The Threatened Demolition of the Khan al-Ahmar “Rubber Tire School” in the Occupied Palestinian Territory

The Khan al-Ahmar community is located in the West Bank, near the road that connects Jerusalem to the city of Jericho and the Dead Sea and not far from the Israeli settlements that rise to the east of the Holy City.[1] Its 180 inhabitants (35 Bedouin families) belong to the tribal group Jahalin, originating from Tel Arad, in southern Israel. Members of this clan were expelled by the Israeli army in 1951 and had to relocate in what was then a territory under the control of Jordan. Nowadays, their lands are formally located within the so-called Area C of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which, under the Oslo Accords, is administered by Israel, and in particular on corridor E1, an area considered strategic for controlling the territory up to Jericho and for the expansion of the settlements. Families are extremely poor and live in temporary structures built without permits from the Israeli authorities, often funded by European countries. Villages are not connected to electricity, roads and the sewage system. They lack health and education infrastructures. Scattered in the area of Khan al-Ahmar live twelve Palestinian communities with roughly 1,400 inhabitants. The so-called “Rubber Tire School”, located in Khan al-Ahmar, serves 150 children from five different communities. The Italian NGO Terra di Vento established it in 2009 with an innovative project using mud and tires. Together with other infrastructures, it was funded by Italy, Belgium and the European Union.

Over the years, the Israeli authorities have confiscated and demolished existing facilities and issued several demolition orders to the detriment of the Bedouin communities of the Jerusalem area. As documented by the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, “from 2006 until the end of May 2018, 26 residential structures were demolished. 132 people were left without shelter, of which 77 were children and teenagers. In addition, 7 non-residential structures were demolished”.[2]

Several petitions were filed with the High Court of Justice in favor or against the demolition orders. The Israeli settlers petitioned the Court to have the demolition orders implemented, whereas the Palestinian communities tried to resist deportation. In this respect, the position of the Israeli Government is that the Khan al-Ahmar buildings were established without any permits and that residents have been offered an alternative location where the school would be reconstructed.[3]

On 28 May 2018, the Israeli High Court confirmed that the Government might demolish the homes of the residents of Khan al-Ahmar and the school.[4] On 4 July the Israeli civil administration started implementing the expulsion of the residents and the demolition of the buildings, but a subsequent petition to the Court froze the process. With a temporary injunction, the Court invited the parties to reach an agreement. The Government then insisted on the immediate relocation of the Palestinian community to a site in Abu Dis, near a garbage dump.[5] The Palestinian community refused the proposed solution and continued resisting to the expulsion and the destruction of their homes.

During 2018, the facts of Khan al-Ahmar produced strong international reactions. The United Nations Special Envoy for Middle East, the European Union, and single EU countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and Ireland described the proposed demolition as a breach of Israel’s obligations under international law and international humanitarian law more specifically.[6] Specific reference was made, in their statements, to the prohibition of forced transfer of the population of an occupied territory under the Fourth Geneva Convention.[7] A resolution adopted by the European Parliament warned that the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar would amount to a war crime (a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention).[8] With reference to Khan al-Ahmar, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court explicitly stated that “extensive destruction of property without military necessity and population transfers in an occupied territory constitute war crimes under the Rome Statute”.

Along the same lines, on 6 May 2018, an official statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation expressed Italy’s concern over the risk of demolition of the village of Khan al-Ahmar. The relevant part of the statement reads as follows:

The demolition of the village would undermine the construction of a prospective adjacent Palestinian State and the subsequent two State solution.

It is for this reason, as well as for humanitarian reasons and to comply with international law, that the Italian Foreign Ministry relaunches the request that has often been addressed to Israeli Authorities not to proceed to implement the aforesaid provisions.

The statement then linked the demolition of the village to the unlawful policy of expansion of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The relevant part reads as follows:

In reaffirming that the policy to expand settlements is in violation of international law and risks making the two-State solution unfeasible, the Italian Foreign Ministry also expresses great concern over the approval of more than 3,000 dwelling units in the West Bank, including in the settlement of Kfar Adumim, located near the village of Khan al-Ahmar.

The threatened demolition of the School and of the other buildings in Khan al-Ahmar was then the object of two parliamentary questions.

On 13 July 2018, before the Chamber of Deputies (26th Meeting, XVIII Legislature), the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr. Manlio Di Stefano, answered the first parliamentary question (No. 2-00021, Speranza and Fornaro). He recalled that the School had been built in 2009 thanks to the contribution of the Italian Cooperation, which allocated a total of 152 thousand euros. He then explained how the Italian authorities had raised the issue of Khan al-Ahmar several times at the bilateral level:

When meeting with the Israeli counterparts, the political leaders – therefore, the President of the Republic, the President of the Council and the Minister of Foreign Affairs – underlined the Italian position contrary to the dismantling of artefacts and social, educational and assistance infrastructures made by the Italian Cooperation in the West Bank for the benefit of the local population. It was reaffirmed, with conviction, that the maintenance of this facility is a priority for Italy, not only for its humanitarian value, but also for political reasons and respect for international law. Following a recent ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court, which authorized the demolition of the village, at the end of May the Italian embassy in Tel Aviv took part in the step of the representative of the European Union at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Israeli and, in early July, in a meeting, along with representatives of Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Spain, at the office of Prime Minister Netanyahu. On both occasions the strong attention and concern for the risk of imminent demolition of the village were reiterated. At the same time, the Consul General of Italy in Jerusalem is constantly monitoring the situation and since the beginning of July has carried out an inspection at the village, in coordination with the local community and other EU heads of mission. New visits could be organized in the coming days.

He then described the steps taken by the Italian diplomatic service in detail:

The Italian Government, in close coordination with the main European partners and with the European Union itself, will continue to pay the utmost attention to the case of the ‘Tire School’ and to carry out promptly every political and diplomatic effort to avoid the implementation of the order of demolition, keeping the story clearly on the agenda both bilaterally and in the European context. Yesterday, in the hours before the Court’s decision extending the demolition suspension order to the next hearing, our ambassador in Tel Aviv had a top-level meeting with the Israeli military authorities who administer the occupied territories, reiterating again our concerns for the future of the community, the sensitivity shown in this regard by the Government and Parliament of Rome and the hope that the Israeli authorities do not execute the demolition order. In addition, our ambassador to Washington has raised the issue of the ‘Tire School’ also with the American authorities. These are all efforts obviously aimed at safeguarding the integrity of an object that is, I stress it, an infrastructure, a social, educational and welfare project legally implemented – that is out of question – by the Italian cooperation in the West Bank for the benefit of the local population and certainly not to interfere with internal matters of a sovereign State.

On 1 August 2018, before the Third Permanent Commission of the Senate of the Republic, the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Ms Emanuela Del Re, answered another parliamentary question (No. 3-00108, Malan). First of all, she described some elements of context:

The question of the ‘Tire School’ is part of a particular system of land planning in the West Bank, so that in the area that is called C development plans are created and are normally adapted without the involvement of the Palestinian communities therein located and the requests for permits from the autochthonous Palestinian communities are generally largely rejected: this is why the planning system is not considered compatible with international law (and this is said, among other things, in various UN reports, with which we normally are in line). To quote concrete data, a document published last June by the Israeli civil administration shows that from 1967 to the present day the State of Israel has entrusted almost exclusively to Israeli citizens 40% of Area C and the West Bank, whose lands have been declared ‘State land’. In fact, it appears that 99.7 percent of this land has been used for the construction of settlements and for all services and infrastructures connected to them, while only 0.2 percent has been granted to Palestinian citizens.

She then discussed the crucial issue of the content and the validity of the Oslo Accords in this context:

The Oslo agreements […] provide for the maintenance of the Israeli authority in Area C. However, they were designed to last a limited time, in view of the subsequent transfer of this portion of territory to the Palestinian side. In fact, the territories that fall within Area C constitute more than 60 percent of the entire West Bank, or the preponderant part of the future Palestinian State, in compliance with the two-State solution, which Italy has been supporting for decades and continues to support. As regards, specifically, the question of the village of Khan al-Ahmar, the community of its inhabitants has lived in that area for over sixty years and has repeatedly expressed the intention to stay. It is therefore there, in the immediate vicinity of the E1 area – and not elsewhere – that any intervention by the Israeli authorities in support of the population could take place, as is also the case at the European level. I recall that international humanitarian law – and, in particular, the Fourth Geneva Convention – prohibits the forced transfer of the indigenous population in an occupied territory. To these considerations, a more general one is added: if the village were to be demolished, the expansion of the settlements could also begin in the surrounding areas; in doing so, the West Bank would end up being cut in half and this would risk jeopardizing the very realization of a future neighboring Palestinian State. As for the ‘Tire School’, I recall first of all that it is a project financed also by the Italian cooperation, which for almost ten years has guaranteed education to hundreds of children of the local community and the surrounding ones. This, already in itself, justifies the Government’s interest in and commitment to its continued existence.

She finally added:

For all these reasons, the Italian Government, in close coordination with the main European partners, will continue to pay the utmost attention to the case of the ‘Tire School’ and, more generally, to the village of Khan al-Ahmar, precisely because of its special significance. I would also add that, just yesterday, Minister Moavero, along with his counterparts from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain, wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, asking for a reconsideration of the school’s demolition decision […]. I would like to reiterate that the Government will continue to make timely political and diplomatic efforts to prevent the demolition order from being implemented.

The position of Italy was further reiterated at the international level through a joint statement adopted with France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom on 9 September 2018. The statement recalled the strategic importance of the Khan al-Ahmar location “for preserving the contiguity of a future Palestinian state” and joined a previous statement of High Representative Mogherini. This latter statement had once again stressed the connection between the building of the settlements, the demolition of the Palestinian villages and the prospects for the two-State solution. More specifically, on 7 September 2018, Ms Mogherini had stated:

[…] The European Union and its Member States have repeatedly stated their long-standing position on Israel’s settlement policy, illegal under international law, and actions taken in that context, including the demolitions of Palestinian communities and possible forced transfers of population. The community of Khan al-Ahmar is located in a sensitive location in Area C, of strategic importance for preserving the contiguity of a future Palestinian state. As repeatedly stressed, the consequences of a demolition of this community and the displacement of its residents, including children, against their will, would be very serious and would severely threaten the viability of the two-state solution and undermine prospects for peace […].

The case of Khan al-Ahmar is an effective prism to recall the main tenets of the traditional Italian position on the Israeli-Palestinian question. The examined statements bring to the surface at least two clear reference points: the qualification of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory as unlawful under international law and the attachment to the two-State solution as the future prospect for the settlement of the issue. Furthermore, with specific reference to this case, the Italian authorities also recall that the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the transfer of the population of the occupied territory, even though they stop short from explicitly qualifying the Israeli conducts as war crimes. Emphasis is put on the fact that the demolition of the Palestinian villages, together with the expansion of the settlements in the West Bank, is jeopardizing the establishment of a future Palestinian State. Quite interestingly, the Italian Government makes the point that the Oslo Accords were designed as a temporary arrangement aimed at transferring the whole territory (Area C included) to the future Palestinian State.[9] In this respect, it could have been added that Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention clarifies that the population of the occupied territory “shall not be deprived […] of the benefits of the present Convention […] by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory”. The Italian authorities, however, did not invoke this specific legal basis.

[1] See “Unwanted by Israel and the PA, Bedouin have nowhere to go but ‘up in the air’”, Times of Israel, 9 March 2018, available here; see also Amnesty International, “Israel: Illegal demolition and forcible transfer of Palestinian Bedouin village amounts to war crime”, 1 June 2018, available here.

[2] “Communities facing expulsion: The Khan al-Ahmar area”, B’tselem, 10 October 2017 (Updated: 5 September 2018), available here.

[3] “Israel Tells High Court: Bedouin in Unauthorized West Bank Village Will Be Evacuated by Mid-2018”, Haaretz, 25 September 2017, available here.

[4] “Khan al-Ahmar: Israel court approves demolition of Bedouin village”, BBC News, 5 September 2018, available here.

[5] “State Takes Preparatory Steps Ahead of West Bank Bedouin Village’s Demolition”, Haaretz, 2 July 2018, available here.

[6] “European Countries Slam Impending Demolition of West Bank Bedouin Village: ‘We’ll Take Action’”, Haaretz, 5 July 2018, available here. See, for instance, the position expressed on 1 June 2018 by the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Mr Boris Johnson, who urged “Israel not to proceed” and recalled that “Palestinians have found it virtually impossible to obtain building permits in Area C of the West Bank”. He then highlighted that “[t]he UN has said that the proposed demolitions could amount to ‘forcible transfer’, in violation of International Humanitarian Law”. He finally expressed his concern over “plans to construct over 3,100 new settlement units”, highlighting that “[m]any are located deep within the West Bank; one is a site beside Khan al-Ahmar” and that “[s]ettlement activity is contrary to international law, promotes the de facto annexation of the West Bank, and takes us further away from a negotiated two-state solution”, available here. See also the statement of 14 September 2018 by the Belgian Deputy Prime Ministers Mr Alexander De Croo and Mr Didier Reynders: “[…] the destruction of infrastructure and housing in the West Bank, an occupied Palestinian territory, is contrary to international humanitarian law. The destructions violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, in that they lead to evacuations and forced displacement of populations, as well as resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. In addition, Khan al-Ahmar is located in an area of strategic importance for the prospect of a contiguous and viable Palestinian State”, available here.

[7] Article 49(2) of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 specifies that “total or partial evacuation of a given area” in the occupied territory is possible only “if the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand”. The article then clarifies that “[p]ersons thus evacuated shall be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased”.

[8] European Parliament resolution of 13 September 2018 on the threat of demolition of Khan al-Ahmar and other Bedouin villages (2018/2849(RSP). The resolution of the European Parliament also recalled that “under international law, any third party, including the EU Member States, has a duty not to recognise, aid or assist settlements in an occupied territory, as well as a duty to effectively oppose them” (Preamble, Letter E).

[9] On the Oslo Accords, see also Turrini, “The Status of Jerusalem”, IYIL, 2018, pp. 468-475.

Undersecretary Manlio Di Stefano, Chamber of Deputies, 13 July 2018.

Undersecretary Emanuela Del Re, Senate of the Republic, 1 August 2018.

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