Israel freezes demolition of Bedouin village in West Bank

Hamad Saleh
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Palestinian Bedouin schoolchildren play in the yard of their school in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, east of Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frozen plans to demolish a strategically located Bedouin village in the occupied West Bank that have drawn international concern, his office said Sunday.

The surprise move, which came as Israeli forces were completing preparations for the evictions and demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, raised the ire of Netanyahu's rightwing coalition partners, while the village's Palestinian residents remained skeptical that an amicable solution was possible.

"The intention is to give a chance to the negotiations and the offers we received from different bodies, including in recent days," a statement from Netanyahu's office said about Khan al-Ahmar.

But speaking later ahead of a meeting with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Netanyahu appeared to play down the latest move and insisted the village would still be razed.

"It's our policy and it will take place," he said. "I have no intention on delaying it indefinitely, but for a short, limited period."

Netanyahu said the length of the delay would be determined by Israel's security cabinet, which was due to convene later Sunday.

Israeli authorities say the small village, located east of Jerusalem along a road leading to the Dead Sea, was built illegally, and they have given residents until the beginning of October to leave and demolish their structures.

The decision to evict the villagers followed years of legal battles and after negotiated attempts to agree on an alternative site for relocation failed.

The fate of Khan al-Ahmar has drawn international concern, with European countries calling on Israel not to move ahead with plans to demolish it.

Israel's supreme court on September 5 rejected a final appeal against the demolition, but following that ruling, there have been unofficial attempts to reach understandings, a lawyer representing the village's residents told AFP.

"Our offers were based on what we told the court, that we're willing to move a few hundred metres to the north," Tawfiq Jabareen said.

The government has yet to respond to the proposals, Jabareen said, refusing to divulge the identity of the person attempting to mediate between the sides.

In Khan al-Ahmar, residents said they would stay put and doubted Netanyahu's sincerity.

"Our strategy is to stay in our land, and we will not leave it," Eid al-Jahalin told AFP.

"Yesterday there was a decision to stop the demolition, but this decision can change at any moment."

Ibrahim Abu Dahuk said Netanyahu's decision could be "a trick" to prompt activists camping out at the site to leave ahead of a forceful eviction.

"We do not trust the Jews," he said.

- Coalition partners angered -

Netanyahu's move raised the ire of his two major coalition partners, with Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying he opposed the decision to delay the demolition.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett also insisted the law must be upheld, "even if the international community opposes and threatens," pledging his Jewish Home party would "ensure it happens".

On Wednesday, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor warned that Israel's planned "evacuation by force" of the village could constitute a war crime.

The residents have refused to leave on their own, and Israel had been making preparations to expel the residents and demolish the village.

Khan al-Ahmar, home to approximately 200 people, is situated in a strategic spot near Israeli settlements, the expansion of which could effectively cut the West Bank into two.

Last month, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Belgium, Poland and the Netherlands warned that the demolition "would severely threaten the viability of the two-state solution", calling on Israeli authorities to "reconsider their decision to demolish" it.