This year the city of Bethlehem celebrates Christmas trapped between hostile Israeli settlement & annexation policies, and a pandemic which hit hard on its most vital economic sector, tourism. Watch our short movie to learn more.
On the top of Bethlehem’s highest altitude lies the settlement of Har Gilo, built on lands belonging to Beit Jala and Al Wallajah of the occupied Palestinian territory (“oPt”). What started as a small Jordanian military base, which Israel occupied in 1967, was converted into a small civilian settlement in 1972 prior to becoming a strategic geographic factor in overtaking and controlling Bethlehem.
Har Gilo’s population growth was not a steady and natural increase, but rather an artificial one through the deliberate annexation of Palestinian lands, and Israel’s government-sponsored policy of encouraging settler population in the oPt through significant incentives.
In fact, there is a direct correlation between the land acquisition of Al-Walajah property and the population increase of the Har Gilo settlement. For example, from 1972 until 1999, the population remained below 363 settlers. It increased to 670 in 2013 and spiked to 1585 afterwards. The significant increase of settlers coincided with the 2013 decision to confiscate 1,200 dunums and designate them towards a National Park. As it stands, the population of Har Gilo numbers 1646 settlers today.
The strategic location of the settlement of Har Gilo enables the settlement to operate as a link between the areas annexed around the southern parts of Occupied East Jerusalem (namely, the Gilo settlement and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc built to the west and south of Bethlehem). Moreover, its location serves to sever the geographic contiguity between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Consequently, since its establishment, and especially after the construction of the illegal Annexation Wall, the Har Gilo settlement, along with its “area of jurisdiction”, continue to be expanded at the expense of Palestinian lands and fundamental rights.
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Al Makhrour Valley is a haven-like valley in Beit Jala composed of plentiful agricultural terraces with irrigation systems dating back to the Roman period, and a rich biodiversity over the Western Aquifer Basin, one of Palestine’s most important water sources. Al Makhrour Valley is also very famous for its quality agricultural produce, mainly apricots, figs, grapes and olives.
Part of the registered UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name of “Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines: Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir”, the Valley is of outstanding universal value as the agricultural practices that were used to create this living landscape reflect one of the oldest farming methods known to humankind, and remains a vital source of livelihood for local communities. The Valley encompasses all the elements to flourish into a significant center of agricultural production as well as tourism.
Yet, Al Makhrour Valley’s huge potential is almost entirely hindered and remains restrained by the Israeli policies imposed on it over the past decades, notably though the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and their related infrastructure such as roads and movement restrictions for Palestinians. The Valley has been the subject of Israeli land annexation interests, now supported and sponsored by the US Administration, pushing for its annexation among other large parts of the occupied Palestinian territory (“oPt”). The US released its “Peace to Prosperity” plan, commonly known as the “Deal of the Century”, in late January 2020, in which Al Makhrour Valley is marked as an area that will be annexed by Israel.
This report aims at shedding light on the current Israeli policies that serve the objective of annexation in Al Makhrour, and their consequences for Palestinians, including the Palestinian Christian community, followed by an analysis of such policies under international law. The report will finally propose a number of recommendations essential in order to save Al Makhrour Valley from the threat of annexation, which is materializing at a very accelerated pace.
In September 2020, the Israeli Civil Authorities (“ICA”) imposed new procedures on planning and building for Palestinians in Areas C which is expected to cause a significant spike in the already record-high numbers of house demolition cases in the oPt, in an escalated step aimed at voiding Palestinian population from Areas C through forcible displacement. The new procedures introduce an additional mandatory step preceding the building permit request: Palestinians have to submit an “information request”, which stipulates incapacitating terms before it is considered fit for mere examination by the ICA.
The new “information request” must be submitted to the ICA identifying the land where the building permit is requested. The ICA will according to this new procedure respond with designating the status of the land at its own discretion and, accordingly, if building are allowed at all. If the ICA designates the identified land as State land, confiscated land, land with standing military orders that prohibit building (also includes cases of road offset), natural reserves, archaeological sites, among other classifications- which constitute a vast percentage of lands in Areas C- then the ICA will reject the request in form, i.e. it will deny the possibility to even examine any request for building permit, and the building will be exposed for carrying out the demolition order at any time.
The new procedures also stipulate largely complicated technical requirements in the “information request”, such as the condition to have signed approvals from all the owners and inheritors of the lands since 1967, which is practically impossible due to the complications on the ownership status in Areas C as a result of Israel’s policies in these areas which make private land registration burdensome, prohibitively expensive and risky in terms of fear of Palestinian land owners to expose their lands to confiscation. Whereas the possibilities of obtaining a building permit for Palestinians in Areas C was almost never attainable before the new procedures, as per the former applicable procedures, the initiation of procedures before the ICA enabled Palestinians to freeze the enforcement of the demolition as long as procedures were ongoing, and even though it is not possible under Israeli laws to cancel demolition orders against Palestinians in Areas C, the freeze on demolition meant that Palestinians could stay for longer periods of time in their houses despite a standing demolition order. However, with this new procedure, the “information request” makes the possibility of submitting a building permit by Palestinians to the ICA practically impossible, let alone the following step of examining the permit request IF the “information request is accepted.
Moreover, the new procedures complicate the requirements the permit request even more than the already burdensome ones. Although procedural access to justice for Palestinians was extremely restricted before, the introduction of the new procedures will effectively block it and deny Palestinians entirely from the right to due course.
Although no demolitions were carried out based on the new procedures yet, their enforcement is expected to have severe impacts on the presence of Palestinians in Areas C of the oPt. The new procedures are expected to accelerate house demolition cases, and therefore, forcible transfer of Palestinians from their lands. The new procedures cannot be understood isolated from Israel’s declared objective to de jure annex Areas C of the oPt, while simultaneously advancing its de facto annexation policies on the ground, such as settlements expansion, house demolitions and forcible transfer. Annexation of occupied territory is absolutely prohibited under international law, including International Humanitarian Law (“IHL”), where no derogations or exceptions are permitted.
Under IHL, namely Article 53 of the Geneva Convention, any destruction of property not justified by absolute military necessity is strictly prohibited. Moreover, it is stipulated that extensive destruction, such as expected under the new procedures, is considered a grave breach of the conventions.
In addition, Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions entirely prohibits the forcible transfer of individuals or communities of protected persons, irrespective of motives, and considers it to be a grave breach that mounts to a war crime.
In addition, Israel’s systematic demolitions of Palestinian property and the ensuing forcible transfer in the oPt violate the right to adequate housing, protected under several bodies of international human rights law.