Israel's home demolition policy: A form of ethnic cleansing
In the early morning of 7 July, forces from the Israeli military and the so-called Israeli Civil Administration arrived at the Jordan Valley's Palestinian Bedouin community of Khirbet Humsa. Without warning, they began demolishing tents and other farming structures provided by the international community.
At least 65 people, including 35 children, were rendered homeless, according to Christopher Holt of the West Bank Protection Consortium, the EU-supported international aid agency. This was the seventh time in the past year that Israeli authorities have destroyed the village.
"Not only has the policy of home demolition been used as an excessive punitive measure, but also as a tool for land usurpation and - eventually - demographic replacement"
Khirbet Humsa is located within Area C, which represents 60% of the occupied West Bank, and where Israel maintains full control based on the 1993 Oslo interim agreements negotiated with the PLO. The village land is privately owned by Palestinians, to whom the community has been paying rent for nearly six decades.
When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, Khirbet Humsa was designated by its military as a training zone, as part of the 56% of the total region of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea which has been claimed for similar purposes.
Khirbet Humsa is only one example of a much larger home demolition policy that has characterised Israel's occupation for decades. Not only has the policy been used as an excessive punitive measure, but also as a tool for land usurpation and - eventually - demographic replacement.
The broad spectrum of home demolitions
Amnesty International notes that since 1967 the Israeli authorities have consistently maintained that the demolition of Palestinian homes and structures is based on planning considerations and, therefore, carried out legally.
Palestinian homes have been built "illegally" - without planning permission. They allegedly violate the Israeli government and local councils' rules that forbid building in designated areas, even though most of these areas are deemed occupied under international law.
The practice is framed - and euphemised - in sheer bureaucratic terms, which label it "administrative demolition".
When the demolition of Palestinian homes is sanctioned by an Israeli court order, it then falls under the label of "judicial demolition", states the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). In such instances, the Israeli judicial system works implicitly in service of the occupation.
Commenting on a series of decisions by Israel's Supreme Court (ISC) in 2015 which denied Palestinians access to their land, Mordechai Kremnitzer, president of Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) told Al Jazeera that: "In the last three years, we could see… the court becoming more conservative, and less considerate of human rights law."
To Richard Falk, the former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, the ISC often played a cosmetic role, covering up the cruel and colonial nature of the Israeli legal institution.
"Much like administrative detention, Israel inherited the home demolition policy from the British Mandate in Palestine"
In 2019, for instance, the ISC approved the demolition of 60 Palestinian buildings in Silwan in East Jerusalem. The court rejected the families' appeal that the Jerusalem Municipality had left them no choice but to build "illegally".
The other and, perhaps most controversial, type of home demolition is "punitive demolition". Israeli human rights organisation, B'Tselem, points out that the policy is meant to hurt people who are related to Palestinians accused of attacking or attempting to attack Israeli targets, military or otherwise.
"In almost all cases, the individual who carried out the attack or planned to do so no longer lives in the house, as they were killed by Israeli security forces during the attack or were arrested and face a long prison sentence," the NGO explains. On occasions, the ISC has upheld the authorities' decision to destroy the homes of accused Palestinians, whether they had been arrested, killed, or were still on the run.
Destroying residential and non-residential structures for military purposes may also fall under the remit of "punitive demolition". In such cases, the Israeli military clears out homes, farms, and orchards to achieve a military goal.
This was the case during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 in the West Bank, when the Israeli military, allegedly to protect its soldiers, adopted a policy of destroying homes regardless of whether or not residents were inside after having been called to come out.
The tactic, dubbed nohal sir lachatz ("pressure pot"), has since become a mode of operation in almost all Israeli military missions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It was first flagrantly implemented during Israel's onslaught on the Jenin Refugee Camp in 2002 and, later, taken to the next level, during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, where nearly 18,000 homes and structures were fully or partially destroyed.
Long-standing colonial legacy
Much like administrative detention, Israel inherited the home demolition policy from the British Mandate in Palestine (1918 - 1948). Originally practised during the South African Boer War (1899 - 1902), the British army introduced the policy in Palestine during the Arab Rebellion of 1936 - 1939 as a punitive measure against Palestinian rebels. The demolitions were carried out based on Article V(5) of the Palestine Defence Order in Council 1931.
