The number of Palestinians made homeless by Israeli house demolitions has reached a four-year record high, despite Israel’s promises of a freeze amid concerns over the dangers posed to public health in the coronavirus pandemic.
At least 741 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem were made homeless between January and 30 September 2020 because of demolitions, according to data compiled by Israeli rights group B’Tselem.
This is the highest number since 2016, which according to B’Tselem’s number was a record year, when 1496 Palestinians were left with nowhere to live.
The true totals for 2020 are thought to be higher as demolitions, that are largely deemed illegal under international law, continued in October according to the OCHA, the United Nations’ humanitarian office.
OCHA already sounded the alarm in September, warning that between March and August, they recorded the highest average destruction rate in the West Bank since 2016 even though the Israeli authorities indicated they would restrict the longstanding policy because of Covid-19.
“For Israeli authorities, a world pandemic is no reason to stop demolishing Palestinian homes. Both in the de facto and de jure annexed West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel left hundreds of people with no shelter during this unprecedented global health and financial time of emergency,” said Amit Gilutz from B’Tselem.
“The uproar against Israel's threat to officially annex the West Bank has subsided, but the very real de facto annexation on the ground is implemented in cruel efficiency,” he added.
Gilutz said instead of slowing down new military orders have been put in place that help the Israeli authorities expedite the process.
That allows for the removal of structures as soon as 96 hours after delivering a notice, largely preventing owners from being heard before a judicial body.
The destruction of property in an occupied territory like East Jerusalem and the West Bank is prohibited under international humanitarian law, unless absolutely necessary for military operations.
The Israelis typically cite the lack of Israeli-issued building permits when they demolish, or force Palestinians to destroy, homes and sources of livelihood.
However according to the UN and rights groups these are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain, because of the restrictive and discriminatory planning regime which leaves them no venues for legal construction.
Rights group believes that this is part of a policy to prevent the development of Palestinian residential areas. The Israelis vehemently deny this.
However, over the years the UN has repeatedly urged Israel to halt the practice to no avail. It has warned it is particularly devastating in a pandemic as it offers those made homeless few options to social distance or abide by health regulations.
Since March Israel has enforced some of the strictest measures including two nation-wide lockdowns mandating Israelis to stay home, at times banning foreign visitors who cannot quarantine and – together with the Palestinians – shutting off areas of the West Bank and Gaza.
So far than 310,000 Israelis have been infected by the virus while over 2,400 people have been killed.
In the West Bank and Gaza, the virus has infected at least 52,000 Palestinians and killed 465 more.
But despite the obvious health risks, OCHA and B’Tselem reported on Wednesday alone in Jerusalem, Palestinian residential structures had been destroyed in Al-Muntar and Sur Baher as well as a commercial structure under construction in Shu’afat refugee camp.
The day before Israeli authorities bulldozed a home and a cistern in the Palestinian community of Birin in the West Bank.
In fact, according the UN’s count between March and August, on average 65 Palestinian owned structures were demolished or confiscated every month - the highest rate since 2016.
Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator, said that beyond homes, water, hygiene or sanitation assets, and structures used for agriculture, were also targeted undermining the access of many to livelihoods and services during a worldwide downturn.
“The global pandemic has increased the needs and vulnerabilities of Palestinians, who are already trapped in the abnormality of prolonged military occupation,” he said in a September statement. “Unlawful demolitions exacerbate these vulnerabilities and must stop immediately.”
Adalah - The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel - took legal action to try to stop East Jerusalem home demolitions and sent an urgent letter to the Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat) demanding the same freeze in the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli Justice ministry responded on 1 October indicating it would freeze demolitions nationwide.
In a communique to Adalah a ministry spokesperson said that “after re-examining the situation” and given the government imposed restrictions in a second wave of coronavirus “it has been decided at this stage, to adjust the enforcement policy of planning and construction offence to align with the state of emergency, similar to the policy decided upon in March 2020".
The Justice Ministry did not reply to a request for comment from The Independent about why new demolitions had taken place since this message was sent, or why demolitions had continued since March.
The Independent also reached out to Israel’s Jerusalem Municipality for clarity on the situation in East Jerusalem but received no reply.
A spokesperson for COGAT, a defence ministry unit, told The Independent that it “takes enforcement action against planning and building violations as part of its commitment to maintain public order and the rule of law".
It added: “subject to the Supervision Unit’s order of priorities and operational considerations, the enforcement action is taken pursuant to its authority and in conformance with accepted procedures".
Suhad Bishara from Adalah said that it is urgent as the pandemic has made the home the “only place where people can protect themselves”.
“Throughout 2020 we have seen continuous home demolitions and evictions happening,” she told The Independent.
“Except for some exceptional freezes because of lockdown - it seems that the policy through the years is accelerating. This is regardless of coronavirus or any peace treaties happening now in the Middle East.”