DARSALAH, West Bank—The bulldozers came early to Wadi Hummus, the whimsically named hamlet in Sur Baher, a neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem.
They rumbled in slowly Monday at 6 a.m., and immediately their maws began to carve huge chunks out of buildings, most of them partially built. The din of the de-construction was heard far and wide, and activists embedded on-site to protest the demolition activity said that two hours earlier they’d seen soldiers place explosive charges in the vicinity of a multi-story building, so a big bang was anticipated as journalists assembled.
In point of fact, Gal Berger, a veteran Palestinian affairs correspondent for the Kan News broadcaster, chided his Israeli colleagues for suddenly paying so much attention to something that “happens every week.”
But this operation is set against the backdrop of an ugly election campaign as right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggles not only to keep his office but to avoid criminal indictments. A hard line against Palestinians will be seen as a plus by some in his base.
And with these demolitions, Israel was destroying structures located in the West Bank’s Area A, which is defined under the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords as exclusively administered by the Palestinian Authority.
In a statement, Israel’s Civil Administration, which is in fact the Israeli army department responsible for civilian life in the West Bank—which has been under Israeli military occupation since the war of 1967—said the demolition of 12 “illegally constructed” buildings and two foundations fell in an area “under an injunction prohibiting building signed by the Central Command on the outskirts of Sur Baher in close proximity to the security fence.”
The reference is to a 2011 military order prohibiting construction within about 300 yards of Israel’s security barrier, which went up after a succession of terror attacks in 2002. Israel claims the buildings in question were erected after 2014.
The demolitions followed an Israeli Supreme Court ruling accepting the army’s contention that the buildings, including those in Palestinian-administered territory, constituted “a security danger to the area of the security fence.”
On Monday, there was no access to the actual site of the Wadi Hummus demolition, an Israeli army operation supported by military police, and, beyond the official statement, no information was available from Israeli authorities.
In turn, spokespeople for the Israel Defense Forces, the police, the military police and the civilian administration claimed not to be responsible for the task.
Official sources varied in the number of buildings affected by the demolition order, but most of the structures were uninhabited. Only two families were physically displaced.
The entire undertaking could be seen and heard from a few hundred feet away, across the “security fence,” which U.S. President Donald Trump has extolled as a wall, but which, in the segment that slices through Wadi Hummus, is in fact merely a dusty road flanked by fairly loose barbed wire fencing along each side.
At about 8 a.m., Khaled Abu Mahmid, a middle-aged attorney clad in a plain black suit, stood on a neighbor’s balcony and surveyed the ruins of the home he’d built just on the Palestinian side of the road-acting-as-fence, in the small town of Darsalah.
Until Monday morning, he resided in the four-story dwelling with his wife and four children, one of whom is a married son who lived in the multi-family unit with his own wife and three young children.
Abu Mahmid, a West Bank Palestinian, held to a lawyerly argument. “The Israeli high court’s decision to destroy the home is not a legal decision. It is political, because the home was built in 2008, before the security road was built.”
His home was in Area B, which, following Oslo, is under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. Area C, 61 percent of the West Bank, is fully under Israeli control.
Nobody—not Abu Mahmid, not the Israeli representatives—mentioned the fact that the Palestinian Authority, the undisputed sovereign of Area A, and the civilian authority in Area B, had no role in Israel’s internal debate about the right of the buildings to stand.
Whenever Abu Mahmid’s home was built, no one disputes one thing: the buildings demolished on Monday are interspersed among other preexisting buildings unquestionably built prior to 2011, at equal distance from the security road, and their continued presence does not, apparently, constitute a substantial threat.
Accompanying Abu Mahmid was Khaled el-Khatib, the mayor of Darsalah, a town located in Bethlehem’s administrative district, who said “we gave them the approval to build, through the Palestinian local government.”
It is almost impossible for Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem to receive building authorizations from Jerusalem city hall.
Speaking to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the left-wing Ir Amim advocacy group, said “residents who didn't want to build without a permit sought a creative solution and were granted construction permits from the Palestinian Authority to build in areas A and B, where Israel has no authority concerning construction plans.”
Israel’s “insistence to prevent this solution is a very cruel act,” he added.
Asked where he would sleep that night, Abu Mahmid glanced at the rubble and turned away, for once overcome.
For Jamal Darawy, chairman of the Bethlehem district’s eastern sector, “The main reason for demolishing is to weaken the Palestinian Authority, to show the world that we are not good enough to have a state.”
He scoffed at the contention the Sur Baher homes posed a threat to Israeli security as “a fake reason,” pointing out that Arabs live on both sides of the security road, and Israelis, in any event, remain free to “continue guarding with their cameras and their border police units.”
“Actually,” he said, “these homes are no danger to any Jews or Israelis or any human being.”
No terror attacks have originated in Wadi Hummus. Asked why the homes in the neighborhood were judged a security threat, military police spokesman Baruch Honig said “the state of Israel does not wait for a terror attack to take place before acting.”
At about 7 p.m., Nizar Amer, the acting spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, tweeted that “Israel has the full right to demolish the illegal buildings adjacent to the security fence in Sur Baher. This was carried out following a High Court of Justice ruling that these constructions constitute a security danger to Israeli civilians. This is a deliberate provocation by the Palestinian Authority. Those who knowingly built illegal houses took the law into their own hands.”
About an hour later, a video started making the rounds of Israeli and Palestinian WhatsApp groups, showing an Israeli Border Police officer embracing a soldier, turning around for a smiling selfie and exulting “mazal tov!” as, behind them, an unfinished multi-story building in Wadi Hummus was detonated, neatly crumpling floor by floor.
The video was taken at 7:30 p.m., police spokesman Honig said, and was “congratulatory at the conclusion of a 17-hour operation in intense heat.”