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The Khan al-Ahmar School community. Photo: Oren Ziv, Activestills, 17 Sept. 2020
From the field

Communities facing expulsion: The Khan al-Ahmar area

Twelve of the Palestinian communities at risk of expulsion in the West Bank live in the area of Khan al-Ahmar, east of Jerusalem, and have a total of about 1,400 residents. These communities are scattered on either side of the Jerusalem-Jericho road, east of the industrial zone of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, and on either side of Route 437, which connects the village of Hizma with the main road. Residents of these communities have very few sources of income left, suffer a serious lack of health, education and welfare services, and live without basic infrastructure such as an electricity network, a sewage system and proper roads. One of these communities is known as the Khan al-Ahmar School community. Its members belong to the Jahalin Bedouin tribe, originally from Tel Arad in the Negev desert, from where they were expelled by the Israeli military in the 1950s. After the initial expulsion, members of the community leased land for residential purposes and for herding in the area where the settlement of Kfar Adumim is now located. They resettled in their current location after they were expelled from there, too.

The community is located about two kilometers south of the settlement of Kfar Adumim. According to updated figures, it is home to 32 families, totaling 173 persons, including 92 children and teenagers. It also has a mosque and a school. The school, which was built in 2009, serves more than 150 children between the ages of six and fifteen, about half of whom come from nearby communities. Until the school was opened, primary school children had to attend schools located far away, making trips that were both costly and risky. The school was built by Italian NGO Terra di Vento, and is made of mud and rubber tires. Funding for construction of the school and for other projects in the community was provided by Italy, Belgium and the European Union.

For years Israel has been endeavoring to displace this community for a variety of reasons, including the expansion of nearby settlements, de facto annexation of the area – without its Palestinian residents – and bisecting the West Bank, cutting it in two. To that end, Israeli authorities have made the lives of the residents intolerable, hoping to make them leave their homes, ostensibly of their own volition: the authorities refuse to hook them up to electricity or a sewage system, refuse to pave roads for them, prevent construction of homes or structures for public use in the community, and have restricted their pastureland. This policy forces the residents to live in unbearable conditions, suffering a severe dearth of services in health, education and welfare. The structures in the community were indeed built without the residents having been issued building permits by the Israeli authorities. However, the residents did not choose to do so because they are deliberate lawbreakers, but because Israel’s policy keeps them from even being able to apply for building permits. As a result, they were forced to build without permits. As no community remains fossilized and unchanged, they have had to continue developing and building in this way. Only then did the planning authorities step into action, issuing demolition orders.

Over the years, Israeli authorities have confiscated various facilities and equipment and demolished existing structures. From 2006 through May 2018, the authorities demolished 26 homes in the community, making 132 people homeless, 77 of them children and teenagers. Seven non-residential structures were also demolished.

Khan al-Ahmar residents filed several petitions to Israel’s High Court of Justice against their being transferred. At the same time, Israelis from settlements in the area also filed petitions, seeking that the state implement the demolition orders. All the petitions were denied, after the state assured the court that it is seeking alternate solutions for the community. In the latest petition, the state wrote that such a solution had been found and that it plans to transfer the residents of Khan al-Ahmar to West Jahalin, near the Palestinian community of Abu Dis. On 24 May 2018, three Israeli Supreme Court justices – Noam Sohlberg, Anat Baron and Yael Willner – ruled that the state may demolish the homes of the Palestinian community of Khan al-Ahmar, transfer the residents from their homes and relocate them. In their ruling, the justices of the Supreme Court removed the last stumbling block in Israel’s way in this matter, lifting the impediment which had thus far served to defer the transfer of the community. While this policy was thought up by Israel’s political leadership, as in many other cases, the justices pitched in and did their part and paved the road to the execution of a war crime.

Should the state go through with the plan to remove the Khan al-Ahmar School community from its home, or should residents have no choice but to leave due to impossible living conditions created by the authorities, this would violate the prohibition on forcible transfer set out in international humanitarian law. Such a violation constitutes a war crime. Not only the policymakers – including the prime minister, senior cabinet members, the chief of staff and the head of the Civil Administration – will bear personal liability for the commission of this crime. Those who paved the legal road bear equal liability.

On 4 July 2018, Israeli Civil Administration officials, with a police escort and heavy construction vehicles, began preparations for the demolition of structures in the Khan al-Ahmar school community and the expulsion of its residents. The police arrested several people who were staging a non-violent protest and blocking a bulldozer from getting through.

On 5 July 2018, residents filed a new petition against the demolition with the High Court of Justice. The court issued a temporary injunction halting the demolition on the same day. On 1 August 2018, the court heard the new petition. During the hearing, the justices clarified that they wished to refrain from a ruling and pressured the parties to reach an “agreement”. Among other things, the state was told to provide a written document detailing its proposal for an alternate site.
In its response, filed on 7 August 2018, the state insisted on the community’s immediate expulsion to the site originally proposed near the Abu Dis garbage dump. The state noted that, at some point in the future, it would be prepared to advance plans for a new site for the community in a desert location south-west of Jericho, on two conditions. First, that residents of three neighboring communities would also relocate to the new site, raising the number of people to be expelled to more than 400 – more than double the original number. Second, that all residents would leave their homes “consensually” and sign affidavits to that effect, without any objections.

On 16 August 2018, members of the community notified the court they still demanded their rights and objected to the destruction of their community and their own expulsion. Addressing the state’s proposal to ultimately move them to a different alternate site, the residents revealed the extent to which this proposal was a show of bad faith, and just how inadequate and non-feasible it was. The proposed site is located only several hundred meters away from a sewage treatment facility, and building access roads to it would involve expropriating Palestinian lands. Furthermore, the state’s demand to tie the expulsion of Khan al-Ahmar to the expulsion of three additional communities is a cynical exploitation of the current legal proceedings and exposes the state’s ultimate goal: to remove all Palestinian communities from the area stretching east of Jerusalem and halfway toward the Jordan River, thereby creating a wedge of Jewish settlement that would split the West Bank in two, in keeping with the route planned for the Separation Barrier.

On 5 September 2018, Justices Amit, Meltzer and Baron dismissed the residents' petition of 5 July and other petitions they submitted. According to the court, the ruling of 24 May 2018 is conclusive and cannot be changed:

"Refraining from leaving an illegal situation intact; the principle of the finality of the legal hearing; the rule that court rulings are to be observed; legal certainty; the propriety of the action of the judicial system – all these are fundamental interests in our legal system, all of which come under the principle of the rule of law. The submission of the detailed plan at the 11th hour – as if nothing had been done thus far, and as if the Petitioners had not also rejected the possibility this Court opened at the conclusion of the litigation in the previous round – cannot uncover grounds for reopening the ruling."
In their ruling, Justices Amit, Meltzer, and Baron described an imaginary world with an egalitarian planning system that takes into account the needs of the Palestinians, as if the occupation never existed. This fantasy could not be further from reality: Palestinians cannot build legally and are excluded from the decision-making mechanisms that determine their lives . The planning systems are intended solely for the benefit of the settlers.

In April 2019, the Regavim organization filed a High Court petition demanding the state be forced to execute the demolition orders and remove the community. The Court granted several requests for postponement. When the state asked to defer the hearing to “the end of the first quarter of 2021,” Justice Sohlberg called the motion “embarrassing”, noting that state counsel had previously insisted that the removal of the community was a “pressing, perhaps even urgent” matter, yet “two years on, nothing has changed.” Justice Sohlberg called on the state to “uphold the statements it makes and allow reliance on them”, and refused to defer the hearing beyond November 2020. The hearing will be held on 29 November 2020. 

Demolishing the residents' homes will constitute a war crime for which, if it is committed, the Supreme Court justices will also bear liability.