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(New York) – Israeli authorities should revoke plans to forcibly displace Bedouin Arab residents from the village of Umm al-Hiran in Israel’s southern Negev desert to build a new Jewish community there, Human Rights Watch said today.

Israel’s Execution and Collection Authority on November 20, 2016, approved a request by the Israel Land Authority to forcibly demolish two homes and approximately eight surrounding structures at the entrance of Umm al-Hiran between November 15 and November 30. The demolitions would displace about 20 people. The approval follows a January Supreme Court decision not to reconsider the court’s May 2015 dismissal of a legal challenge to the demolition of the village by Umm al-Hiran residents. The residents fear this is the first step toward the displacement of all the villagers.

Residents of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in Israel's southern Negev desert prepare for house demolitions by Israeli authorities, November 2016.  © 2016 Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights

“The forcible eviction of Bedouin residents to make way for a new Jewish town would be a blatant and ugly episode of discrimination mirroring Israel’s unlawful settlements,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.“Long after most of the rest of the world has such rejected racist policies, the Israeli government keeps building and razing communities on the basis of religion and ethnicity.”

About 1,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel live in Umm al-Hiran and Atir, neighboring villages in Israel’s southern Negev desert. Israeli authorities relocated the villagers there under a 1956 agreement permitting them to live there in exchange for dropping claims to land from which they say Israeli forces expelled them in 1948. Israeli authorities have refused to formally recognize the village, to supply basic services such as water or electricity, or to develop a zoning plan to allow residents to obtain building permits.

In 2009, Israeli authorities approved plans to use Umm al-Hiran land to build a town “with institutions intended to serve the religious Jewish community,” as the Supreme Court put it, and to be named “Hiran.” They also authorized the use of Atir land to expand the Yattir Forest. The May 2015 Supreme Court ruling said that the land belongs to the state and that it is entitled to withdraw its permission for Umm al-Hiran inhabitants to live there, although the court rejected the government’s claim that the residents are squatters. It also ruled that the evictions would not be discriminatory since, in principle, Umm al-Hiran residents could purchase homes in the new town. In January 2016, the court rejected a request to reconsider.

On November 20, the affected Umm al-Hiran residents received written notices that authorities would demolish their homes on November 22. After activists gathered in the village, the police did not evict residents that day, though activists told Human Rights Watch that they had heard a police convoy was en route to the village.

However, Adalah, a nongovernmental legal center that advocates for Arab minority rights in Israel and represents Umm al-Hiran residents, fears that the evictions will take place before the November 30 deadline. In a statement to Human Rights Watch, the lead Adalah attorney on the case, Suhad Bishara, said they would continue to “seek all available legal channels” to halt the displacement and support the “existential, moral and legitimate right” of the villagers to “continue living on their land.”

Human Rights Watch has documented how Israel for decades has refused to legally recognize Bedouin communities and made it virtually impossible for residents to build homes lawfully. In conditions similar to those in Umm al-Hiran, about 80,000 Bedouin live under constant threat of home demolitions in 35 villages that Israel does not recognize in the Negev.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Israel ratified in 1991, requires the Israeli authorities to respect the right to adequate housing. The committee responsible for interpreting the covenant has said that this right means governments can carry out forced evictions only in “the most exceptional circumstances.” Even in these situations, it must do so in accordance with human rights principles requiring the government to consult with the affected individuals or communities, identify a clear public interest requiring the eviction, ensure that those affected have a meaningful opportunity to challenge the eviction, and provide appropriate compensation and adequate alternative land and housing arrangements.

The covenant further forbids countries from discriminating against minority groups with regard to land and housing rights. Governments must demonstrate that any differential treatment negatively affecting a group is proportionate to a legitimate aim.

Neither the declared policy objective – building a Jewish community to replace a longstanding Bedouin community – nor the proposed alternate arrangements – an undefined plot of land in the nearby town of Hura – meets the extremely narrow preconditions that would permit forcible evictions. The forced relocation decisions are unlawfully discriminatory since they are based on housing and land policies that treat Arab inhabitants differently from Jewish residents in a manner that cannot be justified by any legitimate aim.

At the same time, Israeli lawmakers are considering the “Normalization Law” to retroactively legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land and thereby protect them from court-ordered evictions. The proposed legislation follows the Supreme Court’s rejection in November of a request by Israeli authorities for a seven-month extension on the December 25 deadline for the demolition of an illegal settlement in Amona, in the West Bank.

“Time and again, Israeli politicians show that forcible control of land and the population, not international law, drives their planning policies on both sides of the Green Line,” Whitson said.

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