Government asks High Court not to force immediate demolition of Khan al-Ahmar

Rebuffing ultranationalist ministers’ demands, state says razing Palestinian village would have security, diplomatic consequences that trump court’s attempt to impose a timeline

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank, February 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank, February 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government has asked the High Court of Justice to dismiss petitions demanding the state immediately demolish the illegal Bedouin encampment of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank, insisting that it will raze the village, but that only the government itself can determine the timing.

Having repeatedly vowed to evacuate the Palestinian village and move its residents to a different site, government ministers on Monday refused to provide any details as to when Khan al-Ahmar would be demolished.

The government did state that it still seeks to evacuate the ramshackle Palestinian village east of Jerusalem in the West Bank, but argued that such action would have diplomatic and security consequences and, as such, there was no place for court intervention, rebuffing ultra-nationalist ministers who have sought to see the desert hamlet razed.

The state filed its response a day later than the deadline it had received, due to intense opposition to the stance by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, as well as others on the far-right.

Both ministers have in the past repeatedly called for the immediate demolition of Khan al-Ahmar and demanded to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and others on the issue.

Their opposition did not have much impact, however, with the state asking for the petitions to be dismissed, instead of providing the court with a timeline for the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar.

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Neither Smotrich nor Ben Gvir responded to requests for comment as to how the government would now proceed.

Khan al-Ahmar has been a source of angry criticism for the Israeli right and the settlement movement for years. Critics fulminated against the demolition of illegal Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank, while claiming insufficient enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction.

In 2018, the High Court ruled that there was nothing to prevent the government from enforcing demolition orders issued by the Civil Administration of the Defense Ministry in 2009 against structures in Khan al-Ahmar, a tiny village home to fewer than 200 residents thrust into the international spotlight by the battle over its fate.

Demonstrators wave Palestinian flags as they protest against the upcoming demolition of the West Bank Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar on July 4, 2018. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

The state has however requested numerous delays to implement the orders, mainly due to international pressure against such a move.

In February, the court sharply rebuked the government for its foot dragging on the issue and failing to provide a substantive answer or solution for so long.

In its response to the High Court on Monday, the government insisted its position was that Khan al-Ahmar should indeed be evacuated and demolished, and that the question is not if to do so, but when and how.

Supreme Court Justice Noam Sohlberg who is presiding over the petitions against the state regarding the illegal Palestinian encampment of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank, in a Supreme Court hearing, March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It argued however that only the government was entitled to decide on the matter.

“The petitioners have not proven any cause which would justify court intervention in the broad discretion the political echelon has regarding the manner and timing of the implementation of the demolition orders in the [Khan al-Ahmar] compound,” wrote the state attorneys in their response to the petitions seeking a final court order instructing the state to demolish the encampment.

“The position of the political class… is that the question of timing and method of implementation the [demolition] orders are influenced by wide and varied political and security considerations. As such, and bearing in mind the classified information on which these considerations are based, the position of the political echelon is that the decision regarding the question should be left in their hands,” the government argued.

View of the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank on March 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The state continued, saying the timing of the demolition “is a complex and sensitive question, the consequences of which exceed mere construction and planning laws,” and added that the evacuation of the encampment could have consequences “for Israel’s foreign relations and security.”

The right-wing Regavim organization which is one of the petitioners demanding Khan al-Ahmar be immediately denounced the government’s position, saying “the Israeli government has created the silver platter on which we will be handing the Palestinian Authority a state in the heartland of Israel: the illegal outpost known as Khan al Ahmar.”

Khan al-Ahmar is located just east of Jerusalem, near the large settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.

Religious Zionism leader MK Bezalel Smotrich standing above the Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin encampment in the West Bank on March 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The state says the hamlet’s structures, mostly makeshift shacks and tents, were built without permits and pose a threat to the village’s residents because of their proximity to a highway.

Khan al-Ahmar’s Palestinian residents, members of the Jahalin tribe, say they arrived in the area in the 1950s after already being displaced during the 1948 War of Independence.

The state has prepared a site for the relocation of the encampment some 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of the current site next to the Palestinian town of Abu Dis, just outside Jerusalem, which includes various rudimentary structures and infrastructure for a sewage system as well as the supply of water and electricity.

But the UN, EU, and other international bodies have warned that forcibly moving Khan al-Ahmar’s residents would violate international law and might even constitute a war crime, as displacement of a population under occupation is forbidden under international law.

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