Not once did the British demolish Jewish homes, even in response to the bloodiest of attacks by Jewish underground groups, including the bombing of the British HQ at the Jerusalem King David Hotel committed by the Jewish terrorist organisation Irgun in July 1946, which killed over 90 people.
Although the British claimed to have repealed this law upon their departure in 1948, it has continued to be used by the Israeli regime.
"Since 1947, Israeli authorities have destroyed nearly 130,000 Palestinian homes inside Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip"
ICAHD has estimated that since 1947 Israeli authorities have destroyed nearly 130,000 Palestinian homes inside Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. This number is inclusive of thousands of homes destroyed in the villages and towns that Jewish militias conquered in the months leading up to and during the 1948 Nakba.
Between 1967 and the eruption of the first intifada in 1987, Israel demolished or sealed at least 1,300 houses, most during the first few years of the occupation.
In the first year of the First Intifada, 125 houses were demolished. Forty-one others were sealed - due to actual demolition being unattainable because of technical reasons.
The rate of home demolition dropped during the Oslo period (1996 - 2000), only to intensify soon after the outbreak of the second intifada (2000 - 2005).
B'Tselem estimated that up to 2004, Israel destroyed 4,100 Palestinian houses, 60% of which during clearing-out military operations. Twenty-five per cent of the houses were demolished based on "administrative orders", while 15% were destroyed as a punitive measure against families of Palestinians involved in attacks against Israel.
In 2019, according to a B'Tselem's report, there was a spike in home demolitions. In Jerusalem alone, 265 Palestinian structures were destroyed - the highest yearly number since the rights group began keeping a record in 2004. These included demolitions carried out by Palestinian Jerusalemites who were forced to tear down their own homes to avoid the punitive taxes and high cost of renting the municipality's bulldozers.
In 2020, ICAHD revealed 865 structures were demolished in the occupied Palestinian territories, directly affecting 5,615 people. Meanwhile, 2,586 buildings were demolished in the Negev desert region.
The first quarter of 2021 saw a hectic wave of demolitions, according to a report by Save the Children. "Israeli authorities demolished or seized 293 Palestinian-owned structures - more than double the same period the year before."
It is now estimated that between 1967 and 2021 in the West Bank alone, Israel destroyed 28,000 houses and structures.
Consequences of home demolitions
By demolishing homes, the British meant to punish and create a submissive Palestinian population in order to maintain a semblance of political stability. But for Israel, in addition to establishing a swift and visible deterrence, the practice aims to dispossess and displace the existing Palestinian population and systematically replace it with a Jewish one.
The Israeli-Palestinian struggle is essentially a struggle over land and identity. Israel's policy of home demolitions, therefore, serves to undermine Palestinian identity by destroying the Palestinian link to the land. Since ownership, habitation, and cultivation of the land represent the core of Palestinian national identity, the demolition policy strikes at the heart of the national rivalry.
Tanzil-Zaman Chowdhury wrote in the Foreign Policy Journal that home demolitions "form part of a meta-policy to create a favourably Jewish demographic countenance. They create the hostile conditions in which Palestinian livelihood becomes unbearable."
"To Palestinians, home demolitions are an extreme injustice, another means of ethnic cleansing"
Despite its devastating impact on Palestinian societal coherence, psychological well-being, and the economy, there are signs that home demolitions - whether as a show of brute force or a mechanism to compromise and delegitimise the Palestinian connection to the land - has done very little to suppress Palestinian resistance. In fact, the policy may have caused quite an opposite effect.
To Palestinians, home demolitions are an extreme injustice, another means of ethnic cleansing.
They fuel anger and deepen feelings of helplessness and humiliation. A direct result of this is an increased desire for revenge and perseverance. As such, demolitions create a cycle of reaction and further reaction, repeatedly reaffirming the Palestinian belief that no peace or justice can be achieved with an oppressive alien power and that the only way out is through resistance.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa