On Monday, Israel began demolishing homes in Wadi al-Hummus, which is part of the Palestinian neighborhood of Sur Bahir in East Jerusalem. Palestinian home demolitions are unfortunately not uncommon occurrences, but there are two things that make Wadi al-Hummus unusual. Unlike the rest of Sur Bahir, Wadi al-Hummus is not in East Jerusalem, and it abuts the security barrier. These two variables make this particular set of home demolitions a big deal worthy of particular focus. In important ways, demolishing these homes sets a precedent that will lead to constant turmoil over Palestinian building in the West Bank if it is followed to its logical conclusion, and creates a situation that is even more inequitable for Palestinians while bringing Israel far more condemnation.
Israel has argued that the homes in Wadi al-Hummus must be demolished because they present an unacceptable security risk. The 13 homes marked for demolition were built right up against the West Bank security barrier, and the government wants a buffer zone for the barrier in that part of Sur Bahir. The residents of the neighborhood appealed the demolition orders to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the homes could be legally removed for security purposes, and the demolitions began on Monday.
It is reasonable to support necessary Israeli security measures, and many will see these demolitions as being in a different category than home demolitions that are carried out for no other reason than Palestinians not having a building permit from Israel (which, not unimportantly, are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain). Israel takes security measures all the time that negatively impact Palestinians, and if you tend to view those as legitimate, then, on the face of things, these particular demolitions will not stand out. But that misses some critical context.
Wadi al-Hummus lies beyond the Jerusalem municipal line, so it is not legally part of East Jerusalem under Israeli law and the Jerusalem municipality has no jurisdiction there. Like other parts of the West Bank surrounding Jerusalem, the neighborhood lies inside the security barrier, but what makes Wadi al-Hummus stand out is that it is inside the security barrier but is in Areas A and B, which makes it part of the Palestinian Authority. In other words, the neighborhood is in Palestinian territory under Palestinian administrative control but it is inside the security barrier, which prevents the PA from operating there. It is the reverse situation of the East Jerusalem neighborhoods Kufr Aqb and Shuafat refugee camp, which are inside the Jerusalem municipal line and are thus under Israeli jurisdiction but are not provided any municipal services by Israel because they lie beyond the barrier.
Since the homes that Israel demolished were in Areas A and B, they were not built illegally under Israeli law as Israel is not the authority that confers building permits in Wadi al-Hummus. Rather, it is the PA that granted building permits there since that is its administrative territory and thus its job. That Israel built the security barrier not on the Jerusalem municipal line but beyond it in order to incorporate part of the West Bank designated to be under Palestinian control was a conscious Israeli choice, but it did not alter the basic fact that the land it was putting west of the barrier was still Area A and Area B. When Israel carries out home demolitions – excepting homes demolished on the basis of terrorist activity – they take place in Area C, since that is Israeli administrative territory. This is the first time that Israel has demolished homes that had proper building permits from the PA and lie in territory that is undisputedly under Palestinian administrative control.
The precedent this sets is monumental. The entire setup in the West Bank is predicated on the division of the territory into Areas A, B, and C, each with its own separate status. When Prime Minister Netanyahu talks about maintaining the status quo in the West Bank, he is talking about having the PA continue to be in charge of day-to-day affairs in Areas A and B. When proponents of annexation such as Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett talk about Israel applying sovereignty to Area C of the West Bank, they intend for the PA to have autonomy to run its own affairs in Areas A and B. This is literally the standard by which everything in the West Bank is run, and yet Israel has now gone beyond not granting permits and demolishing unpermitted buildings in the area it controls. It has now gone into the area designated for PA administration, and which everyone on the Israeli right (outside of the small handful of irredentist extremists who advocate for Israel to annex the entire West Bank) agrees that the PA should continue to run, and demolished homes with PA building permits. It would be like the U.S. government announcing that it is going to build President Trump’s southern border wall around a Mexican neighborhood on the other side of the Rio Grande, and then sending in bulldozers to raze the homes in that Mexican neighborhood because they would be too close to the American side of the wall.
I am not in a position to judge what is a legitimate Israeli security need and what is not. Israel’s Supreme Court accepted the state’s argument that demolishing these homes is needed to keep the barrier secure, and I do not presume to know any better. But I do know that the barrier in this spot was built around a Palestinian neighborhood and around territory that is not administratively controlled by Israel under Oslo, and that Israel is unprecedentedly using “barrier security” as an excuse to effectively annex territory in A and B that contains only Palestinians. It also puts an untold number of other buildings at risk. Anyone who has ever driven through French Hill and gazed across at Shuafat refugee camp, whose buildings not only go right up to the barrier but tower above it, will immediately grasp that “barrier security” seems to be a fairly nebulous concept and that applying it in other instances will lead to chaos. Is Israel now going to demolish other structures too close to the barrier? Is it going to claim security grounds to demolish homes in other spots in Areas A and B? Taking this policy to its utmost conclusion allows Israel to do nearly anything it likes anywhere in the West Bank, existing laws and regulations be damned.
We can argue about what should go on in Area C, but nobody – including the prime minister and every cabinet minister in the current government save those from the Kahanist-infected Union of Right-Wing Parties – disputes that Areas A and B are for the Palestinians and that Israel is not interested in them, now or ever. Demolishing homes in those places, where Israel has no jurisdiction over building, is not a garden variety move, and anyone who simply yells “security buffer zone!” as the justification should pay closer attention to just what a monumental leap this round of home demolitions actually is.