Bedouin families at risk as Israeli military destroys West Bank homes

Tents in Humsa al-Bqai'a are demolished in an operation led by the Israeli military (AFP)

Rosie Scammell

The National  /  July 30, 2021

The Israeli military has declared a firing zone in the area where the Bedouin community lives.

On a sun-scorched plain in the Jordan Valley, Bedouin families are at risk of losing their pastoral way of life in the West Bank as the Israeli military moves in to demolish their homes.

“The first time they came was November, they didn’t leave anything for us to shelter under,” said Falastin Abu Kbash, sweat forming on her brow. “[Then] they came back again.”

The 35-year-old is one of dozens of Bedouins living in Humsa al-Bqai’a, an area adjacent to an Israeli settlement, where the military has declared a firing zone.

The November incident in the northern West Bank was the largest single demolition in a decade according to the UN, which reported that 76 structures were destroyed including homes and latrines.

The military has been back repeatedly since, demolishing the community’s property as part of a concerted effort to move the residents off the land.

In the latest large-scale operation on July 7, the UN reported the demolition of 30 structures and the displacement of 42 people.

“[They took] everything, even the household items… they brought trucks,” said Ms Abu Kbash, sitting under a tent beside two covered pens holding dozens of sheep.

“And so we came here, as you can see us under the sun. There’s nothing,” she added, after moving with her relatives to the edge of the declared firing zone.

Residents and humanitarian organizations say the military also emptied water tanks and confiscated items such as milk and diapers, statements which were disputed by an Israeli security official.

“No water was confiscated, no locals were left without water in 40C… no tanks were taken,” he said.

Only tents were demolished, he said.

The military said it carried out an “enforcement activity” on July 7, following an Israeli court ruling, which declared that the community had no right to stay on the land.

“The activity included the confiscation and demolition of tents that were once again illegally erected by Palestinian residents who invaded the firing range in the Jordan Valley in 2012,” said the Israeli military branch dealing with civilian affairs in the West Bank.

The Israeli military took control of the West Bank in 1967 and has since declared around 18 per cent of the land as firing zones, UN data show, effectively banning civilians from these areas.

While the military argues that moving the herder community to a village is necessary for their own protection, the EU and other diplomatic missions in Jerusalem view the forcible transfer as a breach of international law.

“You cannot drive people away from their land or the land they live in except when rendered absolutely necessary by military operations – which is not relevant in the Jordan Valley where there are currently no active hostilities,” said Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, who heads the EU delegation to the Palestinians.

Tents, sheds and solar panels are among the items destroyed or confiscated, which were funded by the EU and other donors.

“Under no argument do I see a plausible reason for demolishing and confiscating anything that belongs to the Bedouin community, nor for evicting the Palestinian residents of Humsa,” said Mr Burgsdorff.

Despite numerous visits to the site by diplomats and NGOs, their objections have failed to halt the military action.

The new Israeli government is not expected to intervene in the Humsa case, nor change its broader policy on the West Bank which could shake the fragile coalition.

The majority of those displaced do not want to move to a village, which they fear will bring an end to their way of life.

Among the two dozen children caught up in the July demolitions, some are showing signs of trauma such as increased irritability.

Hala Abweh, a social worker with charity Médecins du Monde, said she worried that the families’ precarious situation would go on indefinitely.

“It is their right to live a good life; their basic needs to be available to them,” she said of the children.

Ms Abu Kbash said the children gathered around her in the tent are unable to cope with such limited shelter after the demolitions.

“It’s death for them in a fire like this,” she said. “Can they handle the sun? They can’t.”

Rosie Scammell – correspondent, Jerusalem