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Israeli Settlements and Destruction of Palestinian Houses

Submitted by Robin Messing on Mon, 09/09/2013 - 5:57am

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and in the 62% of the West Bank under total Israeli control known as Area C.  This article by HRW is long and somewhat repetitive, but it is a must read for anyone trying to understand how Israeli actions are jeopardizing the peace process.  Here are a few key passages to give you a flavor or the article, but you really should read it yourself.

Human Rights Watch documented demolitions on August 19 in East Jerusalem that displaced 39 people, including 18 children. Israeli human rights groups and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documented additional demolitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank on August 20 and 21 that destroyed the homes of 40 people, including 20 children.
“When Israeli forces routinely and repeatedly demolish homes in occupied territory without showing that it’s necessary for military operations, it appears that the only purpose is to drive families off their land, which is a war crime,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The politics of peace talks do not make it any less unlawful for Israel to demolish Palestinians’ homes without a valid military reason.”
In one case, Israeli forces destroyed the tent in which a family of seven people was sheltering after the military demolished their home twice, OCHA reported. . . .
Israeli home demolitions have displaced 3,799 Palestinians since the beginning of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s term on March 31, 2009, according to OCHA reports. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, from April 1, 2009, to the March 31, 2013, construction started on 4,590 housing units in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem.

Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of committing war crimes.  I am not so sure.  Israeli supporters can provide legal justification for Israeli actions--some even denying that what is occurring in the West Bank should be called an "occupation".  In this 2011 article, FrontPage author David Meir-Levi argues that Israel has every right to demolish Arab houses that were built without the proper permits.  Countries all over the world, he states, demolish houses without permits and destroy property under eminent domain.  In light of this, Meir-Levi claims that singling out Israel is unfair. 
NGOs such as Human Rights Watch claim that Arabs build houses without permits because Israel makes it exceedingly difficult for them to get permits.

Israeli officials justify demolitions of Palestinian structures on the grounds that they were built “illegally” without building permits in areas not zoned for residential construction. However Israeli authorities have zoned land in ways that unlawfully discriminates against Palestinians. Israeli authorities have zoned 13 percent of East Jerusalem for Palestinian construction, but expropriated 35 percent of the area for settlement construction. Israeli authorities in practice permit Palestinian construction in only one percent of the other area of the West Bank, “Area C,” that is under exclusive Israeli control. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group, Israeli authorities have allocated 63 percent of Area C to settlements. . . .
The Israeli military in practice refuses to grant building permits to Palestinians in 99 percent of Area C, and has granted settlements jurisdiction over 63 percent of Area C, according to the Israeli rights groups Bimkom and B’Tselem. . . .
Israeli building permits are often difficult or impossible for Palestinians to obtain in East Jerusalem, where Israeli authorities have expropriated 35 percent of the land for settlement construction, designated 22 percent for green areas and infrastructure, but zoned only 13 percent for Palestinian construction, according to official plans obtained by Israeli rights groups and the United Nations (UN). Much of the area designated for Palestinian construction is already heavily built-up, according to Israeli rights groups and the UN.

Meir-Levi claims that NGOs are flat out wrong when they claim that Israel discriminates against Palestinians who try to obtain permits.  He cites Justus Reid Weiner's book Illegal Construction In Jerusalem as evidence that the Palestinians have no problems obtaining permits.  The following are amongst the key points provided in a summary of the book:

  • This frantic pace of illegal construction continues despite the fact that the city has authorized more than 36,000 permits for new housing units in the Arab sector, more than enough to meet the needs of Arab residents through legal construction until 2020.
  • Arab residents who wish to build legally may consult urban plans translated into Arabic for their convenience and receive individual assistance from Arabic-speaking city employees.
  • Both Arabs and Jews typically wait 4-6 weeks for permit approval, enjoy a similar rate of application approvals, and pay an identical fee ($3,600) for water and sewage hook-ups on the same size living unit.

