Israel Pulse

Why demolishing West Bank village will cost Israel dearly

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Article Summary
Europe is warning Israel that demolishing Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin-Palestinian village, will constitute a war crime and lead to demands for financial compensation for facilities there provided by its members.

“The demolition of Khan al-Ahmar and the forcible transfer of its residents would constitute a grave breach of international humanitarian law,” the European Parliament warned Israel in a harshly worded resolution on Sept. 12. The resolution further stated that razing the tiny West Bank Bedouin village would constitute a war crime under the Geneva Conventions given its location in occupied territory, adding that the European Union would demand compensation from Israel for the demolition of village facilities donated in part by its member states.

A day earlier, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had issued a joint statement on behalf of the bloc’s five biggest members — France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom — calling on Israel to reverse its decision to demolish the village.

EU representatives have for years been following the legal campaign that has pitted Khan al-Ahmar’s Bedouin residents against neighboring Israeli settlers and the state. The settlers, along the Regavim, a pro-settler organization, have petitioned the High Court, demanding that the state carry out the demolition order issued by military authorities, while village residents have petitioned the bench to prevent the razing of their village and the eviction of its inhabitants.

Regavim, on its Hebrew-language website, describes itself as “a public movement aiming to influence all systems of governance in Israel … protect the lands of the Jewish people … and prevent the takeover of these resources by foreign elements.” Indeed, following a campaign it launched in 2009, the organization influenced the “systems of governance” and “free lands” supposedly taken over by “foreign elements.” On Sept. 5, the Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch effort to appeal the demolition, giving authorities the go-ahead to raze Khan al-Ahmar.

Following the ruling, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted, “I congratulate the judges of the High Court of Justice for a courageous and obvious decision – in the face of a concerted hypocritical assault by [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas, the left and the European countries.” He added, “[The ruling proves that] no one is above the law. No one will prevent us from exercising our sovereignty and our responsibility as a state.”

To hear Liberman tell it, one would think that Abbas, Israel’s liberal left and the European Union had conspired in a hostile takeover of state lands. Liberman ignores that the forcible eviction of the Khan al-Ahmar villagers will deal the State of Israel an additional blow following the violent events of this past spring and summer on the Gaza border, in which more than 170 Palestinians were killed in confrontations with Israeli troops.

The international spotlight on the fate of the village will likely generate European-wide coverage of its destruction. Residents and human rights advocates have made clear that they intend to resist the eviction and portray Israel as a violator of the rights of minorities under its protection. This course of action was also clear to the Supreme Court, as reflected in Justice Yitzhak Amit’s aside to the ruling: “There is tangible concern about mass disruptions of public order and violence when the demolition orders are carried out. … We can only hope that the orders are implemented peacefully, without physical resistance, to enable an orderly removal of the content of each building.”

The date of the eviction operation is unknown, but there is no doubt that photos of Israeli Border Police dragging women, children and men from their homes will provide effective ammunition for Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) activists in buttressing their claims against Israel.

Israel already faces a complex challenge as it seeks to stop a wave of troubling boycotts by artists, performers, intellectuals and prominent academics. This summer, leading international artists canceled scheduled performances in Israel under intense pressure from the BDS movement. They included the singer Lana Del Rey, the Canadian band Of Montreal and many other musicians, who scrapped their performances at the last minute, explaining, as though reading from a prepared list of talking points, that they could not perform in a state that violates human rights. Of Montreal protested on Facebook against Israel’s “murderous and brutal policies against the Palestinian people.”

Israel, it seems, has not yet recovered from the damage to its image that it sustained over its handling of the mass Palestinian protests along the Gaza border earlier this year. In fact, another round of bloody violence might already be prepared by Hamas. One can argue that Israel has acted and is acting this way out of security concerns and out of fear that thousands of Palestinian demonstrators dispatched by Hamas will breach the border fence and infiltrate Israel. Such is not the case with Khan al-Ahmar, a disaster waiting to happen and into which Israel is walking with its eyes wide open.

The tiny village has fewer than 200 residents. They enjoy the backing of most countries in Europe, so Israel risks a serious diplomatic crisis with the continent if it proceeds with the demolition. A compromise would be preferable to the potential international damage of blindly pursuing the stubborn course charted by Regavim.

Deflecting BDS pressure, the European Broadcasting Union on Sept. 13 announced that the 2019 Eurovision song contest would be held in Tel Aviv next May. Its decision, conditioned on a commitment by Israel to avoid politically interfering in the event, was announced just as the EU was demanding that Israel roll back its Khan al-Ahmar demolition order.

It should come as no surprise to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defense minister and other members of his government if disturbing photos from the forcible evacuation and razing of Khan al-Ahmar result in renewed demands to move next year's song contest elsewhere. Such an outcome would be a missed opportunity to introduce some 1 billion viewers to Israel’s landscape, heritage and culture.

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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