Al Khan al Ahmar, international law and the paradox of hope

Imagine living day after day unsure of when your home will be demolished. That will most likely mean having to quickly move elsewhere out of necessity, not out of choice. Will you be able to salvage some of your belongings, comfort your traumatised children as a bulldozer tears apart the memories of happier times laughing with loved ones in the comfort of your sitting room? And if you have to move so suddenly, how will you support your family, while you find a new job and possible source of income? For the Jahalin Bedouin living in makeshift dwellings in Al Khan al Ahmar and other Bedouin tribes living in villages scattered across the Israeli-occupied West Bank, waiting for that moment in a state of perpetual insecurity has become part of life.

Nobody disputes the fact that the living conditions of the Palestinian Bedouin are poor. I have heard this from urban Palestinians and Israelis, and witnessed it myself. The international community recognises that these groups face the dire consequences of a protracted man-made humanitarian crisis and are some of the most vulnerable in the West Bank. The reasons behind this are complex, for a range of social, historical and – most importantly – political factors. The Jahalin Bedouin moved as refugees from the Negev (Naqab) desert in the south of present-day Israel after the war of 1948, and their political demand is to return to their ancestral land. They eventually settled east of the so-called Green Line in the Jerusalem periphery along the road to Jericho. Between those hills the communities settled and grazed their sheep and goats, with easy access to the markets of Jerusalem and other Palestinian towns and water from the springs of nearby Wadi Qelt. But after the 1967 war which marked the start of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Jahalin Bedouin have had to compete with the Israeli settlement project; hundreds have been removed from their land to make way for settlement expansion. Bedouin villages such as Umm Rassas have been obliterated from the landscape, their ruins beneath the neat houses of Ma’ale Adumim, the mega settlement that the current Israeli government wants to annex to the Jerusalem municipality.

For the Bedouin communities that remain in the area known as E1 – the Israeli-controlled block around east Jerusalem that surrounds Palestinian neighbourhoods and breaks the territorial viability of Palestine – the checkpoints and erection of the separation wall in the 2000s now block access to markets, and thus the main source of income for meat and dairy products. Access to grazing land has also been severely curtailed by the presence of settlements, which bring with them ‘security borders’ closed off to Bedouin, as are military zones and firing ranges that extend throughout most of the Judean Desert where Bedouin graze their flocks.

For Israel, whose current government seeks to regularise unlawful acquisition of Palestinian land through the internationally-condemned “Regularisation Law”, and control as much of the West Bank as possible, starting from the E1 area and Greater Jerusalem, the Bedouin villages that dot the land between one settlement and another are an obstacle to full control over the area. The surge in demolitions and Israeli unilateral plans to transfer these communities would clear these locations of Bedouins, and thus remove Palestinian citizens living in these parts of Palestine. If they can be persuaded to move – or be moved forcibly, if they remain unpersuaded – Israeli possession over Palestinian land will consolidate into something more permanent than a simple, 50-year, military occupation compounded by over half a million Israeli civilians living in settlements considered illegal under international law.

In recent years, the Israeli authorities have used the lack of planning permits for Bedouin structures – a mix of private and public structures, including toilets and animal pens – as a pretext to order demolitions in Area C, 60% of the West Bank entirely under Israeli control. Yet the Israeli permit and planning regime, which is unlawful under international law, is an example of the Kafkaesque laws that govern Palestinian civilians living under Israeli military occupation: only 1.5% of Palestinian planning applications has been successful in Area C, leaving Bedouin communities no other choice but to build without the permits required by Israel.

There’s one place that has become the symbol of this injustice: the village of Al Khan al Ahmar, in which roughly 140 people live, more than half of whom are children; it has received waves of demolition orders stalled by the Israeli Supreme Court but periodically revived through the injustices of the system. The latest wave of stop work orders converted into demolition orders on 5th March 2017 affect virtually all village structures, and give families 7 days to self-demolish their homes; after that, the Israeli authorities may arrive at any time to carry out the orders. The demolition orders include a school, built by international donors in 2009, which has been the focus of a legal odyssey most recently championed in the Israeli Supreme Court by a group of settlers of the neighbouring Kfar Adumim settlement, eager to expand on that plot of land, or at least ready to do so by removing the Bedouin presence.

Al Khan al Ahmar’s lawyer has been buying time for the community for the last eight years, and has requested an injunction to stop the demolition orders from being executed. But the uncertainties of the process – now exacerbated by the fact that the duty judge is a settler himself sympathetic to the right-wing fringes of the coalition – makes the timeline and outcomes impossible to predict. So the Al Khan al Ahmar villagers, supported by Palestinian, Israeli and international actors and NGOs, are left in limbo. Which perhaps is part of the strategy of maintaining instability. And maybe, when this coercive environment becomes just too unbearable for the Bedouin, they will accept the Israeli relocation plans and leave the Al Khan al Ahmar site, and end up as another disastrous case-study of West Bank Bedouin urban relocation replicating the Al Jabal experience of the late 1990s.

International law is clear on the illegality of settlements (Article 49(6) Fourth Geneva Convention) and the unlawfulness of demolitions of public and private property (Article 53 Fourth Geneva Convention), considered a war crime (Article 8(2)(a)(iv) of the Rome Statute). The UN is closely monitoring the risk of forcible transfer faced by Bedouin communities in the West Bank – which is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49(1) and 147), as well as a crime against humanity for the purposes of the Rome Statute (Article 7(1)(d) and 7(2)(d)). The ICC has taken its first steps in analysing these facts in light of international criminal law as well. In the landmark resolution 2334 (2016) the UN Security Council condemned “all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, including, inter alia, the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law and relevant resolutions”.

Since the last wave of demolition orders in Al Khan al Ahmar in 2017, the UN and EU have deplored the Israeli plans to demolish Al Khan al Ahmar and many more Bedouin villages in the West Bank, and transfer their residents elsewhere, citing international law violations as a matter of routine. However, the final arbiter over the fate of Al Khan al Ahmar, the demolition of the school and other structures and the transfer of the villagers – which are serious international law violations – remains the Israel Supreme Court and not an international tribunal. The fairness and impartiality of the proceedings raise serious doubts.  Will the Israeli courts ever be able and willing to do justice to the Bedouin in areas of Palestine earmarked for Israeli settlement expansion?  Perhaps the only way to protect Al Khan al Ahmar, stop the demolitions and prevent transfer of civilians in line with international law requirements, is to migrate all cases that pit Israeli political interests against the rights of Palestinians away from Israeli courts and before impartial international judges. The international community’s responsibility, now, is to find – or create – an adjudicatory body to ensure international law is upheld and violations accounted for. Only then will international law become more than words on paper for the Palestinian Bedouin.

Reposted with kind permission of the author and Social and Legal Studies.

Alice M Panepinto is the author of ‘Jurisdiction as Sovereignty Over Occupied Palestine: The Case of Khan-al-Ahmar‘ (2016) Social & Legal Studies; first published online 23rd September 2016.  Alice is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the School of Law, University of Warwick and has research interests in human rights, internationa law, socio-legal studies and islamic legal systems. Her current research focuses on transitional justice and the right to the truth both globally and in Muslim-majority contexts.

[This post was amended on 31/3/17 to clarify certain treaty references.]

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