The security cabinet on Sunday approved a delay of the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar by “several weeks” to provide time for negotiations for an agreed-upon evacuation of the residents of the central West Bank Bedouin hamlet.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the coalition’s Jewish Home party were the lone votes against the proposal submitted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bennett and Netanyahu had reportedly met prior to the meeting to discuss the matter.
Facing a fierce backlash from his coalition’s right flank, Netanyahu vowed earlier in the day that the Bedouin hamlet east of Jerusalem “will be evacuated.”
The promise came hours after Netanyahu’s office announced the planned evacuation would be delayed indefinitely amid new talks between the government and the ramshackle village’s residents. The delay drew angry responses from Jewish Home party lawmakers, who called the decision “infuriating and outrageous.”
In a statement to the press alongside US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is visiting Israel, Netanyahu said, “Khan al-Ahmar will be evacuated. That’s the decision of the court, that’s our policy, and it will be carried out. I have no intention of delaying indefinitely, unlike what the press is reporting, but for a limited and short period.”
The High Court of Justice did not order the state to carry out the evacuation, as some right-wing leaders have claimed. Rather, it ruled last month only that the state was legally permitted to do so, but urged a new effort to negotiate a better outcome for the residents.
“The time frame for the attempt to ensure an evacuation with [the residents’] agreement will be decided by the security cabinet, which I am convening today,” Netanyahu said. “It will be short, and I believe it will be with [the residents’] agreement.”
The prime minister’s statement clarified the announcement by his office late Saturday, which said the delay was meant “to allow for efforts to see the negotiations through and [examine] proposals received from various parties, including in recent days.”
The key proposal under consideration was reportedly a suggestion to move the village away from the Route 1 highway by some 500-1,000 meters northwestward, away from the dangerous road and lands claimed by the nearby settlement of Kfar Adumim and onto plots of land owned by the Palestinian village of Anata. Israeli authorities have long argued that the village’s proximity to the highway was a safety threat both to the highway and to the villagers.
The idea of moving the hamlet several hundred meters away, including to the Anata-owned plots, was first raised by the residents of Khan al-Ahmar themselves some three years ago, then again six months ago. Each time, Israeli officials ignored the suggestion.
A new willingness to consider the idea may stem from mounting diplomatic pressure from European and other foreign governments, as well as a veiled warning last week from International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who said she was paying close attention to the issue and that transferring protected populations in an occupied area amounted to a war crime.
The residents’ offer is a bid to stave off the planned evacuation to more distant plots of land in the Palestinian town of Abu Dis, on the eastern edge of Jerusalem, where the Bedouin say they are unwanted by the local population, and where they insist they will not be able to graze their flocks of goats and sheep.
Jewish Home leaders railed at the delay since it was first announced on Saturday night. The right-wing party slammed the decision as discriminatory law enforcement, noting that parts of Israeli settlements illegally constructed on private Palestinian lands have been forcibly evacuated by the government in recent years — though Khan al-Ahmar is not situated on privately owned land, but on state-controlled land.
“Khan al-Ahmar will be evacuated,” Jewish Home head Bennett vowed Sunday. “We’re talking about illegal building whose demolition was approved by the High Court. In a country of laws, the law is enforced even if the international community opposes and threatens. The Jewish Home party will ensure that that’s exactly what will happen.”
“It’s unacceptable that enforcement [of building laws] only takes place against Jewish towns,” Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, a resident of Kfar Adumim, said Sunday. “It’s a serious blow to the sovereignty and governance of Israel’s right-wing government. I call on the prime minister to reverse this decision and evacuate the Khan al-Ahmar outpost this very week.”
The decision was welcomed by a group called “Friends of the Jahalin,” made up of activists and Israeli settlers who are neighbors of the Bedouin hamlet. “We welcome the prime minister’s decision and hope that, for the sake of the State of Israel and Israeli society, a fair and humane solution will be found, something the government knows how to do when it wants to,” it said.
Lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party were silent on the decision Sunday.