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Demolitions as displacement: Israel targets Negev’s Bedouin Palestinians

A new report has revealed how 2,752 structures were demolished in Bedouin Palestinian communities in the Negev over the last three years, part of what human rights activists have described as an ongoing, concerted campaign of displacement by Israeli authorities.

‘Enforcing Distress: House Demolition Policy in the Bedouin Community in the Negev’, published by the Negev Coexistence Forum (NCF), sets out to reveal “the ways in which the [Israeli] state utilizes enforcement in order to displace citizens from their lands.”

The NCF, established in 1997, describes itself as “a group of concerned Arab and Jewish residents of the Negev…to provide a framework for Jewish- Arab collaborative efforts in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence.”

982 structures were demolished in 2015, down from 1,073 in 2014, but a significant increase from 2013’s figure of 697 structures. Over the three years, more than 50 percent of the structures were demolished by their owners, while Israeli authorities directly carried out 1,041 demolitions.

Not only do many Bedouin Palestinian citizens choose to demolish their own structure before the state does so, but during 2014-’15, some 211 structures were demolished before an order had even been issued. These ‘demolitions without warrant’ follow “pressure” by inspectors on the owners.

While the Prawer Plan to ‘regulate’ Bedouin communities in the Negev was officially shelved in December 2013 following widespread popular resistance to the prospect of mass displacement, the report makes clear that in many ways, Prawer is still alive. The Southern Directorate of Land Law Enforcement, for example, was established “with the purpose of making the process of demolitions in the Negev more efficient,” as part of the context for the original Prawer Plan.

Acting under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Security, the Directorate coordinates “the demolitions between the various enforcement authorities”, organising “days for locating and demolishing structures as well as ploughing fields for the purpose of destroying crops.” Another state body involved is the Yoav Unit, a special police combat unit that, three years after its establishment in 2012, had doubled the number of officers it employed.

The report also highlights legislation used to target Bedouin Palestinian communities, such as the Planning and Construction Law (1965). Through this law, “large parts” of southern Israel, “including many unrecognized villages”, were “demarcated exclusively for agricultural, and not for residential use.” Crucially, however, this was applied to villages that “already existed in their present locations”, communities that in some cases even pre-date the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Israeli authorities’ demolitions policy is both discriminatory in and of itself, and also symptomatic of even deeper, systematic inequality. For example, as the report states, while the Bedouin community is more than 34 percent of the area’s population, “only 18 settlements out of 144 are designated for this community” – a mere 12 percent. Furthermore, Bedouin Palestinians in both ‘unrecognised’ and planned townships can find it impossible to acquire building permits.

In ‘unrecognised villages’, of course, no construction permits can be obtained. Yet even the seven, government-established towns “suffer housing shortages and a lack of available plots for building.” Strikingly, sometimes “whole neighbourhoods” are considered ‘illegal’. In 10 of the 11 villages recognised by the Israeli authorities since the 2000s, meanwhile, “hardly any construction permits were given since their recognition.”

Thus while the State of Israel justifies its house demolition policy citing “the high rate of building without permits by the Bedouin community”, in fact, “the high frequency of building without permits is a direct result of the fact that, even today, no permits are given in many of the Bedouin settlements, leaving the people of the community with no other choice.”

All of which bears more than a passing resemblance to what is happening in so-called ‘Area C’ of the West Bank, where Israeli authorities are aggressively demolishing Palestinian structures that have been built without permits that are impossible to obtain. 626 Palestinian-owned structures have been demolished in 2016 to date (up to June 13), in East Jerusalem and Area C, displacing 909.

Yet between 2007 and 2010, a mere 4.5 percent of submitted Palestinian planning applications in Area C resulted in permits being granted. In April, a senior Israeli military official told the Knesset: “I want to state unequivocally that enforcement is more severe towards the Palestinians.”

Similarly, demolitions and displacement in the Negev are official policy; as NCF puts it, “the state uses house demolitions in order to displace Bedouin citizens from their lands.” Thus, “besides prevention of services and infrastructure”, the demolition policy is “one of the main means utilized by the state in its struggle against these villages.”

This was frankly admitted by a senior official within the Israeli Land Administration (ILA)’s Division for Land Security, who commented: “We are witnessing the effectiveness of the enforcement policy in the fact that many invaders decide to carry out on their own the demolitions, in order to save themselves lawsuits and, by that, save themselves and the state unnecessary costs of eviction.”

An even more explicit example of demolition as tool of displacement comes from a report by the Directorate cited by NCF. Discussing plans to transfer the residents of an unrecognised village to a township, the authorities state: “We have carried out so far several judicial demolition orders with the purpose of promoting the negotiation process with the authority.”

The report’s publication comes as the Israeli cabinet resolved last Sunday to tie proposed new funding for Palestinian communities inside the ’67 lines to the demolition of homes built without a permit. The government’s decision establishes a new “national enforcement unit for planning and construction”, which will monitor whether Arab towns are demolishing ‘illegal’ structures.

In response, Mazen Ganaim, the mayor of Sakhnin declared: “We will not demolish one stone in the Arab towns.” He added: “Construction without permits is the result of years of discrimination with respect to planning and approval of master plans, and to expanding areas of jurisdiction and allocation of resources and housing solutions to Arab towns.”

Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights, in a letter on behalf of the National Committee for Arab Mayors, described the “conditioning of budgetary rights on demolitions” as “akin to applying a carrot and stick policy upon the Arab population”, and “a form of collective punishment that runs in direct opposition to the principles of the legal system.”

The drive to displace Bedouin Palestinians is taking place at the same time as – in the words of NCF executive director Haia Noach – the government is “approving more and more Jewish settlements” in the Negev. Thus while Palestinian citizens face “eviction and demolition orders”, the state’s “funds for development in the Negev” are “mainly for the Jewish population.”

Though NCF urges the Israeli government to “stop preferring one population over another”, there is no sign that these discriminatory and apartheid policies, whether in the Negev or West Bank, are likely to end any time soon. If anything, as this report shows, they are intensifying.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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