“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” (Human Rights Watch)

Spike in Destruction Raises War Crime Concerns
August 25, 2013
  • Israeli forces demolished every structure in the Bedouin community of Tel `Adasa, in East Jerusalem, on August 19, 2013.

    © 2013 Jana Boulus/Human Rights Watch
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.
Joe Stork, acting Middle East director

(Jerusalem) – Israeli forces should immediately end unlawful demolitions of Palestinian homes and other structures in Occupied Palestinian Territory. The demolitions have displaced at least 79 Palestinians since August 19, 2013. Demolitions of homes and other structures that compel Palestinians to leave their communities may amount to the forcible transfer of residents of an occupied territory, which is a war crime.

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. In another case, Israeli forces cut the road leading to the remaining home of an extended family in East Jerusalem, after demolishing their other adjoining homes in April.

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.

These latest demolitions follow a brief lull in demolitions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in July and early August. In 2013, Israel has destroyed 420 Palestinian structures, displacing 716 people, according to figures from OCHA and Israeli human rights groups.
Human Rights Watch documented demolitions on April 23 and 29 in East Jerusalem and the northern West Bank that displaced 43 people, including 29 children. In one case, Israeli forces demolished tents that humanitarian agencies had donated to a family with a four-day-old baby whose homes the army had destroyed. The baby’s grandfather, Ali Salameh al-Faqeer, told Human Rights Watch that his family had moved to the area in 1989.

The first demolition was in January [2013]… That night the Red Cross gave us new tents. We set them up the next morning, and that afternoon the [Israeli] army came and took photos. The following morning, they demolished them. We rebuilt, and a week later they took the tents away. We moved [to a site 150 meters away], and they came again, so we moved again. The last time there was no warning.

From April 23 to 30, Israeli forces destroyed 36 Palestinian homes and structures in the West Bank, including five emergency shelters that the French consulate had provided for families made homeless by previous Israeli demolitions.

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.

The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits “[i]ndividual or mass forcible transfers” of civilians within an occupied territory “regardless of their motive” except if carried out for the safety of civilians during hostilities or for imperative military reasons. Intentionally violating this prohibition is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and prosecutable as a war crime. Israeli officials have sought to justify the vast majority of demolitions on administrative rather than security grounds.  Deliberate and extensive destruction of civilian property, except when absolutely necessary for military operations, is also a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

“The Israeli authorities’ unlawful demolitions cruelly force Palestinian families from their homes and brazenly affront the international community’s efforts to support basic humanitarian needs,” Stork said.

Forcible Transfer, Discrimination, and Home Demolitions

Israel controls civil affairs as well as security in 62 percent of the West Bank, known as Area C. The military’s Civil Administration, headed by Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, has authority over land use and planning in Area C, including the power to issue demolition orders. 

Israeli forces displaced 815 Palestinians by demolishing their homes in Area C in 2012, and have left 485 homeless in the first eight months of 2013, according to OCHA.

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.

According to government records obtained by the Israeli group Peace Now, from 1997 to 2007, the military carried out three percent of demolition orders issued against structures in settlements that were built in violation of Israeli law, a total of 107 structures. By contrast, from 2000 to 2007, the military carried out 34 percent of demolition orders issued against Palestinian structures, an average of 240 buildings per year, according to Bimkom.

The army has targeted some emergency shelters set up to accommodate people whose homes the army had earlier demolished. As of June 31, Israel had demolished at least 54 such shelters and other structures in Area C that were funded by humanitarian donors, in most cases in response to previous demolitions, OCHA reported.

In East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed as part of an assertion of sovereignty but which remains occupied territory under international law, demolition orders are issued by an Israeli civilian court, usually on the basis that residents lack building permits. Home demolitions in East Jerusalem displaced 71 Palestinians in 2012 and at least 231 so far this year, an increase of more than 325 percent, according to investigations by Israeli rights groups and Human Rights Watch, and OCHA reports.

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.

Forcible Transfer and Unlawful Destruction of Property

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, applicable during military occupations such as Israel’s of the West Bank, states that, “Individual or mass forcible transfers …. are prohibited, regardless of their motive.Nevertheless, the Occupying Power may undertake total or partial evacuation of a given area if the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand.” The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in the case of Naletilic and Martinovic (2003), said that “Forcible transfer is the movement of individuals under duress from where they reside to a place that is not of their choosing.” The court noted that, “The determination as to whether a transferred person had a ‘real choice’ has to be made in the context of all relevant circumstances on a case by case basis.”

Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that, “Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons … is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”

Willful violations of articles 49 and 53 are grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention under article 147, which specifies “unlawful deportation or transfer” and “extensive destruction … of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.”  Individuals responsible for grave breaches may be prosecuted for war crimes.

Discriminatory Planning

Discrimination is where laws, policies, or practices treat people in similar situations differently due to, among other criteria, race, ethnic background, or religion, without adequate justification.  Israel’s human rights obligations – including a prohibition against discrimination – extend to everyone under its jurisdiction, including Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank. In July 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its review of Israel’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, criticized Israel’s “frequent administrative demolition of [Palestinian] property” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem “due to the absence of construction permits,” and noted that Israel imposed “discriminatory municipal planning systems” that “disproportionately” favor settlers in the occupied territory.

East Jerusalem comprises 70 square kilometers of the occupied West Bank that Israel unlawfully annexed to the Jerusalem municipality in 1980; 200,000 Israeli settlers and 300,000 Palestinians live there. No other country has recognized Israel’s sovereign claim to East Jerusalem, which remains occupied territory under international law. Under the law of occupation, the occupying power may carry out planning and other long-term changes in occupied territory only for the benefit of the local population. 

Israel also exercises full planning control over more than 60 percent of the rest of the West Bank, called Area C, where 300,000 settlers and 150,000 Palestinians live. The Israeli military in practice allows Palestinians to build structures in only about one percent of Area C, according to Bimkom, an Israeli rights group, and OCHA. In August 2011, reporting on its survey of 13 Palestinian communities in Area C, OCHA  found “clear patterns of displacement” in 10 of the 13 communities due to restrictive Israeli policies. 

Almoz expressed concern in a leaked internal email from September 2011 calling for an end to enforcing demolition orders against Palestinians until demolition orders targeting unlicensed building in illegal Jewish settlements in Area C were also enforced, Israeli news media reported. “Until we feel that we are operating also against illegal Israeli construction, I am asking that we stop all demolition activity against Palestinian construction,” the email reportedly said. “We are very far from reaching the equal enforcement of demolitions.” The Civil Administration stated in response that Almoz’s “correspondence was written in an informal manner, and was intended for internal use with specific instructions relating to the period of time during which it was written.”

Since then, Israeli military forces have demolished more than 1071 Palestinian homes and structures in Area C, displacing 1,548 people, according to OCHA reports.

August Demolitions

At around 6 a.m. on August 19, two bulldozers accompanied by several hundred Israeli border police and riot police demolished all six homes and all other structures, including animal pens, in the Bedouin community of Tel `Adasa, near the Atarot industrial zone in East Jerusalem, residents told Human Rights Watch. The demolitions displaced at least 39 people from 8 families, including at least 18 children, residents said.

Residents told Human Rights Watch they had lived in the area since the 1950s, and had been displaced by the municipal authorities in the 1970s and again in 1994, when they moved to land owned by residents of Beit Hanina, an East Jerusalem neighborhood.

Israel considers the area to be inside the Jerusalem municipality.  The demolished buildings lacked municipal building permits under the Israeli Law of Building and Planning of 1965, according to court documents that residents showed to Human Rights Watch.

In 2006, Israel completed the barrier in the area that separates it from the rest of the West Bank and encloses it inside the Jerusalem municipality. However, Israel does not recognize the residents as living in Jerusalem lawfully: they do not have any government-recognized identification documents.

Mohamed al Kaadne, 55, told Human Rights Watch:

A captain from the Border Police came and told us that they were going to demolish us after ‘Eid [the end of Ramadan], so we had taken some things out from our homes before they destroyed them, but we didn’t have time to salvage the fodder [and] the medicines for our sheep. They told us they’re going to fine us 70,000 shekels [US$19,400] for each demolished house and 1,000 shekels [US$275] for each of the soldiers who was there to enforce the demolitions. We have to leave, but since they built the wall around us, we have nowhere to go.
 

Jibril al Kaabne, 43, his wife, and five children, ages 5 months to 17 years, were left homeless by the demolitions, he told Human Rights Watch. “Israel says that we have to leave because we don’t belong in East Jerusalem, we don’t have ID’s, but we have nowhere else that we can live,” he said. “They destroyed my home, my sheep pen and my kitchen building.”

