Susiya demolition orders not simply a law enforcement issue

Published: 
29 Aug 2012

An op-ed by Eyal Hareuveni, first published in the Jerusalem Post

About a month ago, the Israeli Civil Administration distributed demolition orders for 52 temporary structures in the Palestinian village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank. These orders renew a series of previous demolition orders issued from 1994 through 2001. If they are carried out, in spite of an appeal submitted last week, most of Susiya will be destroyed and the 400-strong community, which according to Israeli anthropologist Yaakov Havacook, dates back to the first third of the 19th century, will be expelled from its land. In fact, this will be the third expulsion. The first time was in 1986, when Israel declared the site of Susiya village to be a national park. Residents relocated nearby, on land registered in their names since Ottoman times. In the second expulsion in 2001 they were forcefully removed from that land, a few days after the murder of settler Yair Har Sinai; their property and water holes were destroyed. This expulsion was frozen by a High Court injunction.

Demolition of a residential tent and a shack in Susiya. Photo: Nasser Nawaj'ah, B'Tselem,  24 Nov. 2011.
Demolition of a residential tent and a shack in Susiya. Photo: Nasser Nawaj'ah, B'Tselem, 24 Nov. 2011.

The Civil Administration’s explanation for the Susiya demolition orders is that the residents built without the necessary building permits, but it neglects to mention that such permits are impossible to obtain. Susiya is only one example among many of Israel's planning regime in Area C, encompassing about 60 percent of the area of the West Bank. Some 150,000 Palestinians live in communities in Area C, where Israel has complete control over planning and construction. The Civil Administration almost never grants permits to Palestinians to build in Area C. In fact, it uses the planning regime to reduce the Palestinian presence in these areas. According to data obtained by Israeli NGO Bimkom from the Civil Administration for the years 2000-2007, every month it issued 60 home demolition orders, actually demolished 20 homes and issued only 1 construction permit.

The planning regime relies on the RJ/5 plan, drawn by the British Mandate authorities seventy years ago, designating most of the West Bank for agricultural use. Even these archaic plans are interpreted narrowly, ignoring crucial guidelines that permit construction, however limited. For example, the British plans allowed construction of homes in agricultural plots of land, under certain strict conditions. The Israeli interpretation of these plans ignores this possibility. The Israeli settlements, both those established by the government as well as the unauthorized outposts, are exempted from these restrictions of these plans, as the Civil Administration's planning bodies have drawn up extensive plans for the settlements. Meanwhile, it avoided preparing master plans for most of the Palestinian communities in area C. The Civil Administration also ignores evidence of the existence of dozens of communities in the area, some inhabited seasonally like the cave-dweller communities in the South Hebron Hills, but nonetheless dating back at least to the 19th century.

Even when the Civil Administration did prepare plans for these Palestinian communities, such as the plans for A-Tuwani village north of Susiya, the situation of the communities only deteriorated. Drafted carelessly and without consulting the residents, the new plans delineated only some of the already existing construction and failed to allocate additional space for future development; they did not address land ownership boundaries; they proposed to construct roads where existing buildings stood; and they ignored the role of these communities as providers of services to the rural Palestinian population in their vicinity.

In the past year, the Civil Administration updated its policies on construction permits with a series of criteria that are ostensibly based on planning considerations, such as proximity to existing communities, ability to establish public institutions, and the size of the community. In practice, however, these criteria are applied only to Palestinian communities. They are ignored when it comes to settlements and unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, which manifest wasteful consumption of infrastructure and land resources, regardless of their size or proximity to existing towns.

This planning regime is backed up by rulings of High Court justices, who are invariably disturbed by unlicensed Palestinian construction yet simultaneously ignore the fact that they have no possibility of building legally. High court justices clarified they will not stand for the continuation of unpermitted construction throughout the legal proceedings related to the South Hebron Hills. The outcome is the atrophy of Palestinian communities in Area C. Without permits, most Palestinians in Area C have avoided building permanent homes since the early Eighties, lest they be razed to the ground. Without master plans, the communities cannot be connected to the well-developed water and electricity grids that Israel has constructed for the benefit of the settlements – to which even unauthorized outposts are connected. Hence Palestinian residents must pay exorbitant prices for water brought in by tanker. Susiya's residents, for example, pay about 35 shekels per cubic meter of water, more than four times the price inside Israel. In the remote village like Khirbet Jinba, accessible only through a bumpy dirt road, the price is even higher - 45-50 NIS. Living off the electricity grid means that Palestinians in the area either live without electricity or rely on solar panels and wind turbines. In South Mount Hebron, these renewable energy systems too are now slated for demolition.

Official spokespeople always present the demolitions of Palestinian homes in Area C as a law enforcement issue, and nothing more. But if Israel were truly interested in regularizing Palestinian construction in Area C, it would prepare building plans commensurate with community needs, pave roads, allocate land for future construction and development, hook up communities to the electricity and water supply, and allow the construction of public institutions – schools, clinics and community centers. International humanitarian law places an obligation on Israel to maintain "public order", an important component of which is adequate planning. Appropriate planning would also consider the interrelationships among the Palestinian communities in these areas and between them and the Palestinian urban centers. Since under the interim agreements that were signed, Israel has sole responsibility in Area C, such steps are not a humanitarian gesture but rather our obligation as the ruling power.