74 Democratic lawmakers urge Netanyahu not to raze Palestinian villages

In letter, PM told demolishing Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar would counter shared values, endanger Israeli democracy

Illustrative: Palestinians try to retrieve items from the rubble of a house after it was destroyed by IDF tractors near the West Bank village of Susya in 2011. (Najeh Hashlamoun/ Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinians try to retrieve items from the rubble of a house after it was destroyed by IDF tractors near the West Bank village of Susya in 2011. (Najeh Hashlamoun/ Flash90)

A group of 74 Democratic lawmakers this week urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the planned demolition of two Palestinian villages.

Orchestrated by representatives Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the letter calls on the premier to nix an order to demolish the West Bank Palestinian villages of Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar.

Israel maintains that both communities were built illegally, but plans to raze the villages have sparked a sustained international outcry.

The letter sent to Netanyahu Monday said that the “destruction and displacement of such communities would run counter to shared US and Israeli values, while further undermining long-term Israeli security, Palestinian dignity and the prospects for peacefully achieving two states for two people.”

It said demolishing Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar “endangers Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy,” and urged the government to “fairly re-evaluate” Palestinian requests for building rights.

J Street, a liberal Jewish Mideast think tank that helped promote the appeal on Capitol Hill, welcomed the letter, calling it the most significant criticism of Israeli settlement expansion by Congress ever.

“This is the latest sign that US lawmakers are increasingly concerned by the alarming consequences of the Israeli government’s policies in the West Bank,” said Dylan Williams, J Street’s vice president of government affairs, in a statement. “Demolitions, evictions and settlement expansion clearly imperil the prospects for a peaceful two-state solution.”

Monday’s letter follows a similar letter to Netanyahu signed by 10 Democratic senators, including prominent figures like Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Diane Feinstein of California.

Sussiya, in the southern West Bank, has been under threat of demolition for several years, after Israel found that homes there had been built without authorization.

The town’s residents argue that they had no choice but to build illegally because Israel’s Civil Administration rarely grants permits to Palestinians in the West Bank’s Area C, a zone officially under Israeli security and administrative control per the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

A master plan devised by residents was rejected by the Defense Ministry. Israel has not made a counteroffer for the issue to be resolved without a demolition.

Some 300 people live in Sussiya. They reside mainly on farmland and their community has had no running water or electricity since they were expelled from the village’s original location 30 years ago, when there were about 25 families living at the site.

Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin community of some 100 people east of Jerusalem, has also garnered international support since the Defense Ministry issued demolition orders for nearly the whole village last year.

“Khan al-Ahmar is one of the most vulnerable communities in the West Bank struggling to maintain a minimum standard of living in the face of intense pressure from the Israeli authorities to move,” UN humanitarian official Robert Piper said in a statement in February.

A boy walks through the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, near the Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway, on April 13, 2018. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

A number of traditionally nomadic Bedouin communities are based east of Jerusalem, where rights groups fear demolitions could eventually clear the way for further Israeli settlement construction.

In November’s letter, the senators, quoting the left-wing settlement watchdog Peace Now, said the Israeli government was dramatically expanding its settlement enterprise.

They said that Israel had advanced 88 plans, including 6,742 housing units in 59 separate settlements, in 2017 — marking a a 258 percent increase in the number of settlement housing units proposed over the year prior.

The Trump administration has actively been trying to renew negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as part of its peace push — a priority for the US president, but has offered only gentle criticism of settlement construction.

J Street and its campus branch, J Street U, launched a campaign last fall to stop the razing of Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar called “Stop Demolitions, Build Peace.”

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