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Israel: Halt Home Demolitions

24 June 2011 2,736 No Comment

Jerusalem) – Israel should end discriminatory policies that have forcibly displaced hundreds of West Bank Palestinian residents from their homes, Human Rights Watch said today. In demolition operations on June 14 and 21, 2011, Israeli authorities displaced more than a hundred residents of three West Bank communities, including women and children, destroying their homes and other structures. Israeli authorities should compensate the residents and provide them with housing, Human Rights Watch said.
The demolitions on June 14 displaced 100 people in Fasayil al-Wusta, a community in the Jericho governorate of the occupied West Bank. Demolitions on June 21 displaced 27 people in al-Hadidiye and affected another 13 people in Khirbet Yarza, communities in the northern Tubas governorate. The Israeli military authorities destroyed the structures on the grounds that they lacked construction permits, but the authorities have made such permits almost impossible for West Bank Palestinians to obtain in areas under exclusive Israeli control. At the same time, they have readily granted lands and permits to Israeli settlers nearby.

“Israeli authorities refuse permits to Palestinians, tear down homes, and then turn around and give Israeli settlers the right to build homes nearby,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community should press Israel to immediately end this blatantly discriminatory treatment.”

Prior to June 14, Israeli authorities had demolished 207 West Bank Palestinian structures in 2011, displacing 459 people, “more than triple the number of people displaced compared to the equivalent period in 2010,” according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Israel demolished 439 Palestinian structures in 2010, a 59 percent increase over the 275 in 2009, according to UN figures.

Residents of Fasayil al-Wusta told Human Rights Watch that an Israeli military force, including two bulldozers, about 15 military vehicles and 50 soldiers, border police, and members of the military’s Civil Administration authority, arrived at 6 a.m. on June 14 and began demolishing homes. According to the UN, Israeli forces demolished 18 residential structures, six animal shelters, and two sanitary structures, displacing 100 people, including 63 children. Some residents were able to save some of their belongings, but others said Israeli forces prevented them from doing so. One resident who sat down in front of a neighbor’s home to try to prevent the demolition said that two soldiers beat him with clubs. Some residents are still living on the site in small makeshift structures to shield them from the sun because they had no other alternative housing.

Fasayil al-Wusta, a community of about 130 people, is in “Area C,” covering 60 percent of the West Bank, where the Israeli military’s Civil Administration authority has sole control of building permits, planning, and enforcement. In practice, Palestinians can obtain building permits in only one percent of Area C, whereas Israeli settlements have been granted control over 70 percent of the area, according to the UN, Israeli rights groups, and Israeli government records. According to Israeli government figures, the military denied more than 94 percent of Palestinian building permit applications in Area C from 2000 to 2007.

Most of the community’s residents are Bedouin whom Israeli authorities displaced from the Tel Arad area in the Negev desert in the 1940s and 1950s and who eventually settled in Fasayil al-Wusta in 1998. Residents told Human Rights Watch that they did not purchase the land but settled there out of necessity, because Israeli authorities had increasingly limited their access to other land and restricted their ability to pursue their traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyle of grazing sheep.

Residents told Human Rights Watch that they had not applied for building permits because the cost is prohibitive, requiring an application fee, a land survey by a professional surveyor, and other documents. They said they believed the Israeli military would have denied their applications in any case. The Israeli authorities have not zoned the area for residential use, and do not issue individual building permits for areas that lack residential plans.

International aid organizations monitoring the area told Human Rights Watch that Israeli authorities had issued between 30 and 40 orders against the Fasayil al-Wusta buildings in the last three years. Mo’in Odeh, a lawyer representing some of the displaced residents on behalf of the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, a local nongovernmental group, said Israeli authorities issued demolition orders against some structures in April 2010 on the grounds that residents had built them without permits on “state lands” claimed by the Israeli government. The residents petitioned the Israeli High Court, which granted their request for a temporary injunction. But the court lifted the injunction in March 2011 in response to a petition by the Israeli military.

“The Israeli military destroys Palestinian homes on the pretext that they lack building permits, while at the same time virtually never granting permits to those who apply,” Whitson said. “Such Kafkaesque bureaucratic absurdities only underscore the oppressive reality of the occupation.”

In a second case, on the morning of June 21, Israeli border police, Civil Administration officers, and nine military vehicles with about 100 soldiers arrived in the Bedouin community of al-Hadidiya. The forces demolished 29 structures, including residential tents, outdoor kitchens, and animal pens, displacing 27 members of six households, including 11 children, according to the UN.

Residents said that they had received military orders on June 16, giving them three days to object to demolition orders originally issued in 2008 against structures that lacked building permits. The military Civil Administration authority rejected the residents’ appeal on June 19. The community’s lawyer was at the Israeli High Court of Justice to submit a final appeal against the demolitions on the morning of June 21, when the military force arrived in al-Hadidiye and refused to delay the demolitions, the UN reported.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous Israeli demolitions of homes and other property in al-Hadidiye, a Bedouin community with about 110 permanent residents, some of whom were born there in the 1950s. Some residents said that Israeli forces had demolished their homes five times since the late 1990s, and estimated that demolitions and other Israeli restrictions during that time had led about 40 families to leave the community. Israeli forces previously demolished some structures on the basis that they were located inside a “closed military zone,” claiming that the area was a firing zone and that residents were being evicted for their own safety. The structures demolished on June 21 were all outside the closed military zone.