OCHA documented Israeli demolitions in three other West Bank communities on August 20. In the Bedouin community of Humsa Basallia, Israeli military authorities demolished 11 structures, including two homes, displacing nine people, on the basis that they were built without permits. In the Abu al-Ajaj area of al-Jiftlik, in the Jordan Valley, Israeli military authorities demolished a residential tent that housed a Bedouin family of seven because it lacked a building permit. According to OCHA, the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Local Government had provided the tent to the family after Israeli authorities had demolished their home in January and again in May. Israeli authorities demolished eight structures that day, including four homes, in the Bedouin community of al-Baqa’a, displacing seventeen people including seven children, for the same reason.

Ir Amim, an Israeli group focusing on land rights in Jerusalem, documented a demolition in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, also on August 20, that displaced seven members of the al-Zir family, including five children. Municipal authorities have repeatedly refused to issue building permits to Palestinians in Silwan, and rejected a plan prepared on behalf of Silwan residents that would have zoned part of the area for residential construction.

April Demolitions

Hamamat al-Maleh
In April Israeli forces demolished Palestinian structures in an area of the Jordan Valley, in the northern West Bank, under full Israeli control.  On April 23 Israeli military forces demolished the homes and other structures of the Faqeer family, displacing 14 people, including eight children, in the Bedouin community of Hamamat al-Maleh. The Israeli military has designated the area as a “closed military zone” and refuses to issue building permits to Palestinians there, though some lived there before it was designated as a military zone. Israeli forces have not evacuated Israeli settlements in the same area.

Ali Salameh al-Faqeer, 48, told Human Rights Watch that military forces in army vehicles, a bulldozer, and a car belonging to the Civil Administration – the branch of the military responsible for planning issues, including ordering home demolitions – arrived at about 9:30 a.m. “There was no warning. I was here with my children.” His son, Ali, and Ali’s wife Fatmeh, had recently returned from hospital with their newborn daughter, who was four days old at the time.

Two of the demolished residential structures – tents made of metal poles, nylon, and plastic – had been provided by a humanitarian agency in response to previous demolitions. According to `Arif al-Daraghmeh, a representative of the Palestinian village council in the area, France had donated the money for the structures. On April 26, the French foreign ministry spokesperson condemned Israeli demolitions of several structures in northern Jordan Valley Bedouin communities that had been financed by France’s emergency humanitarian aid program “and that were perfectly identifiable as such.”

Al-Faqeer said that his family had moved to the area in 1989 from the Hebron governorate, in the southern West Bank, because the land was better for their herds. Israeli forces have demolished his family’s residence and other structures four times.

`Ain al-Hilweh
In the nearby community of `Ain al-Hilweh, also on April 23, Israeli forces demolished the home of Sawti Aliyan Zemel, 42, his wife, Iman, their son, and nine daughters. 

Iman Zemel, 41, said that at 9:30 a.m. she was at home with two of her daughters, ages 2 and 13, when two military vehicles, a bulldozer, and a military Civil Administration vehicle arrived.  “When they came I stood in front of the sheep, to keep the soldiers away from them, but four soldiers removed me,” she said.  “I told them, ‘Please leave me the kitchen. I need food for when the children come back from school.’ But they destroyed it anyway.” The military also demolished the family’s residence, storage building, and animal barracks.

Zemel, 42, said that he was born in the area, where his father had also lived. The Israeli military “gave me a [demolition] order on my house a year ago,” but did not provide advance notice of the demolition, he said. The military said his home had been built without a required military permit.

In another incident in February, soldiers took Zemel into custody and confiscated 60 of his cows while he was grazing them nearby, he said: “The cows were on the other side of the hill and they consider that a nature area. They took me to the Ariel police station for a day, and I had to pay 15,000 shekels (US$4,100) to get my cows back.” Israeli forces have repeatedly confiscated Palestinian livestock that graze in areas designated as “nature reserves” by the Israeli military.

Bardala
Near Bardala, a town in the northern Jordan Valley, at 11 a.m. on April 23 Israeli forces demolished a vegetable-packing house owned by Fawaz Ahmad Said Sawafta, 62, who sells agricultural produce to Palestinian markets in the West Bank.

