Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that “it would certainly help” if the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar is demolished before the April elections, appearing to suggest the move would improve his standing with certain voters.
Toward the end of a meeting with a group of journalists from the national religious camp, Netanyahu was pressed as to why the government was not moving forward with the razing of the central West Bank Palestinian hamlet after the High Court of Justice green-lit the measure in May of last year.
“I said that Khan al-Ahmar would be evacuated, so it will be evacuated,” the prime minister responded, in a quote first reported by the Kan public broadcaster and confirmed to The Times of Israel by two individuals present at the meeting.
In October, Netanyahu’s office announced that the planned evacuation would be delayed indefinitely amid new talks between the government and the ramshackle village’s residents. The decision to delay came after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned ministers that a forced evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar could compromise the Israeli position vis-à-vis Palestinian claims against the Jewish state at the International Criminal Court.
The delay drew angry responses from both Likud and Jewish Home lawmakers, who have demanded the clearing of the hamlet, which would make way for the expansion of the neighboring Kfar Adumim settlement outside of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu on Wednesday said the demolition was being held up not by international pressure but rather by issues “related to a certain system upon which I prefer not elaborate because I think I will soon overcome it.”
But he added that he hoped “the evacuation will happen before the elections. It would certainly help.”
Responding to Netanyahu’s comments on Tuesday, two security cabinet ministers claimed in a joint statement to The Times of Israel that the prime minister was “scheduling” the demolition to take place shortly before the elections “in order to garner political capital on the right.”
“It could have been done in December or January or now,” the ministers said on condition of anonymity, speculating that Mandelblit could block a demolition directive from the premier if it is timed for political gain.
The razing of Khan al-Ahmar, which was built without the necessary permits, has been a key concern for many settler voters as well as others in the broader Israeli right, who have criticized the government for carrying out demolitions at the Netiv Ha’avot and Amona outposts while allowing the Palestinian hamlet to remain standing.
But contrary to the cases of the Israeli outposts, which were ruled to have been built on private Palestinian land, Khan al-Ahmar was established on land belonging to the neighboring Palestinian village of Anata, whose residents allowed the Bedouin to reside there, despite the lack of permits.
The villagers — who have lived at the site since the 1950s (then controlled by Jordan) after the state evicted them from their Negev homes — argue that they had little alternative but to build without Israeli construction permits, as such permits are almost never issued to Palestinians for building in parts of the West Bank where Israel exerts full control over civilian affairs — such as the site where Khan al-Ahmar lies.
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.
Khan al-Ahmar villagers have said government officials have yet to propose an alternative plan on which they might negotiate. In November then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman’s office said the state would not negotiate with the hamlet’s attorney because he was salaried by the Palestinian Authority. The lawyer, Tawfiq Jabareen, has since resigned from his post, but no progress has been made in talks.
In an effort to salvage their village, residents have submitted a master plan to the Civil Administration and are demanding that it be reviewed prior to the demolition. However, an official in the Defense Ministry body that authorizes West Bank construction said that the ruling from the High Court was the final say on the matter.
Netanyahu and other ministers have asserted both before and after the October delay that the demolition is not a matter of if, but when.
Once the hamlet is demolished, residents are to be transferred several miles east near the Palestinian town of Abu Dis. The relocation site was hooked up to water, electricity and sewage and has a school to replace the current Italian-funded institution, which was constructed from mud-caked tires and has become a symbol for the village.
But residents 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. They also say residents of Abu Dis have warned them to stay away.
They have similarly objected to a second relocation site proposed to them by the state two months ago, adjacent to the nearby settlement of Mitzpe Jericho as well as a sewage treatment facility.