Israel on Saturday indefinitely pushed off the demolition of a Bedouin village in the West Bank whose slated razing has brought international condemnation in recent months.
Sources in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the delay was to allow more time for talks with residents of Khan al-Ahmar and to consider proposals regarding the village’s fate.
“The intention is to try and exhaust the negotiations and the proposals received from various parties, including in recent days,” the sources said.
No date was given on when a decision would be made whether to move ahead with the demolition.
The announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office was met with a swift rebuke by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
“The decision to delay the clearance of Khan al-Ahmar was made in complete opposition to the stance of the defense minister and despite his firm objection,” his office said in a statement.
Reacting to the news, a Palestinian Authority official said protests at the village would continue until its planned demolition is scrapped altogether.
“Our demand is that Israeli authorities cancel the decision to demolish Khan al-Ahmar and allow its residents to remain here. We will be continuing our struggle and sit-in until our demand is achieved,” Walid Assaf, head of the PA’s Commission Against the Wall and Settlements, told The Times of Israel.
“We would consider any decision to not demolish the village as positive,” he added.
The right-wing Israeli NGO Regavim, which had sued to force the state to demolish the hamlet, accused Netanyahu of caving to the PA and called on him to “come to his senses soon.”
The bulldozing of Khan al-Ahmar appeared imminent earlier this week, as detectives called up activists to warn them against carrying out “illegal” activities during the razing of the Palestinian hamlet in the central West Bank.
Late last month, the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that regulates construction in the parts of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel — warned residents that if they did not pack up their things and demolish all structures by October 1, Israeli authorities would do so for them.
More than two weeks have passed since then and Khan al-Ahmar still stands, but residents, as well as a number of defense officials, had told The Times of Israel that they expected the razing to take place this past week.
In May, the High Court of Justice allowed the state to move forward with its plans to demolish Khan al-Ahmar, which was established illegally without building permits.
Attorneys representing the villagers filed several appeals, attempting to cancel or at least delay the razing. Last month, the High Court rejected a final appeal from Khan al-Ahmar residents, and authorities have since been preparing to flatten the hamlet and transfer the residents several miles east near the Palestinian town of Abu Dis, in a move that has drawn international condemnation of Israel.
The relocation site is hooked up to water, electricity and sewage and has a school to replace the current Italian-funded institution, which is made of falafel oil and mud-caked tires and has become a symbol for the village.
But residents of Khan al-Ahmar — 180 in number, according to the United Nations — have vehemently opposed moving there, saying that they were never consulted, the location is unsuitable for their rural way of life and is next to a garbage dump, and residents of Abu Dis have warned them to stay away.
They have similarly been uninterested in a second relocation site proposed to them by the state two months ago adjacent to the nearby settlement of Mitzpe Jericho as well as to a sewage treatment facility.
The villagers have argued that they submitted a building plan outline to the Civil Administration, but that it was never considered by the Defense Ministry body nor the High Court before it green-lighted Khan al-Ahmar’s razing.
Much of the international community has urged Israel to refrain from evicting the residents of Khan al-Ahmar, arguing that the forced transfer of populations in disputed territory violates international law.
The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor issued a statement on Wednesday in which she warned Israel that its planned demolition of the village may constitute a war crime.
Fatou Bensouda said in the statement that she has been “following with concern the planned eviction” of residents of Khan al-Ahmar.
“Evacuation by force now appears imminent, and with it the prospects for further escalation and violence,” the prosecutor’s statement read. “It bears recalling, as a general matter, that extensive destruction of property without military necessity and population transfers in an occupied territory constitute war crimes under the Rome Statute.”
Israel argues that the village was built illegally and its homes are dangerously close to a highway, and emphasizes that the demolition has been approved by the country’s independent courts.
Israel also responded to Bensouda’s statement by criticizing her for failing to mention in her statement that, a day prior, a rocket hit and severely damaged a house in Beersheba, in which a woman and her children were miraculously unharmed.
“It is alarming that the Office of the Prosecutor repeatedly proclaims its commitment to independence and impartiality, but ignores missile fire directed at Israeli civilians, that nearly killed a mother and her three young children, only hours before the publication of its statement,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel this week.
“Unfortunately, these and other actions by the Office of the Prosecutor raise serious questions whether ‘independence and impartiality’ are merely slogans to which lip service is paid, rather than principles to which the prosecutor is genuinely committed,” the official added.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.