The escalation in Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank in the past three months has raised the alarm among diplomats and human rights groups over what they regard as a sustained violation of international law.
The Palestinian ministry said in a statement that the Israeli authorities have exploited the international indifference to the Palestinian issue and escalated its policy of destroying Palestinian homes and facilities.
The ministry described these activities as “extrajudicial”.
United Nations’ figures show that the Israeli military has more than tripled its demolitions of Palestinian structures, including 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.
Figures collected by the U.N.’s office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA), which operates in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, indicate 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 United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the near East (UNRWA) has condemned the “large-scale” demolition of Palestinian homes by Israeli forces in Um al-Khayr in the occupied West Bank.
“I am appalled. Looking in the eyes of a young Bedouin boy in a red shirt standing amongst the crumpled ruins of his demolished home, how can anyone justify this?” said Lance Bartholomeusz, Director of UNRWA Operations in the West Bank.
Already this year, over 700 Palestinians have been displaced by Israeli demolitions in the occupied West Bank. This figure is approaching the total number of displaced for all of 2015, UNRWA reports.
The Israeli military, which has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Middle East war, claims that 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.
However, it is almost impossible for Palestinians to acquire permits, according to the U.N. and rights groups. For instance, firing zones are often declared but seldom used, and 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 U.N. 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.”
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 unauthorized 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.
“Moreover, much of the enforcement with regard to the Palestinians takes place on private Palestinian land.”
On the other hand, B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, pointed out that admission would appear to confirm that Israel’s policy discriminates against Palestinians. Mordechai said Israelis and Palestinians were treated the same.
“There is undoubtedly a wave of demolitions and displacements that is severely threatening the ability of thousands of Palestinians to live in these areas,” said Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for B’Tselem.
“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.”
“UNRWA is gravely concerned about demolitions in violation of international law,” the statement continued. “Under the Fourth Geneva Convention destruction of private property is prohibited. As Occupying Power, Israel is obliged to administer the occupied territory for the welfare of the protected Palestinian population.
“As the UN has said repeatedly, these demolitions must stop,” it concluded.