Israeli bulldozers flanked by soldiers demolished a small Bedouin village in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank on Tuesday morning, rendering around 73 Palestinians — including 41 children — homeless, according to the United Nations.
International observers visited Khirbet Humsa, close to the West Bank city of Tubas, on Wednesday, finding destroyed tents, smashed solar panels, and broken water tanks. Some of the equipment had reportedly been purchased with European funding.
Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians said it had destroyed structures that had been erected illegally on an IDF live-fire zone. Khirbet Humsa is one of 38 Bedouin communities on land the Israeli military has designated for training, the UN said.
“An enforcement activity was carried out by the Supervision Unit of the Civil Administration against 7 tents and 8 pens which were illegally constructed in a firing range located in the Jordan Valley,” the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said in a statement.
“We will note that the enforcement was carried out in accordance with the authorities and procedures, and subject to operational considerations,” COGAT said.
Rights groups, however, said that around 75 structures were demolished, including 18 tents and cabins which housed around 11 families. The demolition was the largest in over a decade, according to the UN.
B’Tselem, a human rights group that tracks Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, accused Israel of deliberately conducting the demolitions while world attention was focused on the US elections.
“The wiping off of a whole community at once is extremely rare,” said Amit Gilutz, a spokesperson for B’Tselem. “It seems like Israel was making use of the fact that everyone’s attention is currently set elsewhere to move forward with this inhumane act.”
“I have grandchildren here, six months old, who are now sleeping out in the rain without anything over their heads. Winter’s coming, there’s going to be rain and mud. It’s going to be really, really hard to rebuild,” Yasir Abu al-Kabbash, a now-homeless resident of Khirbet al-Humsa, told The Times of Israel.
The Jordan Valley is in Area C, under Israeli security and civilian control according to the 1995 Oslo Accords. According to the agreements, Israel is responsible for planning and construction in the area.
Palestinians in Area C often clash with Israeli authorities over what Israel deems to be illegal construction. Israel asserts that Palestinians violate the law and engage in construction in illegal areas, while Palestinians argue that Israel does not issue them enough permits or legalize existing villages.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned the demolitions, which he called a “methodical destruction of the possibility of a Palestinian state.”
Israel declared the area to be a live-fire zone in 1972, according to court filings. Humsa’s Bedouin residents appealed to the Israeli High Court to cancel their campsite’s impending demolition. In 2019, the court rejected the petition and ruled the herders had no right to stay in the area.
While Israeli military law forbids the expulsion of permanent residents from a firing zone, the High Court ruled that Khirbet Humsa’s residents did not meet that standard.
“The petitioners have no recognized property rights in these areas. These are intruders who use these areas for grazing,” the High Court said.
In their decision, the High Court said that the evacuation would also serve the personal safety of the residents, due to the army’s presence in the area. Moreover, “the construction in the area has not been authorized and is illegal,” the court ruled.
Abu al-Kabbash disagreed, saying that his family’s presence in the area preceded the firing zone. He accused the state of designating the land as a firing zone for the purpose of expelling Palestinians.
“They call this a military zone. But they’re just doing it to expel us from here. First they get rid of us, and then the settlers will come and it will become agricultural land again,” Abu al-Kabbash said.
Israeli authorities have argued in court cases contesting firing zones that military training areas are designated with an eye to professional considerations, such as a locale’s unique topographic features.
Rights groups, however, allege that in some cases, areas have been declared firing zones as a means to cement Israeli control.
According to a document discussed by the High Court in early August, future prime minister Ariel Sharon explicitly told a 1981 committee meeting on West Bank settlement that the military would declare some areas to be training zones so as to check “the spread of Arab hill-villagers.”
“There are places which we have an interest in declaring to be live-fire zones, so as to ensure that they remain in our hands,” Sharon, who was then settlement minister, told the committee.
According to B’Tselem, 798 Palestinians in the West Bank have been left homeless by Israeli demolitions so far this year, the highest number since the rights group began collecting data in 2016.
After the bulldozers left, Abu al-Kabbash said, the entire community returned back to the ruins of their campsite to gather what could be salvaged from the demolition.
“We’re going to start over. We cannot leave this place — I was raised here, and my children were raised here, and now my grandchildren. This is my home, and there’s nowhere else for me to go,” Abu al-Kabbash said.
AFP contributed to this report.