Since the beginning of the year, Israeli authorities have carried out a wave of demolitions of Palestinian structures in the occupied West Bank, with numbers that are unprecedented since the United Nations began keeping records in 2009.
As of April 14, Israeli forces had demolished 591 structures in Palestinian communities in Area C, which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank – surpassing the 453 structures demolished in all of 2015. More than 800 people have been displaced; the equivalent figure for all of last year was 580.
Under the Oslo Accords, the Occupied Palestinian Territories were divided into Areas A, B and C, according to where the Palestinian Authority was granted limited autonomy. In Area C, the Israeli military retained full control of security and civil affairs.
Israel justifies these demolitions on the grounds that the structures in question were built “illegally”, without the required permits from Israeli authorities. However, as widely documented, such permits are almost impossible to obtain – and the situation is getting worse, not better.
Between 2007 and 2010, a mere 4.5 percent of submitted Palestinian planning applications in Area C resulted in permits being granted. In 2014, of 240 Palestinian permit requests, only one was approved.
Critics who call Israel’s planning policies in the occupied West Bank “restrictive and discriminatory”, in the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, felt vindicated this month when a senior Israeli army official told a parliamentary sub-committee that “enforcement is more severe towards the Palestinians”, compared with construction in Israeli settlements.
Major-General Yoav Mordechai also stated that when it came to demolitions in the West Bank, military forces were, ultimately, acting “according to the directives of the defence minister”.
Israeli NGO B’Tselem has long held that the demolitions are part of a “policy of discrimination”. For spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli, Mordechai’s appearance at the Knesset subcommittee was a “smoking gun”.
So what is going on, and why the intensification of demolitions? Munir Nusseibeh, a human rights lawyer and director of the Community Action Centre at al-Quds University, believes that Israel is taking advantage of the current violence to intensify its forced displacement measures.
“[The demolitions are] one method that Israel uses to demographically control Palestinian growth in certain areas,” Nusseibeh said. Area C is not densely populated by Palestinians, he pointed out, and should Israel look to annex part or all of the territory in the future, “it will seek to do so in areas where there are as few Palestinians as possible”.
While the likes of political parties such as Jewish Home might be pushing for annexation, for Michaeli it is not just a question of pressure from the settlers and their friends in the Knesset; there is also a lack of opposition to the demolition policy.
one method that Israel uses to demographically control Palestinian growth in certain areas.”]
“The Israeli left doesn’t give a damn about this issue,” she said, noting that in the Jordan Valley, where many demolitions have taken place, “a lot of the settlements are part of the kibbutz movement”.
The increase in demolitions has caused significant concern among UN officials on the ground. Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, described the situation of Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills – some of whom have experienced several rounds of demolitions and harassment by settlers – as “appalling”.
“UNRWA is gravely concerned about demolitions in violation of international law,” Gunness told Al Jazeera. “As the occupying power, Israel is obliged to administer the occupied territory for the welfare of the protected Palestinian population.”
Last month, B’Tselem said the demolition policy, implemented systematically for years, “constitutes the forced transfer of protected Palestinian residents within the occupied area”. On March 28, senior UN humanitarian official Robert Piper said that Palestinian communities being targeted for demolitions were at risk of “forcible transfer”.
Under the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute, the deportation or forcible transfer of population is a crime against humanity. So with the ICC currently considering whether or not to open a full investigation into the situation in Palestine, could the demolition policy tip the balance?
Kevin Jon Heller, a professor of criminal law at SOAS, University of London, believes that home demolitions in Area C “very likely qualify as the crime against humanity of forcible transfer”.
“[As] Israel has never claimed that destroying Palestinian houses in Area C is militarily necessary, [the Office of the Prosecutor] would find it even easier to prosecute the Israeli officials responsible,” on the basis that such demolitions are a “war crime”, Heller said.
“The more Israel illegally demolishes Palestinian houses in Area C and forcibly transfers their inhabitants, the more likely the Office of the Prosecutor will be to open a formal investigation,” he added.
An ICC investigation, however, is still some way off, and for Palestinians there is no time to wait. “We can slow the demolitions, but we can’t stop them,” said Nusseibeh, whose centre focuses on the targeting of Palestinian properties in occupied East Jerusalem. “We, and several NGOs, challenge these orders in the Israeli system, but most of our ‘successes’ are simply securing a delay.”
On April 8, Piper briefed European Union officials in Brussels on Israel’s demolitions, urging a rethink in strategy and response. He pointed out that 140 aid projects by international donors had been destroyed, “including more than 200,000 euros’ ($227,000) worth of EU investments”. An EU official told Al Jazeera that the current spike in demolitions was a matter of “grave concern”.
At the same time as Israel has escalated its demolition of Palestinian structures in Area C, settlement expansion has continued apace; according to Peace Now, in the first three months of 2016, Israel approved 72 percent of the total amount of new settlement homes approved in all of 2015.
From West Bank farmers to World Bank officials, there is a general agreement that Israel’s continued grip on Area C is fatal to the Palestinian economy and to the prospects of an independent Palestinian state. The demolition wave is thus not just a humanitarian issue, or a potential crime against humanity; it also calls into question the international community’s vision for a long-term deal.