Twisted metal scraps, building debris and a few sheep are all that remain of the West Bank Bedouin village of Makhul after its destruction by the Israeli army this month.
The demolition of Palestinian structures deemed illegal by Israel has long been a source of tension, and Makhul was the scene of a diplomatic incident when Israeli soldiers manhandled European envoys and humanitarian workers trying to deliver tents days after its demolition.
The Palestinian Bedouin say they have lived on this rocky patch of land in the Jordan Valley, surrounded by Israeli settlements, for decades, while the Palestinians accuse Israel of deliberately displacing them to annex the occupied territory.
“We’ve been living here for 25 years, and other families for 43 years,” said Abu Hussein, a member of one of the 10 families who lost their houses in Makhul nearly a fortnight ago.
“We have official deeds for the land. There’s no justification for them displacing us,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Israel first issued demolition orders for the fragile tin houses of the Palestinian Bedouin living in Makhul in 2009, saying they were built illegally, and the Supreme Court in August this year rejected an appeal against removing the homes.
“Not all the families that are living there (have) lived there for as long a time as they claim,” Guy Inbar, spokesman for Israel’s Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat), told Agence France-Presse.
“They don’t have the certificates needed to show that they are living there legally.”
Makhul is in “Area C,” the part of the West Bank under full control of the Israeli army, which rarely issues building permits.
“You must build by the law. I don’t think that if you want to build a tent in Central Park the New York police will allow you that,” Inbar said.
Palestinian officials say such policies are part of a larger project to clear the Arab population out of the Jordan Valley so Israel can annex land it already controls.
“For 10 years we have been applying for permission to build a school in this area, which is (in) Area C,” Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erakat told reporters in the Jordan Valley village of Fassayel.
Fassayel, south of Makhul and almost completely surrounded by Israeli settlement compounds, is home to several crowded, makeshift classrooms which all have demolition orders against them because Israel deems them illegal.
“The reason they don’t want to allow us to build anywhere here is there are two settlements and the water aquifers in the mountains. They want to evict this area. They want to link the settlements,” Erakat said.
A diplomatic dustup
After soldiers used physical force against European diplomats trying to deliver aid to the beleaguered Makhul residents, an Israeli court suspended further demolition temporarily, giving the army until October 8 to prove the area is required for “imminent military needs.”
Human Rights Watch this week condemned the army’s targeting of the Jordan Valley’s Bedouin, saying that under humanitarian law, forced displacement of civilian populations in occupied territory amounts to a “prosecutable war crime.”
It was only permitted for “imperative military reasons” or for the security of the population, the New York-based watchdog said. It stressed that even in those circumstances residents must be allowed to return to their homes as soon as possible.
The Palestinians attribute the decline of the Jordan Valley’s Arab population — from 250,000 before the occupation of the West Bank in 1967 to just 70,000 in 2013 — in part to Israel’s expulsion of Bedouin.
As well as the Makhul Bedouin, “there are 300 families who face demolition orders” in the area, municipal council head Aref Daraghmeh told Agence France-Presse.
“There’s a coalition of various Israeli institutions aiming to chase the Palestinians out of this area,” he said.
“The army confiscates the land ostensibly for military exercises, and 10 years later gives it as farmland to settlers.”
Israeli human rights watchdog B’Tselem has also criticised the demolitions, saying they are aimed at “establishing Israeli control of the area and annexing it de-facto to Israel, while exploiting its resources and minimising Palestinian presence there.” AFP