Al-Hadidiye is near the Israeli agricultural settlements of Ro’i and Beqa’ot, which Israeli authorities established several decades later, providing them with land, infrastructure, building permits, and water resources that are denied to al-Hadidiye. For example, Israel allocates 431 liters of water per day for household use to each settler in Ro’i, according to figures from the Israeli Water Authority, while per capita consumption in al-Hadidiye is only 20 liters, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli nongovernmental rights organization.

In the third case, on June 21 Israeli forces demolished two residential structures and two animal shelters in the village of Khirbet Yarza, affecting 13 people, including six children from two households, on the basis that they were built without permits. Israel has declared the area surrounding the village, which predates Israeli control of the area, to be a closed military zone. In November 2010, Israeli forces destroyed a mosque that villagers said predated the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, as well as a recent addition to the structure, and six homes and animal shelters, on the grounds that they were built without permits inside a firing zone.

The law of occupation applicable to the West Bank prohibits Israeli forces from destroying private Palestinian property and evacuating civilians unless their own “security” or “imperative military reasons so demand.” The Israeli authorities have not claimed that in this case, citing instead only that the buildings lack permits, Human Rights Watch said.

Human rights law applicable to the Occupied Palestinian Territories requires Israeli authorities to respect Palestinians’ right to housing, and prohibits policies that discriminate against them and in favor of Jewish settlers on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin, discrimination that Human Rights Watch has extensively documented.

“Israel has grossly overstepped its international legal obligations by destroying homes and displacing the very people it is obliged to protect as an occupying power,” Whitson said. “And at the very same time as it’s pushing Palestinians off of their lands into homelessness and despair, it’s granting the land to Jewish settlers.”

Witness Accounts from Fasayil al-Wusta

Eissa Ghazal, a Fasayil al-Wusta resident, told Human Rights Watch that he, his wife, and their three children were awakened by Israeli forces at around 6 a.m. on June 14.

They started the demolitions right away. There were two bulldozers, around 16 military vehicles, and around 50 soldiers, including border police and women and regular army. They demolished my home at 7 a.m., but by that point we had managed to get some of our things out of it because we expected it was going to be destroyed, even though they had told us we couldn’t remove things from the house.
Ghazal’s brother, Khaled, interviewed separately, corroborated this account, and said that an Israeli bulldozer also demolished his own home, where he lived with his wife and five children. Other residents said that Israeli forces prevented them from removing any of their possessions before demolishing their homes. Talib Mousa Ali Abayyat told Human Rights Watch that a bulldozer destroyed his and his brothers’ homes by pushing them into a small valley and covering them with rubble. “Everything I had was in my home,” he said. The only thing we managed to salvage were some drinking water canteens.”

Taleb Taamra, another resident, said that two soldiers beat him when he sat in front of his cousin’s home to prevent it from being demolished. “They came to demolish the home of my cousin, Omar Taamra, at 7 a.m., so I sat on the ground in front of his place. Then two soldiers who were holding sticks came and beat me on my sides and between my legs.”

Discriminatory Land-Allocation Policies

Fasayil al-Wusta is near the Tomer and Petza’el settlements. According to a database prepared for the Israeli government by Israeli Brig. Gen. Baruch Spiegel, both settlements were established in part on “state land,” and in part on lands that that the Israeli government obtained from Palestinians through a land exchange process. This process, according to a report by the Israeli State Comptroller, involved the Israeli authorities granting to Palestinians “substitute land that had belonged to absentees,” in other words, lands that the Israeli government had seized from Palestinians who were absent for any reason on the date that Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.

Other nearby settlements include Gilgal, Netiv HaGdud, and Maale Efraim, all of which Israel established on “state land,” ostensibly seized for military needs, or private lands whose Palestinian owners were offered substitute land.

Human Rights Watch is aware of only one case – a small community near Jerusalem – in which Israel has allowed West Bank Palestinians to establish new communities on “state land” or on lands it has seized for military purposes. It has frequently allocated such lands for Jewish settlements.

Some Bedouin live in Fasayil al-Tahta (“Lower Fasayil”), a nearby community in “Area B,” where the Israeli military does not have jurisdiction over property and land-use, but it cannot accommodate the displaced residents, said Odeh, the lawyer for some of the residents.

Legal Standards

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs occupied territories, an occupying power may carry out total or partial “evacuation” of an area only if “the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand.” In any event, the people evacuated must be transferred back to their homes as soon as the hostilities in the area have ceased, and in the meantime the occupying power must ensure those evacuated have “proper accommodation.” Article 46 of the 1907 Hague Regulations states that the occupying power must respect private property, which cannot be “confiscated.” Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention says “destruction” by the Occupying Power of private property is prohibited unless “absolutely necessary” in military operations.

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 and that the International Court of Justice has said apply in the West Bank, prohibits arbitrary or unlawful state interference with anyone’s home. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has said that in principle forced evictions are prohibited under that covenant – which also applies in the West Bank – and that evictions should never result in leaving people homeless.

Different treatment, on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin and not narrowly tailored to meet security or other justifiable goals, violates the fundamental prohibition against discrimination under human rights law. Israel’s policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian residents of the West Bank, while allowing the construction and growth of nearby settlements, without providing any adequate justification for the serious differential treatment, 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.”

In international jurisprudence on the right to property, courts, including the European and Inter-American Courts of Human Rights, have concluded that interference with property rights is allowed only when there is clear domestic law, the interference is for a legitimate aim, the interference is the least restrictive possible, and adequate compensation is paid. Permanent seizure or destruction of property can be justified only where no other method is possible and compensation is paid.

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