Democrats to ask Netanyahu not to raze Palestinian villages

Ahead of J Street confab, House members craft letter saying evicting communities would abandon two countries’ shared values

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)

WASHINGTON — With J Street’s annual national conference set to take place Sunday through Tuesday, Democratic legislators are organizing a letter urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt plans for the demolition of two Palestinian villages in the West Bank.

The missive follows a November letter signed by 10 Democratic senators, including prominent figures like Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Diane Feinstein of California, that had a similar message. Four of the 10 signatories were Jewish.

The new letter is now circulating in the House of Representatives, where it is accumulating signatories.

Orchestrated by Democratic reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and John Yarmuth of Kentucky, it calls on the Israeli premier 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 a sustained international outcry.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., taps on the documents with over a million petition signatures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta).

“The forcible eviction of Palestinian communities and the expansion of settlements in areas of the West Bank, which would become part of a future Palestinian state, abandon our two countries’ shared values of justice and respect for human rights,” the legislators tell Netanyahu.

“Instead of forcibly evicting Palestinian communities,” they go on, “we encourage your government to fairly re-evaluate their requests for building rights.”

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 autherization.

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.

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 Israeli government not to demolish Sussiya.

“We strongly urge the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village,” 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 last year

Bedouin students arrive at school at Khan al-Ahmar, near the Kfar Adumim settlement in the West Bank on September 2, 2016. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

“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 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 Donald 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.

The US lawmakers plan to unveil the upcoming letter in the coming weeks.

The liberal Mideast advocacy group J Street, which welcomed the letter, said that its activists will ask other members of Congress to sign it on Tuesday, when those who participated in its annual national conference will travel to Capitol Hill and lobby legislators on their agenda.

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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