I admit that I haven't read this book yet, so I'm not even going to try to weigh the merits of its claims against those made by Human Rights Watch.  I will note however, that based on the little information I have seen so far, the claims are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  HRW claims that Israel only grants permits to Palestinians on 13 percent of the land in East Jerusalem.  It could be that within that 13 percent of East Jerusalem, Palestinians are given permits at the same approval rates that Jews are given in the 35 percent of Jerusalem that is designated for construction by Jewish settlers.
It is also possible that discrimination preventing Palestinians from obtaining permits has increased since Justus Weiner wrote his book in 2003.  Meir-Levi based much of his 2011 article on Justus Weiner's book.  It is possible that the situation has gotten worse for Palestinians since then.  I am not claiming it has gotten worse, but it is something to consider when trying to reconcile these conflicting accounts.
Meir-Levi's article does border on hysteria when he claims that Palestinian construction is part of a terror campaign against the Jews:

The epidemic proliferation of illegal Arab construction noted above is part of a strategy initiated by Arafat and funded by Arab countries.  This strategy, the “building intifada,” is essentially a land-grab assault on Israeli territory orchestrated by the PA.  Thousands of Arab homes built illegally create faits accomplis regarding where Israeli sovereignty ends.  This is a part of the Arab terror war against Israel.  Israel’s removal of illegal buildings constructed without permit or authorization on Israeli territory is a defensive measure against this sophisticated terrorist attack on its sovereignty.

I'm not sure how, exactly, these houses are part of a terror campaign against Israel.  Maybe Meir-Levi is afraid that a loose shingle could blow off a Palestinian-constructed roof and conk an Israeli Jew in the head.
Of course, the irony of Meir-Levi complaining about Arabs putting facts-on-the-ground to blur the line where Israeli sovereignty ends should be obvious to anyone with even a little familiarity with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  After all, what have the Israelis been doing since 1974 when settlers started moving into the West Bank?  And why is construction considered part of a terror war against Israel when it is done by Arabs, but considered perfectly fine when done by Jews in the West Bank? 
I am not writing this post to definitively state whether the occupation in the West Bank is legal or not.  Nor will I, at this point, take a stand on the legality of Israel's destruction of Arab housing.  While these issues are important, it is too easy to miss the most important points while getting bogged down in arguing legal technicalities.  Here is what is important:

  1. Tearing down a house and kicking families out into the streets is an inherently immoral activity.  It should only be done under the most compelling of circumstances. 
  2. Just because it is legal, doesn't make it moral.  Israel's mass destruction of Arab homes is as immoral as Washington D.C. allowing property hustlers to kick a 76-year old former marine who is struggling with dementia out of his home because he didn't pay a $134 tax lien.
  3. Even if everything Israel is doing is technically legal, its eviction of Arabs from their homes in conjunction with their settlement expansion in defiance of world opinion makes it appear like Israel is hell-bent on driving as many Arabs out of major portions of the West Bank as possible.  And that appearance gives Palestinians credibility when they argue that the Israelis are not serious about peace.  Rightly or not, that appearance will be used by the Palestinians to pin the blame on the Israelis in the highly likely aftermath of the Peace Talks breaking down without a resolution of the conflict.  Rightly or not, that appearance will strengthen the claim by Palestinians that the Israelis are merely using the peace talks to buy time to build more settlements, to establish more facts on the ground, to kill the possibility of ever reaching peace through a two-state solution, and to implement Naftali Bennet's Jewish Home Party's plan to annex Area C.  And rightly or not, that appearance will be used to convince more nations and individuals to sanction Israel through economic and cultural boycotts.
  4. Even if everything Israel is doing is technically legal, that doesn't necessarily mean it is smart.  Israel's practice of mass eviction and settlement expansion will continue to fuel Palestinian unrest as well as hostility from around the world.  This makes as much sense as Iowa's legal decision to grant gun permits to the legally blind.  They are equally likely to end with good results.

An Israeli halt to Palestinian home demolition and to settlement expansion would place the onus on the Palestinians to prove that they are serious about reaching a peace deal with Israel.  An Israeli halt will signal respect to the Palestinians and world opinion.  An Israeli halt would signal respect to President Obama and the United States.  Regardless of the legal merits that may or may not justify Israeli actions, an Israeli halt would be both wise and just.