Sawafta told Human Rights Watch that the Israeli military first issued a demolition order against the structure in 2006 on the basis that it was built without a permit, but that his lawyer had managed to delay the demolition until November 2012. He said that he then paid for a “license” for the 240-square-meter structure, but Israeli forces demolished it in December without warning. “I didn’t know what to do with my vegetables, so I built a different packing house 15 meters far away from the old one, in the disguise of a greenhouse.” Israeli forces nonetheless demolished it, Sawafta said.
 

They ruined my machinery, they ruined all the cameras that were installed, of course they ruined all my vegetables, and all the farming machines like a timing machine were destroyed. I was there as soon as they arrived.  I had tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, beans, okra, eggplant, and other vegetables. They were just throwing them out.  
 

In 2004, Sawafta said, Israeli forces demolished his home, a concrete structure located several hundred meters from the packing house. He has not rebuilt it, and lives inside Bardala, a few kilometers away, where Israel granted the Palestinian Authority control over zoning.

Hebron
At 5:15 a.m. on April 29 Israeli forces demolished a water-collecting cistern belonging to Said al-Azzeh, 47, near al-Fawwar refugee camp south of Hebron, in the southern West Bank. Military jeeps and a bulldozer arrived, and the forces filled up the cistern with dirt, rubble, and several trees that they uprooted.

Al-Azzeh built the cistern in 2007 to collect rainwater for irrigating his 10 dunam (one hectare) plot of agricultural land. Most of the fruit is for his family, including nine children, he said. In 2012, the military twice left demolition orders against the cistern underneath rocks nearby.  The cistern cost about 40,000 shekels (US$11,000) to build, he said. He will have to purchase water from tanker trucks, at an estimated cost of 1000 shekels (US$275) per month, to irrigate his land.

In a similar case, on April 29, Israeli forces demolished an agricultural cistern and destroyed trees that belonged to Yusuf Rayyan, a 56-year-old farmer, in the southern West Bank community of Khalet al-Oza. The Palestinian Authority Ministry of Agriculture provided 8,000 shekels (US$2,200) of the 22,000 shekel cost of the cistern’s construction in 2010. Rayyan used the water from the cistern to irrigate trees and provide water for his sheep. “They came without warning and claimed that the land can’t be farmed and that I had to destroy everything,” he told Human Rights Watch:
 

They started sawing off my trees, cutting them down, even though they’re 60 years old, and they noticed the cistern while they were destroying the land, and they poured in cement and blocked it. Now I have to get water from a pipe and it’s too expensive, so I don’t farm any more. I told them to show me a paper to justify what they were doing but the soldier in charge said he didn’t have to show me anything.

East Jerusalem
Israeli forces on April 29 demolished the homes of three brothers and their families – a total of 17 people including 11 children – in the Khalt al-Ein area of East Jerusalem’s al-Tur neighborhood. Tarek and `Ali Ghaith, two of the brothers, told Human Rights Watch that their father had purchased the land  25 years ago.  The family built the homes 12 years ago, they said, but lacked Israeli construction permits.
Tarek Ghaith said that Israeli forces entered his home at 6 a.m.:
 

My mom opened the door and they immediately came in, entered my bedroom and took me outside. It was a large number of private security guards, police, and border police, more than 100. They didn’t let me get dressed. They let me get my wife and kids outside, but they wouldn’t let me get them dressed for school. They demolished the house with the furniture inside. I had a court case coming up on May 5 to fight for the houses.
 

The family is still paying the municipal fines for the destroyed buildings, at 5000 shekels (US$1,390) per month, Ghaith said. During the demolitions, a municipal official handed him a notice stating that the family would be fined if they did not clear away the rubble of their former homes within seven days. Ghaith said municipal authorities told him he would be fined 50,000 shekels (US13,900).

The Ghaith family’s land is in an area that the Jerusalem Municipality intends to zone for a national park.

The municipality had assessed 300,000 shekels (US$83,500) in fines on the Ghaiths’ homes, which it considered illegal, the brothers said, but the Israeli authorities did not notify them in advance of the demolition. The municipality was also “demanding to see receipts from the garbage dump where we truck the rubble,” Ghaith said.

Israeli forces returned in late August 2013 to continue their demolition efforts. The Israeli rights group Ir Amim reported that at around 5 a.m. on August 21 Israeli security forces and two bulldozers under the authority of the Jerusalem Municipality destroyed most of the road leading to the remaining portion of the Ghaith family home. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority had previously destroyed the same road, according to Ir Amim.