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Palestinian hamlet in Jordan Valley demolished for second time in 3 months

Residents and Palestinian Authority denounce IDF actions in Khirbet Humsa, which lies in an area Israel has declared a firing zone; demolitions this week have left 74 homeless

In this Feb. 3, 2021, file, photo, Palestinian Bedouin watch Israeli troops demolish tents and other structures of the Khirbet Humsu hamlet in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
In this Feb. 3, 2021, file, photo, Palestinian Bedouin watch Israeli troops demolish tents and other structures of the Khirbet Humsu hamlet in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Israeli bulldozers flanked by IDF soldiers demolished a small Bedouin village in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank on Wednesday night for the second time since November, rendering around 74 Palestinians — including 41 children — homeless, according to the left-wing rights group B’Tselem.

International observers visited Khirbet Humsa, close to the West Bank city of Tubas, on Thursday, finding destroyed tents, smashed solar panels and broken water tanks. Some of the equipment had reportedly been purchased with European funding.

The same village was demolished for the first time on November 3. The demolition was remarkable for its scale — some observers called it the largest single demolition of illegal Palestinian construction in a decade — and sparked international criticism.

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), 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, according to the UN.

File: Palestinian Bedouins rebuild a fence for an animal pen after Israeli troops demolished tents and other structures of the Khirbet Humsu hamlet in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, Feb. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

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 judges said that the evacuation would also serve the personal safety of the residents, due to the military’s presence in the area. Moreover, “the construction in the area has not been authorized and is illegal,” the court ruled.

Khirbet Humsa residents rejected the court’s decision, telling The Times of Israel that they have lived in the area for their entire lives.

“Why should we leave? This area is our home, and we’re comfortable here,” resident Leila Abu al-Kabbash told The Times of Israel during a visit to the site in November.

Palestinian bedouins gather their belongings after Israeli soldiers demolished their tents in an area east of the village of Tubas, in the West Bank, on November 3, 2020. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

According to COGAT, the residents had been offered the opportunity to move to a new settlement outside of the firing zone over the past week, but had refused.

“The residents refused to independently move the tent areas that had been set up illegally and without the required permits and approvals,” COGAT said in a statement.

COGAT said that some residents had agreed to leave of their own free will, before changing their minds, leading to the confiscation of some of their tents.

“The area’s residents agreed to independently evacuate the area with the assistance of the Supervision Unit. Nevertheless, after the residents dismantled most of the tents and loaded them onto the moving trucks, the residents reversed their decision and refused to evacuate the area,” COGAT said.

Residents, however, dispute that they had ever agreed to leave.

“COGAT is a liar. They’ll say whatever it takes to get us to leave and to put an Israeli settlement in our place,” Yasir Abu al-Kabbash, a resident of Humsa al-Fouqa, told The Times of Israel in a phone call on Thursday.

Abu al-Kabbash said that his family has been sleeping outside without any protection since the tents were confiscated, for the second time since November.

“There’s mud and rain and winter. The situation’s terrible. We’re staying here, because this is our home, even if it means we have to sleep outside in the rain,” said Abu al-Kabbash.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the move, with PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Fatah deputy chief Mohammad Al-Aloul visiting the hamlet on Thursday. Shtayyeh pledged “every form of moral and material support” to ensure that the Palestinian residents could stay.

“This is the ugliest form of occupation…to replace our people with settlers and colonists, who will defile this pure land,” Shtayyeh said while visiting the site.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh addresses PA cabinet ministers on January 25, 2021 (WAFA)

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.

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.

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 settlements minister, told the committee.

According to Dror Etkes, who directs the left-wing Kerem Navot nonprofit, firing zones are occasionally redrawn to fit the needs of Jewish settlements. He pointed out the town of Hemdat, which lies in a small pocket of legal land deep in the firing zone, has seen the training grounds redrawn to so as to allow the town to spread further.

Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in Humsa al-Fouqa on Thursday, February 4, 2021 (Credit: WAFA/Suleiman Abu Srur)

“You have [Jewish] settler outposts that are deep in firing zones and no one touches them. There are even cases, such as in Mitzpeh Kramim, where the army has stated it’s willing to change the dimensions of the firing zone to fit the settlement,” Etkes charged in a phone call.

For their part, Khirbet Humsa residents are committed to remaining where they are and rebuilding.

“We’re not leaving. Where would we go? There’s nowhere else. As we speak, we’re putting up tents again,” said Yasir Abu Al-Kabbash.

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