Where is the price for destroying a Palestinian village?

An aerial photo of the demolition of the Khirbet Humsa community in the Jordan Valley, occupied West Bank, July 8, 2021. (Oren Ziv)

In the annals of Israel’s attempted expulsion of Palestinian shepherding communities in the occupied West Bank, bureaucracy, air-conditioned offices, and courtrooms take center stage. The hearings held by the Israeli High Court, which routinely sanctions the government’s expulsion policy and the Civil Administration’s demolition orders, may not be as dramatic a sight as a bulldozer ripping apart tents and water tanks, or a crane hoisting their debris and depositing it in a truck. But these justices, politicians, and generals are the ones who hold the ultimate responsibility for this destruction and suffering.

Still, sometimes, a single image from the ground can capture a moment that sums up Israel’s entire policy of persecution against some of the most underprivileged Palestinian communities in the West Bank, the sole purpose of which is to drive them to despair, force them out of their homes and communities, and take over their land. It is a moment that brings everything into stark relief, as clear as the scorching summer sun beating down on the Jordan Valley.

The women and children of the Abu al-Kabash and Awawdeh families, who were home while the men were out grazing the flocks, saw the bulldozers yanking and pulling the metal poles and plastic sheeting of their tents, and scooping them into trucks. They watched from the sidelines as the bulldozer driver cracked open black water tanks and then knocked down a large white one before pounding it into the arid ground, making sure nothing remained.

A woman from the community filmed some of what unfolded on a cell phone she received ahead of time from Machsom Watch activists, until the battery ran out. Further away, Palestinian activists from other parts of the Jordan Valley, B’Tselem’s field researcher, humanitarian and UN workers, and European diplomats stood and documented. The soldiers would not let them get any closer.

On July 7, Israeli trucks, bulldozers and other heavy equipment arrived at the Palestinian shepherding hamlet of Khirbet Humsa, made up of four clusters of tents and tin shacks that house 61 people, including 34 children. The soldiers, Border Police officers and hired hands of the Civil Administration — the branch of the Israeli army that oversees the day-to-day lives of millions of Palestinians under occupation — wasted no time getting down to the business of destruction.

Once the bulldozers finished crushing the community’s tents and livestock pens, the contract workers turned their attention to the residents’ personal belongings. For hours, they loaded everything that was in the homes they had just destroyed onto trucks: furniture, bedding, clothes, cooktops, food. The trucks then drove to a location in the Ein Shibli area, on the edge of Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli military control, and unloaded the items. This is where Israel has been trying to expel the residents to, despite their staunch refusal to relocate anywhere, let alone Ein Shibli, where the lack of grazing land would prevent them from continuing their traditional way of life.

The residents of Humsa were left to spend the night with nothing but the clothes on their back, no basic necessities, and no shelter. This was the sixth time in the past year that the community has had to physically resist expulsion by Israel. While it may have been more brazen than the previous demolitions, the justification is always the same: that Israel declared the area a “firing zone” in the 1970s — never mind that it was in contravention of international law.

No repercussions

Humsa’s destruction is not an aberration. It is the norm that Israel has established. It is part of the Israeli government’s ongoing policy to create unbearable living conditions for Palestinians with the aim of driving them out of their homes, concentrating them in enclaves, and effortlessly taking over their land. An attempted forcible transfer of protected persons is a war crime under international humanitarian law, and is recognized as such in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Responsibility for this crime lies with those who order, approve and oversee it: government officials and senior military commanders, high-ranking officials within the Civil Administration, and the justices of the Supreme Court who provide it with a legal seal of approval. Indeed, when the ICC looks into forcible transfers as part of its investigation into potential Israeli war crimes, it will have to assess the responsibility of all those who made the crime possible.

After previous demolitions in the community, delegations of senior diplomats from the European Union came for a visit. They told the residents that the EU stands with them in their fight for their land and objects to Israel’s policy. EU ambassadors reverberated this message in a démarche to the Israeli government, which chose to ignore it and carry on — a choice for which it faced no repercussions on Europe’s part.