

Mak-hul falls within an area of the West Bank that Israeli military authorities exclusively control, called Area C. Israeli authorities have zoned land in Area C, which comprises more than 60 percent of the West Bank, in ways that unlawfully discriminate against Palestinians. In practice, the Israeli military permits Palestinian construction in only 1 percent of Area C. By contrast, the military authorities have allocated 63 percent of that area to settlements, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group.

Israeli forces have demolished 524 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since the beginning of 2013, displacing 862 people according to UN records. Deliberate and extensive destruction of civilian property, except when absolutely necessary for military operations, is also a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

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