This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera – May 3, 2014 [Photo by AFP/Getty Images]
By Nora Lester Murad
At first, the visit by the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) to Jabal al-Baba on April 9 seemed routine. A Bedouin community in the E1 area, Jabal al-Baba has had 18 demolition orders pending since February. Residents were not surprised, then, when officials delivered stop-work orders on three more insulated residential structures. Under Israeli law, these structures can be demolished – but only after a 21-day delay, during which residents have the right to appeal to the Israeli courts.
But the Israeli authorities didn’t wait for the legal process to run its course; they returned to Jabal al-Baba and retrieved the stop-work orders they had distributed just hours before.
“We were happy,” said Suleiman Kayyed Jahalin, a member of the community. “We thought the Israelis had changed their minds and weren’t going to demolish our homes after all. We were wrong.”
A representative of an international NGO that delivers aid to the community described how the Israeli Civil Administration returned several hours later with soldiers and dismantled the three homes. Once dismantled, the ICA didn’t have to wait for their demolition orders to survive a legal challenge; they simply confiscated the parts of the houses under an Israeli law that entitles them to confiscate building materials, equipment or cars without any advance notice.
Although Israel dismantled and confiscated the homes rather than demolishing them, the result is the same: Human beings that lived in shelters are now homeless. A total of 111 additional members of the Ras al-Baba community live under impending threat of having their homes demolished. In fact, the United Nations reports that most of the 2,800 Bedouins residing in the E1 area have demolition orders against their homes (plus two schools). These Palestinian communities are considered among those most at risk of forced displacement.
The three residential structures were constructed in February with funding from the European Commission Humanitarian and Civil Protection Department (ECHO) and the French consulate and were valued at approximately 2,000 euros ($2,770). Representatives from the donor agencies and other diplomatic staff toured the site on April 11, but the Office of the EU Representative was only willing to say, “The EU has well-known concerns about demolitions, which it has expressed on many occasions in line with our overall Area C policy. The EU will raise this issue with the relevant Israeli authorities.”
Palestinian human rights advocates are disappointed that European donors have failed to act boldly to hold Israel accountable. It seems that many humanitarian actors have bought into the notion that demolition of donor-funded projects is “sensitive” and should not be addressed head-on.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has tracked Israeli demolition of donor-funded projects since 2011. They report that 317 donor-funded projects were demolished between January 1, 2011 and the end of 2013.
In another recent incident, a truck with donations from the Italian government arrived at the school in the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar on February 27. According to the principal: “A drone sailed around taking photographs and 20 minutes later, the Israeli Civil Administration showed up with three carloads of police and confiscated all our new playground equipment and construction materials.” They even took the truck in which the aid was delivered.
Some human rights advocates describe the confiscation of playground equipment as “silly” while others call it “evil”, but one thing is certain: Such confiscations are illegal. Diakonia, a Swedish faith-based development organisation that promotes respect for international humanitarian law, refers to the Fourth Geneva Convention when it concludes that international humanitarian law “…specifically protects against the requisition of property of relief organisations and prohibits the diversion of relief consignments from the purpose for which they are intended, except in cases of urgent necessity…”
The Italian consulate did not respond to a request for a statement.
What’s at stake
The stakes are financial, legal and moral. The confiscation and demolition of humanitarian aid may result in forcible transfer, which may be considered a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva convention.
International and Israeli NGOs have documented Israeli tactics, which include denial of building permits to structures where no master plan exists, refusal to respond to community-supported master plans submitted for approval, stop-work orders for construction lacking building permits, seizure or confiscation of equipment or materials, and demolition of structures. Palestinians are often charged a fee for the demolition of their home or offered the option to self-demolish in order to reduce their fines. Seizure, confiscation and demolition lead to displacement of Palestinians, especially in Area C, and facilitate Israel’s illegal settlement activities.
Thousands of Palestinians are effected by Israeli confiscations and the demolition of property, resulting in growing humanitarian concerns. However, with rare exceptions, most international donors are subdued in their criticism of Israeli demolitions in general and do not speak out publicly about the demolition of taxpayer-funded projects. To be fair, they are stuck between conflicting interests. On the one hand, international donors are legally-mandated by international humanitarian law to address the humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Area C, whether or not Israel approves. To ensure the sustainability of their humanitarian projects, they would have to obtain permits from Israel.
However, the Israeli planning and permit regime in Area C is illegal and it may also be illegal for donors to grant it validity by seeking Israeli permits. Moreover, donors who build without Israeli permits and see their funded projects demolished may expose themselves to criticism for spending taxpayers’ money irresponsibly.
Increasingly, local and international aid critics are saying that by failing to hold Israel accountable, donors alleviate pressure on Israel to agree to a sustainable and just peace and are therefore complicit in the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights. They also note the spike in demolitions of Palestinian property that coincided with the renewal of US-backed peace talks. Diplomats and officials are also starting to speak out, but so far, only off the record.
Nora Lester Murad is a writer of fiction and commentary living in Jerusalem. Her blog, “The View From My Window in Palestine” is at www.noralestermurad.com.