At the beginning of March, students affiliated with the Yachad UK movement started a campaign to highlight demolitions in the Palestinian villages of Area C. Among a handful of other communities, they chose to focus principally on a tiny locale called Umm al-Khair, which was one of the stops on Yachad’s Israel trip. They produced a letter signed by students from 16 schools and universities, though the organisation went as far as to claim they “represent” these institutions.
The campaign, well-intentioned as it may be, suffers from a crucial flaw: its language is misleading.
Yachad’s stated goal here is“to inform those in power, both in the UK and in Israel, that our generation will not stand for the punitive policy of demolitions.”
That Israel is carrying out punitive demolitions in the villages named, however, is untrue.
Israel demolishes structures for three reasons. First, it will carry out an administrative demolition if something was erected without a permit. Second, a military demolition will occur if the IDF’s operational purposes necessitate this. Last, punitive demolitions are undertaken to raze the homes of terrorists.
Based on the very sources Yachad provides, the demolitions in question would fall under the first two categories: they are due to building without a permit and military operations.
A UN OCHA report cited by Yachad describes the issue at hand as follows:
“Structures built without permits are regularly served with demolition orders. While only a minority of the orders issued are executed, these orders do not expire and leave affected households in a state of chronic uncertainty and threat.”
Then, the Haaretz piece referenced by the letter quotes the specific regulation causing Umm Al-Khair’s troubles: article 38 of the Towns, Villages and Buildings Planning Law.
As we investigate the sources further, a B’Tselem update in the footnotes reveals that none of the villages listed by Yachad are actually facing punitive demolitions. A bit of additional digging appears to confirm this.
Khirbet Susiya, for example, turns out to be not so much a village as an encampment. A claim that it has existed since 1830 was successfully refuted by CAMERA, prompting a correction in Newsweek.
From a well-researched piece by Eylon Levy, we may learn that Susiya was virtually non-existent 30 years ago, though it does contain the ruins of an early medieval synagogue. It was declared an archaeological site by Israel in 1986, forcing its handful of residents – cave dwellers and seasonal inhabitants – out of the area.
Between back-and-forth relocations, skirmishes between Arabs and nearby settlers have resulted in deaths on both sides. Since then, the state has offered the inhabitants territories near their agricultural lands to allow for legal construction, but the project did not materialise.
“Last August, we asked the army for permission to build a school for the children in the village. […] We didn’t receive an answer, and after we talked with a lawyer, we decided to set up six caravans to serve as classrooms. The army came and dismantled the caravans.”
In relation to two other villages mentioned by Yachad, B’Tselem state:
“Khirbet Umm al-Jamal and Khirbet ‘Ein al-Hilweh, two adjacent communities in the northern Jordan Valley, are home to some 20 families in total, numbering 130 residents, about half of them minors. The Israeli army holds military maneuvers nearby, and the Civil Administration has repeatedly demolished residents’ homes.”
Finally, in Jabal al-Baba, the demolitions targeted structures that proved to be both temporary and illegal, and, according to B’Tselem, part of the village is located on state land.
Curiously, the EU is revealed to provide funds for many of these illegal building projects, undeterred by the fact that the IDF’s eventual demolitions will generate further tension in the region. Regavim, an NGO, claims that these constructions encourage migration from Areas A and B to Area C. The organisation declared such EU activities an intervention into the Israeli legal system and a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
B’Tselem itself treats punitive demolitions as a unique category. The difference is indeed relevant, and it should matter to all those who profess an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the age of fake news and recurring antisemitism scandals in the mainstream of British politics, facts, context, and language do matter.
That Yachad blurred the lines between these categories is troubling, especially because perfectly valid criticism could have been made based on the actual facts. We cannot have a helpful discussion on policy without clarity.
For whatever reason, the self-appointed voice of my generation did not find the truth to be punchy enough.
- Marcell Horvath is a graduate law student at the University of Strathclyde. Previously, he studied history at the University of Maryland and law at the University of Glasgow. He is a 2017/18 CAMERA on Campus Fellow.