Smotrich admits Israel must demolish unrecognized Palestinian village due to its strategic location

Hagar Shezaf

Haaretz  /  May 1, 2023

‘It’s the area that will decide if heavens forbid there will be territorial contiguity that will connect Bethlehem with Nablus and Ramallah,’ Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said in a meeting discussing Khan al-Ahmar’s slated emolition. ‘That’s the reason we are investing in this area now’

At a High Court hearing on Monday on a petition seeking the evacuation of the Bedouin West Bank village of Khan al-Ahmar, justices were critical of the government for not setting a deadline for the village’s relocation. The justices noted that the failure to set a date ran counter to a prior government court filing that stated that the evacuation was urgent. “What were the considerations that have suddenly turned 180 degrees?” Justice Noam Sohlberg asked.

In 2018, the court denied a petition filed by residents of Khan al-Ahmar challenging the eviction order against them. The current case, filed by the right-wing Regavim organization, is on a petition seeking to order the government to proceed with the villagers’ eviction.

The state has repeatedly sought to defer its response to the petition. At the hearing, it also submitted confidential information to the court detailing the basis for its stance. The information was not shared with the other parties to the case.

The state’s position is that the High Court of Justice should reject Regavim’s petition demanding the eviction of residents of Khan al-Ahmar, because it would involve “diplomatic and security considerations” that should be made by the Israeli government. The government explained in a brief that it does eventually plan to carry out the demolition orders issued against the village but wants to decide for itself when and how to do so.

The state said it is trying to reach an agreed solution regarding the villagers’ relocation, noting that plans for one possible solution were completed in February 2022, but the government decided not to submit them to the planning authorities for approval. This apparently refers to a plan promoted by security officials when Naftali Bennett was prime minister that would have resettled the villagers around 500 meters (about a third of a mile) away from their current location.

The justices on the High Court panel, which in addition to Sohlberg consists of Justices Alex Stein and Ofer Grosskopf, said they would issue a decision soon on Regavim’s petition.

At a meeting of his far-right Religious Zionism faction on Monday, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also minister in the Defense Ministry who holds the settlement policy portfolio, said the villagers had to be relocated not because their village was unrecognized but rather due to its strategic location on Highway 1 from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea at a point where the northern and southern West Bank meet.

“It’s the area that will decide if heavens forbid there will be territorial contiguity that will connect Bethlehem with Nablus and Ramallah,” he explained.

“That’s the reason we are investing in this area now and therefore Khan al-Ahmar will be evacuated,” Smotrich, who was one of the founders of Regavim, added.

For his part, Regavim director Meir Deutsch told Haaretz that Khan al-Ahmar is a small portion of a must larger issue. “It’s one of 1,000 places and one of 150 petitions that we have filed regarding smaller or larger [villages].”

Territorial contiguity is important to the Palestinians, who wish to establish an independent state in the West Bank, something that Smotrich and other right-wing Israeli politicians oppose. Khan al-Ahmar has also become an international symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian battle for control over Area C, the part of the West Bank assigned to full Israeli control according to the Oslo Accords. Some 250 residents live in the village.

At Monday’s hearing, Sohlberg asked whether there was an assessment as to when the future of the village would be settled. Ran Rozenberg, a lawyer representing the state, said that he could expand on the state’s position but only on an ex parte basis, meaning not in the presence of the other parties to the case.

Tawfiq Jabareen, a lawyer representing the villagers, objected to the evidence being presented in that manner and said the case had become political. For his part, Avraham Segal, a lawyer representing Regavim, said he would agree to the state’s ex parte presentation of confidential information directly to the justices, but sought to know if it was due to pressure on Israel from foreign governments.

“There will always be diplomatic considerations,” Segal said. “The fact that this complex [the village] is standing and strengthening itself only intensifies the considerations.”

Jabareen noted that “the residents of Khan al-Ahmar were expelled from the Arad area [in southern Israel] in 1948 and were transferred by force to the location where they are today, and the State of Israel wants to expel them a second time. The illegality is that.”