Israel (NI) -Is Benjamin Netanyahu using the destruction of Arab homes and villages as a distraction from corruption claims?
There have been protests across Israel after Palestinian citizen of Israel, Yaqoub Abu al-Qiyan, was shot and killed by police officers during the demolition of a Bedouin village.
Bulldozers and police officers stormed Umm al-Hiran, one of dozens of Bedouin villages in Israel that are not recognized by the Israeli government. They destroyed eight homes and seven agricultural buildings in the early hours of Wednesday 18 January.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened. Police reports state that Abu al-Qiyan, a 50-year-old teacher, attempted to ram his vehicle into the officers at the demolition site. However, a video taken by the police seems to back up eyewitness claims that he was shot before he lost control of his vehicle. A police officer who was hit by the vehicle was killed, and another one injured.
Ayman Odeh, a Member of Knesset (MK) – Israel’s parliament, was injured after being struck in the head with a sponge-tipped bullet. Tear gas and live ammunition was also used by security forces.
The destruction of lives and homes, and the complete disregard for the Palestinian citizens of Israel has caused outrage and demonstrations throughout Arab cities around the country.
On Monday 23 January, a convoy of 200 cars, driving 20 kilometres per hour on major highways, made its way to the Knesset building to protest the demolitions and the death of Abu al-Qiyan. They also demanded the release of his body which, one week after his death, the Supreme Court ruled that the police had no right to hold.
The predicament that the residents of Umm al-Hiran face is not new. In 1956, the government expelled them from their ancestral village, Khirbet Zubaleh, and relocated them to Umm al-Hiran. In spite of the fact that the government itself relocated them, the village has always been referred to as ‘unrecognized’, because the government does not recognize them as legal, therefore it did not have infrastructure, running water, electricity or other basic municipal services.
For years, the government has planned on expelling the residents again and building a Jewish town called Hiran on this same piece of land. In 2015, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Bedouin village could be destroyed to make way for the new Hiran.
Israeli media agency Arutz Sheva, reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told officials to ‘work to issue demolition orders for the illegal structures, located in Arab towns in northern and southern Israel, as well as in eastern Jerusalem.’
He is living up to that promise.
Just eight days before the demolitions in Umm al-Hiran, a reported 800 police officers entered the Arab town of Qalansawe in central Israel and demolished 11 homes, causing Mayor Abd al-Basit Salame to announce his resignation.
‘We have been waiting for approval of a master plan for 20 years,’ he said. ‘As head of the Qalansawe municipality who doesn’t have the power to change anything, I decided to send my resignation to the Ministry of Interior.’
The master plan that Salame mentioned stands as an obstacle to the building plans of the Arab municipalities and their citizens. According to Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel – the Israeli state policy which has been implemented for years has led to the housing crisis in the Arab sector, and to unauthorized construction.
Since 1948, no new Arab towns have been built and the boundaries of the existing towns have been reduced. Land owned by Arab municipalities constitutes less than three per cent, and requests for expansion are refused in spite of an increase in the Arab population. Palestinian citizens make up 1.7 million – 20 per cent of the population.
Additionally in 2015, Jewish communities received approval from the state for the construction of 38,095 housing units, but only 1,835 tenders for housing units in the Arab communities were approved. This amounts to only 4.6 per cent of all new construction tenders being given to Arab applicants.
Currently, there are 50,000 unlicenced homes that are subject to demolition.
Build not destroy
MK Jamal Zahalka, who was part of Monday’s convoy said, ‘We want to send a message against home demolitions. Our public will not calm down and won’t be silent until a complete freeze of demolitions and appropriate plans for Arab towns are provided. There is a housing shortage and the government, instead of building, destroys.’
Three of the demolished homes in Qalansawe belonged to Abu Khaled’s sons. Standing on the rubble, he complained that for years the family tried to obtain building permits but the issuance was always delayed.
‘I received the demolition orders, and was told I have 45 days to solve the problem. The next day they came in full force,’ he said.
Some believe that the demolitions are Netanyahu’s way of distracting the public from the accusations of corruption which are currently plaguing him.
‘The deeper the police investigation of Netanyahu, the wider the flames of his incitement,’ said Jewish MK Dov Khenin at a protest in Tel Aviv.
MK Issawi Freij said at the same protest: ‘The Prime Minister wants to mark out an enemy on whom his voters can vent their anger. This enemy which the PM has targeted and marked out is me – an Arab citizen of the State of Israel and a Member of Israel’s Parliament, along with all my Arab fellow citizens, a full 20 per cent of Israel’s citizen body. We are to be the scapegoats!’
Others believe that Netanyahu is trying to appease the settlers in the illegal West Bank settlement of Amona who, by government order, will be forced to evacuate.
The demolitions of Arab homes in Israel are coming at a time when new illegal (according to international law) construction is continuing on occupied Palestinian land. Last month the UN passed a resolution that Israel stop construction in the Palestinian territories. In spite of that, just a few days ago, the Israeli government announced plans to build 2,500 settler homes in West Bank settlements. Building permits have also been authorized for hundreds of settler homes in east Jerusalem, and 11 thousand more will be approved in the upcoming months, according to Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman.
Home demolitions are not limited to the homes of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Data collected by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) indicates that 2016 showed the highest number of demolitions in the West Bank in seven years. 1,089 structures in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem were destroyed or seized for not having Israeli issued building permits, and 1,593 people were displaced, and the livelihoods of 7,101 people were affected.
For Arab communities in the West Bank, 2017 has started the same way as 2016 ended. Just two days into the new year, 11 residential structures were demolished in the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar near Jerusalem, leaving 87 people homeless. The following day 15 structures, including the only school, in the Bedouin village of Khirbet Tana were demolished.
Shuaa Mansour, mayor of Taibeh, the second largest Arab city in Israel and the city which neighbors Qalansawe, is pushing for a solution with the government.
‘My hope is that the Prime Minister will talk to us as citizens, to find a solution, and not to compare us to the settlers who are stealing land in Palestine.’
Directing his talk to Netanyahu, first in Hebrew and then in Arabic, Mansour stated, ‘Every minority in the world has rights. Ask your family, and the European Jews, what it means to be an oppressed and chased minority.’
This report prepared by Noreen Sadik for New Internationalist.