With demolitions, Israel tightens squeeze on West Bank Palestinians

By Luke Baker JERUSALEM (Reuters) - In the past three months, the Israeli military has more than tripled its demolitions of Palestinian structures in the occupied West Bank, United Nations' figures show, raising alarm among diplomats and human rights groups over what they regard as a sustained violation of international law. Figures collated by the U.N.'s office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA), which operates in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, show that from an average of 50 demolitions a month in 2012-2015, the average has risen to 165 a month since January, with 235 demolitions in February alone. The Israeli military, which has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Middle East war, says it carries out the demolitions because the structures are illegal: they were either built without a permit, in a closed military area or firing zone, or violate other planning and zoning restrictions. The U.N. and rights groups point out that permits are almost impossible for Palestinians to acquire, that firing zones are often declared but seldom used, and that many planning restrictions date from the British Mandate in the 1930s. "It is a very marked and worrying increase," said Catherine Cook, an OCHA official based in Jerusalem who closely monitors the demolitions, describing the situation as the worst since the U.N. body started collecting figures in 2009. "The hardest hit are Bedouin and Palestinian farming communities who are at risk of forcible transfer, which is a clear violation of international law." The structures include houses, Bedouin tents, livestock pens, outhouses and schools. In an increasing number of cases, they also include humanitarian structures erected by the European Union to help those affected by earlier demolitions. Appearing before a sub-committee in the Israeli parliament on Wednesday, Major General Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of the Israeli government's activities in the West Bank, defended the policy and told right-wing lawmakers he was doing all he could to carry out 11,000 outstanding demolition orders. The lawmakers summoned Mordechai to the hearing because of their concerns he is not doing enough to dismantle Palestinian structures and focusing instead on removing unauthorized Israeli construction in the West Bank. "I want to state unequivocally that enforcement is more severe towards the Palestinians," Mordechai told them, comments that would appear to substantiate the concerns raised by diplomats, aid workers and human rights groups. "Moreover, much of the enforcement with regard to the Palestinians takes place on private Palestinian land." From the point of view of B'Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, that admission would appear to confirm that Israel's policy discriminates against Palestinians. Mordechai said Israelis and Palestinians were treated the same. "There is undoubtedly a wave of demolitions and displacements that is severely threatening the ability of thousands of Palestinians to live in these areas," said Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for B'Tselem. "To demolish the homes of Palestinians who are protected under the Geneva Conventions and to build (Israeli) settlements is a clear violation of international humanitarian law." WHAT AIM? While it is clear have picked up sharply, it is less clear why the policy is being pursued more vigorously now or where it leads. One factor that appears to have increased the pressure on the government is the work of Regavim, a right-wing Israeli NGO that describes its goal as the "responsible, legal, accountable and environmentally friendly use of Israel's national lands". To Regavim, "national lands" includes the West Bank, which the group refers to as Judea and Samaria - the Biblical areas many religious Jews see as their ancient heritage. The Palestinians want the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip for their own independent state. Using drones, Regavim overflies the West Bank to capture footage of where illegal construction may be going on. Its lawyers and field workers then compile detailed files of alleged violations and present them to the government and courts. The group, co-founded by Betzalel Smotrich, an ultra-nationalist West Bank settler who is now a member of parliament, makes frequent submissions to the sub-committee on Judea and Samaria, the same forum that questioned Mordechai. While Smotrich is no longer involved with Regavim, his party, coalition partner Jewish Home, supports more settlement building and the annexation of "Area C" of the West Bank, where most Palestinian structures are being demolished. Area C, which makes up 60 percent of the West Bank, has been under complete Israeli military control since the mid-1990s. Ari Briggs, an Australian-Israeli who runs Regavim, says the group's aim is not to target Palestinians but to apply the law - usually Israeli military law - rigorously and equally. "What's happening on the ground is massive illegal construction in the Arab sector," he wrote in the Jerusalem Post in January. "Illegal construction is only a symptom of a much wider problem: The failure of the state of Israel to impose the law equally, on all its citizens, throughout the land." Diplomats see a wider trend. When Palestinians' homes are destroyed in Area C, they are forced to move away from the sector, which is where most Jewish settlements are based. Settlements - known as outposts - built without Israeli government permission are sprouting up across Area C and now number around 100. Some are even based in 'firing zones' where Palestinian homes have been destroyed. "They are exerting ever greater control over strategic areas of the West Bank," said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "(Israeli) settlements are the vehicle for taking control of the land." (Writing by Luke Baker; editing by Giles Elgood)