The Palestinian village Khan al-Ahmar in Smotrich’s sights

Elisheva Goldberg

Jewish Currents  /  May 23, 2023

Destroying the hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar has become a priority for Israel’s settler right, which aims to ‘cut the West Bank into two’.

On May 1st, Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzahi Hanegbi went to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, where a panel of three justices was hearing a petition filed by the Jewish settler organization Regavim. The petition demanded that the Israeli government immediately raze Khan al-Ahmar, a tiny hamlet in the West Bank’s Area C that is home to 250 Palestinians of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been promising to demolish Khan al-Ahmar for years; in 2019, he said that the demolition would take place “very soon.” But every time it looks like he’s about to follow through, Netanyahu asks the court for a delay.

This time was no different. When Hanegbi, whose fleshy neck and droopy eyes are reminiscent of Mitch McConnell’s, strode into the packed courtroom 45 minutes into the proceedings, it was to present secret evidence to once again delay the demolition—this time, indefinitely. Six days later, the justices unanimously decided that the timing of the demolition would be left up to the government due to concerns about “state security and foreign affairs.”

On its face, Netanyahu’s opposition to the demolition seemed out of step with his closest-held political commitments. The current Israeli government has given the extreme settler right massive power to execute its agenda—an agenda exemplified by the work of Regavim.

Bezalel Smotrich, the group’s founder, is Israel’s Finance Minister and a deputy minister in the Ministry of Defense; in the latter role, he has authority over the civil administration, the unit of the army that manages the expansion of settlements and oversees the daily lives of Palestinians and Israelis who live in Area C, the portion of the West Bank that was put under full Israeli control by the Oslo Accords. Regavim has also infiltrated the civil administration, which now uses a computerized system developed by the group to enable settlers to report “illegal” Palestinian buildings. Finally, as reported by Haaretz, a substantial portion of Regavim’s budget comes from public funds. As Shlomo Lecker, a human rights attorney who represented Khan al-Ahmar from 2009–2018, put it: “Regavim is the state.”

However, on the issue of Khan al-Ahmar, Netanyahu has pushed back on his government’s settler flank. Experts say this is a testament to international pressure campaigns that have sought to protect the village from destruction. According to Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem-based lawyer and an expert on the area known as the E1 corridor—a portion of the West Bank adjacent to East Jerusalem, where Khan al-Ahmar is located—while Netanyahu wants to “neutralize” Palestinian presence and build Jewish settlements in E1, he wants to do so without the international scrutiny that a forcible transfer of residents would bring. While Netanyahu is generally more “defiant” than “risk-averse,” Seidemann said, in the matter of Khan al-Ahmar, “he is deterred by the international reaction.”

Like tens of other villages in Area C, Khan al-Ahmar—which is built from scrap metal, nylon sheets, and flimsy wood—is technically “illegal,” having never been recognized by Israel even as the state built Jewish settlements all around it. Israel denies 98% of Palestinian requests for building permits in Area C, forcing residents to build without permission. Since 2009, Regavim has used Khan al-Ahmar’s “illegal” status to argue for its demolition, an effort that came close to succeeding in 2018 when the High Court of Justice upheld the state’s decision to demolish the village. However, the demolition has been held at bay because—unlike other villages that have faced similar situations—Khan al-Ahmar has drawn international attention. After the court’s 2018 decision, the village hosted a new diplomat or journalist almost every week, according to Eid Abu Hamis, a spokesperson for Khan al-Ahmar who grew up in the village. “Every television channel came—they all helped the Bedouin,” Abu Hamis told Jewish Currents. “Germans, British, Americans—everyone told this story.”

The resulting international blowback against Israel was swift. Within weeks, European Union (EU) member states issued a joint statement objecting to the court’s ruling; France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK soon followed with their own joint statement. Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, told Jewish Currents that the most consequential statement came from International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who suggested that a forcible transfer of the village’s population would be considered a war crime. “Israel was afraid to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the international community,” Sadot said.

As Khan al-Ahmar’s profile has risen, it has become emblematic of the prospects for a two-state solution—a future that will become yet more remote if Palestinians are pushed out of the area where the village sits. Back in 2018, Smotrich called the village a “fundamental test case for Israeli sovereignty,” a position he has recently elaborated upon. On May 1st, the day the court heard Regavim’s petition on whether to immediately demolish Khan al-Ahmar, Smotrich told a meeting of his Religious Zionism faction that the village “sits in a strategic space . . . that will determine if, heaven forbid, there will be an Arab territorial continuum connecting Bethlehem with Nablus and Ramallah.” According to Sadot, “Smotrich wants to destroy [the village] because he wants to … cut the West Bank into two.”

Khan al-Ahmar’s strategic importance explains Regavim’s decision to sue the state in an attempt to force a speedy demolition, despite the risk of international censure. Indeed, when I asked Regavim’s spokesperson Naomi Kahn whether her organization was pushing the State of Israel to commit a war crime, she said, “You can call anything a war crime.” She continued: “The international community will come after Israel either way. If it isn’t Khan al-Ahmar it will be something else. Israel should do what any sane country does: protect its national interests, enforce the law, and declare and defend its rights.”

The Supreme Court’s recent decision not to expedite the demolition offers a brief reprieve to the residents of the village. But the Israeli right remains determined to bring about the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar—and the resulting precedent will likely decide the fates of 18 other Bedouin villages in E1, which are home to some 3,700 Palestinians. Even though the residents of Khan al-Ahmar—many of whom are refugees from Israel’s 1948 war—have thus far managed to stay in their homes, the village’s lack of building permits or an urban master plan means that it goes without access to basic services and infrastructure. In its more than 50 years of existence, it has never been hooked up to the state water system or the electrical grid.

When I asked about what the demolition of the village would mean for the people of Khan al-Ahmar, Regavim’s Kahn said that the state had offered them alternative housing, which she described as “fully developed lots with electricity, running water, infrastructure, a health clinic, and a school.” But residents dispute this characterization. Abu Hamis said that the state had offered the villagers two locations they could move to after the demolition. The first, near the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis, sits between a highway and a landfill whose fumes have seeped into the soil. The second location is near a sewage processing plant where, Abu Hamis said, “you have to close your windows when you go by.” In both places, the Israeli government promised each villager just 300 square meters—a space that might be enough to build a small home, Abu Hamis said, but would not leave enough room for the livestock that the community relies on to make its living. Trying to find another solution, the villagers worked with the urban planning NGO Bimkom to come up with a master plan for Khan al-Ahmar that would satisfy the government, but Abu Hamis said that when they submitted it, the government rejected it: “They threw it in the trash.”

Should the Israeli authorities go ahead with the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, the diplomatic consequences are likely to be severe. Netanyahu’s hesitance to incur such blowback suggests that international pressure can sometimes produce an effect—but at the same time, Sadot said, the international focus on this one village overlooks dozens of others “whose story is the same story.” On Tuesday, the last residents of ‘Ein Samia, an Area C Palestinian community near Ramallah, were forced to leave their land. “All of the communities under the threat of eviction should interest the international community, because forcible transfer of residents is a war crime,” Sadot said. In 2022, B’Tselem requested the ICC’s support in preventing demolition in the area of Masafer Yatta, citing that body’s condemnation of the Khan al-Ahmar demolition as a model. “That specific attention . . . it’s not something that is done often,” she said. But when it is, “it has weight.”

Elisheva Goldberg is the media and policy director for the New Israel Fund and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents