“Why is this happening now?” That’s the question a senior adviser to President Obama asked when my team and I met with him last week to urge the President’s leadership to stop the crisis of demolitions underway in Area C of the West Bank. Tangible action by the President, Senators and Representatives, and by U.S. citizens as their constituents, is needed now to recognize Palestinian planning rights and stop the demolitions of Palestinian homes, barns, schools and water cisterns in Palestine’s Area C.
Because calls from members of Congress keep Palestinian villages standing (Al Aqaba and Susiya), we went to Washington DC on May 23-27 to walk the halls of Congress, holding some 27 meetings with Senate and House Staff, the State Department, and the National Security Council, and a Senate briefing. That same week, the EU ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg Andersen, met with Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, Israel’s coordinator of activities in the territories, to send a harsh message to Israel regarding the demolition of Palestinian structures in Area C of the West Bank, including some that were built with EU funding. Ambassador Andersen, “warned that a continuation of the massive demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank is liable to harm relations between the EU and Israel.”
Since the start of 2016, the Israeli Army has demolished more Palestinian homes, barns, and schools in Area C than in all of 2015. While expanding the construction of illegal settlements, Israel refuses to issue building permits to Palestinian families living in Area C often citing lack of a master zoning plan, then sends the Israeli Army to demolish Palestinian homes, barns and schools citing lack of a building permit.
Rebuilding Alliance brought UN-Habitat’s Dr. Ahmad El-Atrash from Ramallah to describe a common-sense way to safeguard Palestinian communities: recognize Palestinian planning rights. As constituents called-in to urge Congressional staff to make calls on their behalf to keep Palestinian villages standing, Dr. El-Atrash described the work undertaken by Palestinian villages to file master zoning plans. We asked for their immediate intervention to express concern about the demolitions, press for approval of the 108 master zoning plans filed to date, and to safeguard the new water network under construction in the Palestinian Village of Al Aqaba.
Some background here: In 1995, the Oslo II agreement defined Area C as 62% of the West Bank and placed it under the full but temporary control of the Israeli Army. The right to administer Area C was to transfer back to Palestinian control following the establishment of the Palestinian Legislative Council. More than 20 years after the signing of the Oslo agreements, that transfer has yet to happen.
Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz newspaper, cites two reasons for the rise in demolitions, we added more:
- Heavy political pressure by right-wing MKs, headed by Moti Yogev and Bezalel Smotrich of Habayit Hayehudi, on the coordinator of activities in the territories;
- An Israeli attempt to apply pressure and to adopt sanctions against the EU in response to the decision to label products from the settlements in the European supermarket chains;
- Dr. El-Atrash believes the demolitions are happening because Israel plans to double the size of the settlements in the year ahead;
- The Israeli Human Rights Group, Yesh Din, in their policy paper From Occupation to Annexation: the Silent Adoption of the Levy Report on Retroactive Authorization of Illegal Construction in the West Bank, describes a change in Israeli law. We are seeing what Yesh Din describes: the recent demolitions in Umm Al Kheir were due to new rules that blocked their access to the Israeli courts, thus blocking the villagers’ ability to secure freeze order injunctions against demolition. Especially troubling, five homes were demolished just three weeks after the U.S. Consul General visited.
- Lastly, demolitions go way up when U.S. news is focused elsewhere and it is perceived that Congress is not watching … this makes the 4th of July a dangerous time, and also the month of August when Congress is out of session. With election news consuming the country’s attention, no one is paying attention.
In meeting after meeting, Congressional staff told us how very important it is to hear from constituents and they noted that we’re one of the only groups visiting to express concern on behalf of Palestinians. They said that calls really matter – their Senator or Representative pays attention when calls start coming in, much more than reading briefing notes. Your phone call to urge your Senators and Representative to take urgent action to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes and recognize Palestinian planning rights will result in their calling the Israeli Embassy and the U.S. State Department on your behalf, as their constituent. This happens no matter whether they are Republican or Democrat – they call because they all promise to help constituents resolve urgent matters involving US Federal agencies and most will call embassies too.
It meant a lot to the Palestinian Village of Susiya last summer when members of Congress expressed public concern last summer following an announcement by the Israel Army that the Palestinian Village of Susiya would be demolished after Ramadan. Susiya is still standing and discussions continue with the Israeli Army to recognize Susiya’s master zoning plan.
Our next speaking tour brings Palestinian children to Congress with their Pinwheels of Peace for International Peace Day on Sep. 21st. Children in seven Palestinian villages in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are joining tens of thousands of children around the world writing down what peace means to them and drawing what peace looks like. If everyone — the President, Senators, Representatives, and Constituents — takes there messages to heart and takes action, we will keep their villages safe from demolition.