More than 70 Palestinians, mostly minors, in the occupied West Bank have been made homeless in the single largest Israeli demolition of a Palestinian community in over a decade, according to United Nations data.
Security forces destroyed 76 structures in the Humsa al Bqai’a Bedouin community in the north Jordan Valley on Tuesday, displacing at least 73 people, 41 of them children. The reason reportedly given was lack of building permits.
This is despite indications from the Israeli authorities that such orders would be frozen given the health implications hindering social distancing measures and lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic. Often such demolitions are deemed illegal under international law.
According to data compiled by OCHA, the UN’s humanitarian office, Tuesday’s clearing was the single largest demolition since 19 July 2010, in terms of numbers of structures affected.
It was also the largest demolition in four years in terms of the number of people made homeless.
Footage taken at the scene and shared with The Independent showed Israel’s civil administration arriving accompanied by soldiers and several bulldozers. The forces demolished at least 18 tents and sheds that were the home of 11 families, according to Israeli rights group B’Tselem.
In addition, 29 tents and sheds that were used as pens for sheep, three sheds used for storage, nine tents used as kitchens, 10 mobile toilets and 23 water tanks were reportedly razed.
More than 30 tonnes of food and water for the animals were also destroyed.
On Wednesday, the families were seen trying to salvage their belongings from the wreckage in the freezing rain. They were reportedly given tents by the Red Cross and helped by activists but their future remains uncertain.
“Their vulnerability is further compounded by the onset of winter and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” said OCHA’s humanitarian coordinator Yvonne Helle who strongly urged Israel to halt unlawful demolitions.
“Some of the demolished structures had been donated as humanitarian assistance. ”
According to the UN the destruction of property in an occupied territory like the West Bank is prohibited under international humanitarian law, unless absolutely necessary for military operations. In a recent statement they said during the time of a pandemic it “is particularly worrying as it further compounds the overall situation in the West Bank”.
The incident comes as rights groups announced that the number of Palestinians made homeless by Israeli house demolitions has already reached a four-year high, with now 869 Palestinians displaced between January and November in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
This is the highest number since 2016 when, according to B’Tselem, nearly 1,500 Palestinians were left with nowhere to live.
OCHA sounded the alarm last month warning that between March and August, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, they recorded the highest destruction rate in the West Bank in four years.
The government typically cites the lack of Israeli-issued building permits when they demolish or force Palestinians to destroy homes and sources of livelihood.
However, the UN and rights groups say these are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain because of the restrictive and discriminatory planning regime which leaves them no venues for legal construction.
OCHA data shows that Tuesday’s clearing is second only in scale to a demolition that took place in al-Farisiya Ihmayyer in the northern Jordan Valley on 19 July 2010.
The last time such a large group of people was displaced was in March 2016.
On 1 October the Ministry of Justice reinstated a limited moratorium on demolitions in Israel and East Jerusalem, protecting inhabited and residential structures that were built before the outbreak of the pandemic.
There had been an indication in March that a similar freeze would be imposed on demolition orders in the West Bank, but practice showed that does not seem to currently be in place.
Nearly 320,000 people in Israel have been infected with the coronavirus while over 2,500 have died.
At least 64,000 Palestinians have also been infected.
The West Bank and East Jerusalem have been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war and are territories that the Palestinians hope will become their future state.
However, Israel sees these areas as theirs, citing biblical, historical and political connections to the territory, where more than 500,000 Israeli settlers now live.
Israeli settlements are deemed illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace.