Palestinians see 'sharp increase' in demolitions

By Jon Donnison
BBC News, West Bank

media captionFootage of demolitions

"Wood-fired barbecue was our speciality. Delicious," says Ramzi Kasiyah as he picks his way gingerly over a pile of rubble and twisted metal. Broken glass crackles under his feet.

"We had a beautiful terrace. Now I have nothing."

Up until a few weeks ago Ramzi was the proud owner of the Palestinian Al Mukhrur restaurant just outside Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Now he presides over what looks like a bomb site, a grey scar in a beautiful, small valley, still lush from the winter's rains.

At the beginning of May, Israeli forces flattened the restaurant.

Ramzi shows me a mobile phone video of huge yellow diggers smashing through the roof, as he and his staff looked on helplessly

"12 years' work was gone in 5 minutes," he says.

'Ethnic cleansing'

His adjacent house where he lives with his wife and children is still standing. He says the Israelis told him they would be back to demolish that within the month.

Israeli officials say Ramzi did not have the correct building permits.

"In other countries too, people build restaurants in nice pastoral places without proper authorisations. They get a warning and then after a few years they are being demolished if they don't regulate their business," says Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.

image captionThe UN warns that children are particularly vulnerable and their education is at risk

But this is what Palestinians have called ethnic cleansing. The demolition of Palestinians' homes and businesses carried out by Israel in the West Bank.

The United Nations here says there has been a huge rise in such activity in recent years.

In 2011 it says more than 1100 Palestinians living in the West Bank were displaced, an 80% rise compared to 2010.

It says in 2012 the numbers have continued to grow, with close to 600 Palestinians losing their homes so far this year.

The West Bank has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967 after it was captured in the Six-Day War, a conflict that the Arab nations lost.

West Bank divided

Under the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the West Bank was divided into three zones in what was supposedly a temporary measure meant to lead eventually to a full Palestinian state.

  • In Area A, around 17% of the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has control.
  • In Area B, around 21% of the West Bank, Palestinians have partial control.
  • In Area C, around 62% of the West Bank, Israel maintains full control.

In Area C, where most of the demolitions and evictions take place, it is extremely difficult for Palestinians to get permits to build. Much of the area is defined as a closed military zone by Israel.

"Demolitions cause enormous human suffering [for Palestinians]. More than half the number of displaced people are children," says Ramesh Rajasingham of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs..

"They consequently lose access to schools, they lose access to education."

One school under threat lies in Jenba, a small Palestinian community of more than 200 people that lies in the Hebron Hills at the very southern end of the West Bank.

It is remote: half an hour off the main road and for us involves a challenging ride in a four-wheel drive.

Jenba lies in Area C.

Legal battle

When we arrive, the children in the tiny two-classroom school are midway through English lessons.

"He is tall," stutters a small boy as I duck my head through the doorway.

image captionIsrael wants to use the area around Jenba for military purposes

Life is pretty basic in Jenba with many of the families living in caves cut into the hillside.

But the village is threatened with demolition.

The Israeli army wants the area for a firing zone.

There has been a legal battle over the land's status running for more than a decade. The Israeli Defence Ministry is due to issue a ruling soon but a final decision could end up in Israel's Supreme Court.

The United Nations estimates that more than 1,600 Palestinians could be evicted from villages in the area if the Israeli Defence Ministry wins the case.

image captionHamid Jabreen's family has lived in Jenba for generations

Sitting in his cave, I meet 72-year-old Hamid Jabareen, half blind and unsteady on his feet.

"If the Israeli bulldozers come here they'll have to bury me alive," he says.

"Where else are we supposed to go?"

His grandchildren offer me a cup of hot sweet tea, very much welcome on what is a cold, wet day.

Hamid says he was born in these caves and that his family lived in Jenba for generations before him.

Outside, the farmers tend to their flocks around the village well.

International concern

The water facilities and toilet blocks in the area were partly paid for by the British taxpayer under a UK government aid programme.

Those facilities now face demolition.

The British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt says the government has "serious concern" about the sharp rise in demolitions carried out by Israel.

He said it caused "unnecessary suffering to ordinary Palestinians" and was harmful to the Middle East peace process. He said in nearly all cases the demolitions were "contrary to international humanitarian law".

Israel insists that it also demolishes illegal structures put up by Jewish people.

But what infuriates Palestinians is that while it's extremely difficult for them to build in much of the West Bank, construction on large Jewish settlements continues.

Just about every country, apart from Israel, says that settlements are illegal under international law.

And the settlement expansion, coupled with the demolition of Palestinian homes, is happening on land where the Palestinian and Israeli leadership have said they want to build a future state of Palestine.

But it is a state that many believe is becoming increasingly unlikely.

The European Union would seem to agree.

It issued a statement earlier this month, saying that Israel's settlement policies alongside the eviction of Palestinians was threatening "to make a two-state solution" impossible.

Israel dismissed that statement as biased.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor blamed the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs here for briefing EU officials with misrepresentative data.

But privately some Israeli officials admit they are increasingly concerned about criticism from the European Union.

'We'll be back'

Back with Ramzi Kasiyah, standing amid the rubble of his former restaurant, he points to a hillside a few kilometres away.

You can hear the dull rumble of construction. It is the Jewish settlement of Har Gilo.

"I am lost for words," he replies, raising his hands despondently.

Ramzi has erected a sign that reads "We'll be Back".

I ask him, somewhat incredulously, if he plans to rebuild.

"Yes," he smiles. "This is my life, my land. I'll be back."

Land remains the key issue at the heart of the Middle East's most intractable conflict.