It was the middle of the night, but the residents of the occupied East Jerusalem town of Sur Bahir were not asleep. They were waiting for, dreading, the arrival of Israeli forces to demolish their homes.
At around 2:15am on Monday, the people’s worst fears came true with the sounds of military jeeps, bulldozers, and heavy machinery rolled into their neighborhood of Wadi al-Hummus, on the outskirts of Sur Bahir, right next to Israel’s separation barrier.
Locals told Mondoweiss that more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers and government workers descended upon the area, with force, and began the process of demolishing 11 buildings in the neighborhood.
The buildings in question, containing some 70 apartments, were slated for demolition last month when the Israeli Supreme Court gave the final ruling — after a seven year legal battle between residents and the state — that the buildings were to be destroyed due to their proximity to Israel’s separation barrier, citing “security concerns.”
Despite being on the Jerusalem side of the barrier, the homes in question were built on land controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA), with the homeowners claiming they received the appropriate building permits from the PA.
The residents of Wadi al-Hummus stepped up their efforts last week to try and save their homes with intensified media campaigns and appeals to international leaders to intervene on their behalf.
But as Israeli forces stormed their neighborhood Monday morning, the hopes of the residents came crashing down. By late afternoon local time, Israeli forces had destroyed 10 out of 11 buildings, and had rigged the final building with explosives in preparation for its demolition, local activist Hamada Hamada told Mondoweiss.
“With these demolitions they [Israel] forcibly displaced dozens of people,” Hamada said, “and destroyed the dreams of hundreds of others who had not yet moved into their homes.”
A swift and aggressive operation
Immediately after Israeli forces arrived at the scene they began forcibly removing residents from their homes, along with local activists who had pitched up at the residents homes in an act of solidarity.
“The soldiers were really aggressive, pushing and shoving people, firing tear gas at us, and even beating some people with the butts of their rifles,” Hamada told Mondoweiss.
Video footage and photos circulated on social media show masked soldiers pulling people out of their homes, while trucks removed residents’ cars from the area.
According to Hamada, residents were not even given time to go through their belongings and take what they needed.
“The soldiers just threw everyone out, and cordoned them off in corners, preventing them from moving around the neighborhood or interacting with other groups in the area,” he said.
During the standoff between residents and soldiers, at least one person was detained. He was identified as Muhammad Abu Teir, an owner of the homes that was destroyed.
“He was just trying to defend his home, that he built with his two hands, from being destroyed,” Hamada said of Abu Teir’s arrest, adding that Abu Teir was expected to be released by the end of the day, but would be receiving a fine and an order to stay away from Wadi al-Hummus until Thursday.
While some forces removed the residents from the buildings, Hamada said that other forces worked to “besiege” the entire neighborhood, declaring it a closed military zone, and preventing the entrance of everyone, including journalists.
“Then besieged each building, assigning a bulldozer to each building so that multiple bulldozers could work at once,” he added.
The PLO tweeted that the demolitions began with four buildings being destroyed at one time, along with a video of Israeli forces removing residents and activists from the buildings.
Ongoing: Demolitions in #SurBahir started early this morning with four houses at once. Preparations started past midnight as hundreds of armed Israeli occupying soldiers/ bulldozers stormed the town. Families threatened with demolitions were woken up/ moved out of their homes. pic.twitter.com/Xdu7tiJnGn
— Palestine PLO-NAD (@nadplo) July 22, 2019
“When they removed the families they put them next to the buildings and made them watch as their homes were destroyed,” Hamada told Mondoweiss.
“They destroyed the homes in front of the people, in front of their kids eyes,” he continued. “If you were there you could feel that everyone, the old, the young, everyone was in despair over their homes. It was a devastating, agonizing experience.”
Setting a ‘dangerous precedent’
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision last month, residents of Wadi al-Hummus expressed fears that the move would set a precedent for Israel to target dozens of other communities along the route of the separation barrier, which runs for hundreds of miles along the border between Israel and the occupied West Bank.
A major concern amongst Palestinian and international activists lies in the fact that the land in Wadi al-Hummus, while physically on the Jerusalem side of the separation wall, is technically under the administration of the PA.
Despite the fact that residents of the area duly obtained building permits from the PA, Israel ordered the demolition of the homes on the grounds that they violate a 2011 Israeli military order prohibiting construction within a 100-300-meter buffer zone of the separation wall.
“The Oslo Accords state that in Areas A and B, where these homes were built, the PA decides who gets permission to build, not Israel,” Hamada told Mondoweiss.
With the destruction of these homes, Hamada said Israel “completely shattered this notion,” adding “this will set a dangerous precedent for the Israeli occupation to take control of this area and others like it, even if they are Areas A and B.”
In a statement on Monday, UN officials commented on the situation, saying “what happened today in Sur Bahir is of even greater significance, as many other homes and structures now risk the same fate,” the statement said.
Israeli NGO B’Tselem released a report Monday, commenting on the “far-reaching” implications of the Supreme court ruling in Sur Bahir.
“In various places in East Jerusalem (such as Dahiat al-Barid, Kafr Aqab, and the Shuafat Refugee Camp) and other parts of the West Bank (such as a-Ram, Qalqiliyah, Tulkarm, and Qalandia al-Balad), numerous residential homes were built near the separation fence,” the group said.
“Furthermore, as a result of the Israeli planning policy that prevents Palestinians from receiving building permits, many other buildings were built without permits, there being no other choice. The latest ruling gives Israel legal authorization to demolish all of these houses, while hiding behind “security arguments” in order to carry out its illegal policy.”
International community reacts
The demolitions in Sur Bahir have sparked outrage amongst the local Palesitnian population, and widespread condemnation from the international community.
MK Heba Yazbak, a Palestinian member of Israeli parliament, called the demolitions a “cruel and irreversible step,” on Twitter, saying that Israel was “continuing the current policy of occupation and annexation of #Palestinian territory.”
UN officials condemned the demolitions and forced evictions of the families in Wadi al-Hummus, saying the move could amount to forcible transfer, a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
“Israel’s policy of destroying Palestinian property is not compatible with its obligations under international humanitarian law,” the statement said. “Among other things, the destruction of private property in occupied territory is only permissible where rendered absolutely necessary for military operations, which is not applicable.”
Additionally, UN officials noted that while it was ready to provide humanitarian assistance to the families affected, “no amount of humanitarian assistance can replace a home or cover the massive financial losses sustained today by the owners.”
EU foreign affairs spokesperson Maja Kocijančič released a statement, reiterating the fact that the PA has jurisdiction over the homes that were demolished, and urging Israel to “immediately halt the ongoing demolitions.”
“The continuation of this policy undermines the viability of the two-state solution and the prospect for a lasting peace and seriously jeopardizes the possibility of Jerusalem serving as the future capital of both States,” the statement said.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director Saleh Higazi called the demolitions a “flagrant violation of international law and part of a systematic pattern by the Israeli authorities’ to forcibly displace Palestinians in the occupied territories; such actions amount to war crimes.”
Higazi called Israel to stop its “cruel and discriminatory” policy of home demolitions and forced evictions, and urged international leaders “to pressure the Israeli authorities to adhere to their duties under international humanitarian law and ensure protection for the occupied Palestinian population.”
Akram al-Wa’ra contributed to this report from the West Bank.