Israeli West Bank demolitions raise alarm

In the past three months, the Israeli military has more than tripled its demolitions of Palestinian structures in the occupied West Bank, United Nations’ figures show.

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The increase is raising alarm among diplomats and human rights groups over what they regard as a sustained violation of international law.

Figures collated by the UN’s office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA), which operates in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, show that from an average of 50 demolitions a month in 2012-2015, the average has risen to 165 a month since January, with 235 demolitions in February alone.

The Israeli military, which has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Middle East war, says it carries out the demolitions because the structures are illegal: they were either built without a permit, in a closed military area or firing zone, or violate other planning and zoning restrictions.

The UN and rights groups point out that permits are almost impossible for Palestinians to acquire, that firing zones are often declared but seldom used, and that many planning restrictions date from the British Mandate in the 1930s.

“It is a very marked and worrying increase,” said Catherine Cook, an OCHA official based in Jerusalem who closely monitors the demolitions, describing the situation as the worst since the UN body started collecting figures in 2009.

“The hardest hit are Bedouin and Palestinian farming communities who are at risk of forcible transfer, which is a clear violation of international law.”

The structures include houses, Bedouin tents, livestock pens, outhouses and schools. In an increasing number of cases, they also include humanitarian structures erected by the European Union to help those affected by earlier demolitions.

Appearing before a sub-committee in the Israeli parliament on Wednesday, Major General Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of the Israeli government’s activities in the West Bank, defended the policy and told right-wing lawmakers he was doing all he could to carry out 11,000 outstanding demolition orders.

The lawmakers summoned Mordechai to the hearing because of their concerns he is not doing enough to dismantle Palestinian structures and focusing instead on removing unauthorised Israeli construction in the West Bank.

“I want to state unequivocally that enforcement is more severe towards the Palestinians,” Mordechai told them, comments that would appear to substantiate the concerns raised by diplomats, aid workers and human rights groups.

From the point of view of B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, that admission would appear to confirm that Israel’s policy discriminates against Palestinians.

“To demolish the homes of Palestinians who are protected under the Geneva Conventions and to build (Israeli) settlements is a clear violation of international humanitarian law,” said Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for B’Tselem.