Democratic senators urge Netanyahu not to raze Palestinian villages

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others charge that demolishing Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar while expanding settlements will ‘endanger Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy’

Palestinians, foreigners and Israeli peace activists demonstrate in the southern West Bank village of Sussiya against the demolition of the Palestinian village in the Hebron Hills, on June 5, 2015. (AFP/Hazem Bader)
Palestinians, foreigners and Israeli peace activists demonstrate in the southern West Bank village of Sussiya against the demolition of the Palestinian village in the Hebron Hills, on June 5, 2015. (AFP/Hazem Bader)

WASHINGTON — Ten Democratic US senators urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday to halt the planned demolition of two Palestinian villages, warning that the move could endanger Israel’s future.

Several highly prominent members of the Democratic Party signed the letter, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Diane Feinstein, Minnesota Senator Al Franken and Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to a crowd of supporters at a rally on April 21, 2017 in Salt Lake City. (George Frey/Getty Images/AFP)

Four of the ten of them are themselves Jewish. No Republicans signed the missive.

The letter called on Netanyahu to nix an order to demolish the West Bank Palestinian villages of Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar. Israel says both were built illegally, but the plans to raze the villages have sparked international outcry.

“Efforts to forcibly evict entire Palestinian communities and expand settlements not only directly imperil a two-state solution, but we believe also endanger Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy,” the letter read.

“Instead of forcibly evicting these communities, we encourage your government to fairly re-evaluate Sussiya’s professionally developed master plan and provide the residents of Khan al-Ahmar equal building rights,” it read.

Sussiya, in the southern West Bank, has been under threat if demolition for several years, after Israel found that homes there had been built illegally.

A tent in the village of Susya, July 19, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

The town’s residents argue that they had no choice but to build illegally because the Civil Administration rarely grants permits to Palestinians in the West Bank’s Area C, a zone officially controlled by the Israel Defense Forces as per the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

A master plan devised by residents was rejected by the Israeli Defense Ministry, but Israel, for its part, has not made a counter offer for the issue to be resolved without a demolition.

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

In 2015, Feinstein was the only congressperson to meet with a delegation of Sussiya residents who traveled to Washington to plead for support, writing a letter urging Netanyahu to nix the demolition then as well.

The US State Department also issued a statement around the same time calling on the government not to demolish the hamlet.

“We strongly urge the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village” of Sussiya, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said in a July 2015 briefing.

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 earlier this year.

Video still of IDF soldier serving demolition order on illegal structure in Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin camp north east of Jerusalem (Screen capture: Twitter)

“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 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 the letter Wednesday, the lawmakers, quoting the left-wing advocacy group Peace Now, said the Israeli government was dramatically expanding its settlement enterprise.

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

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

Agencies contributed to this report.

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