Right-wing opposition MKs ridicule Netanyahu coalition

Government signals move away from plans for forced evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar

Smotrich, Ben Gvir slam expected decision of state to seek court dismissal of petition for demolition of West Bank hamlet, citing talks on consensual move of residents

The West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, October 21, 2018. (AP/ Majdi Mohammed)
The West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, October 21, 2018. (AP/ Majdi Mohammed)

The government was reportedly set to ask the High Court of Justice on Sunday to dismiss a standing petition seeking to force the state to evacuate Khan al-Ahmar, an illegal Bedouin encampment in the West Bank.

According to various Hebrew media reports, the government will cite ongoing talks with the residents of the hamlet on a compromise plan that would resettle them elsewhere, and also claim that a forced evacuation would have far-reaching diplomatic and security consequences.

Far-right ministers in the coalition panned the notion of dismissing the petition, with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — who holds special powers over West Bank issues — reportedly vowing to veto the move.

A standing court order to evacuate the village has been pushed off repeatedly for four years, largely owing to significant public interest from human rights activists, pro-Palestinian groups and the European Union.

In February, the court issued a sharp rebuke of the government for requesting a delay for the ninth time in executing the evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar. The government had requested a four-month postponement of a court decision dating back to 2018 in order to allow it to formulate a plan for carrying out the ruling.

In rejecting the February request, Justice Noam Sohlberg set a hearing for a demand by the right-wing Regavim organization — which filed the 2018 petition — that the court issue a final order requiring the hamlet’s immediate evacuation and demolition. He gave the government until the end of April to respond.

View of the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to Hebrew media reports, Smotrich — a longtime advocate for demolishing the hamlet — wrote a letter to Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs seeking to immediately halt the filing of the state’s response to the High Court petition.

“To my surprise, I have discovered that the response does not align with my policy and the government’s policy as I understand it,” Smotrich reportedly wrote, adding that according to coalition agreements, such responses must receive his approval.

“By virtue of my authority, I don’t approve the filing of the response,” he added, demanding an “urgent discussion” on the matter.

As part of the coalition agreements, Smotrich, who leads the Religious Zionism party, was handed broad authority over civilian issues in the West Bank, enabling him to deepen Israel’s presence in the territory, increase Israeli settlement construction and thwart Palestinian development.

The authorities transferred to Smotrich include enforcement powers over illegal construction, authority over planning and construction for settlements and land allocation matters.

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party head MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset, on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, gave his backing to Smotrich.

“I support Minister Smotrich in his demand to not approved the state’s proposed response on Khan al-Ahmar,” Ben Gvir said, noting that such moves require Smotrich’s okay.

Ben Gvir said he had conveyed a “clear message to [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu that if reports of the draft response are true, it is a shameful and grave decision.”

Right-wing opposition lawmakers also assailed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government over their purported move to have the petition struck down.

“Netanyahu and his government never had qualms about handing Arafat control of Hebron or expelling Jews from Gush Katif,” Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman said, alluding, respectively, to agreements Netanyahu signed with the late Palestinian leader in the 1990s and to the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

“But when it comes to Palestinians, everything is suddenly ‘sensitive,'” he said in a statement. “That is why, on the topic of Khan al-Ahmar, despite the fact that the High Court approved the evacuation of the illegal Palestinian outpost, Netanyahu is again showing ‘sensitivity’ and trying to authorize the Palestinian takeover of state land.”

Likud MK’s Yuli Edelstein and Danny Danon (left) visit the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman’s claims were echoed by MK Ze’ev Elkin of the National Unity party, who tweeted: “What a lame excuse for another postponement in this never-ending saga. As early as 2018, Netanyahu used the excuse of consensual evacuation and promised when he sought to postpone the evacuation that it would happen within a few weeks. Since then, it’s been almost five years.”

Sohlberg, in rejecting the government’s request to postpone the evacuation in February, accused the government of foot-dragging and of contradicting itself by saying it was committed to removing the Bedouin village but repeatedly failing to do so.

“Suffice it to say that we are not at all satisfied with the conduct of the state,” he wrote.

Solberg wrote that the state’s behavior apparently demonstrates that “the existing situation is comfortable for it: Once every few months it files a request for an extension, which the petitioner opposes and the court accedes to through gritted teeth, and the world carries on as normal; deciding not to decide.”

Khan al-Ahmar, located just east of Jerusalem not far from Ma’ale Adumim, and believed to be home to fewer than 200 residents, was approved for demolition by the High Court in 2018.

Palestinian in the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank on January 23, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

The state says the hamlet’s structures, mostly makeshift shacks and tents, were built without permits and pose a threat to 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 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 water, sewage 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 may even constitute a war crime, as displacement of a population under occupation is forbidden under international law.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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