Following our petition, Civil Administration forces tore down an illegal Palestinian school, built in the Herodion Nature Reserve and Heritage Site in Gush Etzion.

63 days after the Jerusalem District Court ordered to seal off and demolish the illegal structure, and despite UN efforts to delay law enforcement, the school was taken down.

This school is only one out of more than 100 illegal school buildings that were built in Judea and Samaria, as part of the Palestinian Authority’s plan to take over Area C and the open spaces.

Yesterday morning’s enforcement is the first step in restoring law and order to the area, and it is certainly not the last: now, we need to restore the site and deal with the hundreds of similar cases of illegal takeovers of lands and nature reserves in this area and beyond.

Shortly before Pesach, Naomi Kahn, Director of Regavim’s International Division, participated in an international conference convened by thinc. – The Hague Initiative for International Cooperation – following the recent publication of their in-depth study of European policy in the Middle East, “Two States for Two Peoples? European Policy and the Arab-Israel Conflict.”

The conference, titled “Israel on Trial: The political and legal fight against Israel in the UN and other institutions – and possible ways forward,” brought together academics and activists, experts in international law, European policy makers and representatives of leading think-tanks and civil society organizations for a high-level discussion of current realities, policies and challenges facing Israel and Zionists around the world.

Plenary sessions, workshops and round-table discussions focused on “lawfare,” Europe’s two-state policy, European support for illegal activity in Judea and Samaria, and the unprecedented challenges facing Israeli in international bodies, including the UNHRC Commission of Inquiry, the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

Regavim’s presentation added an invaluable dimension to the discussion, providing documentation and analysis of the outcomes of European policy. Cooperation with the other leading organizations and experts in attendance is already in the works.

There’s been a tremendous amount of “chatter” recently – including governments condemning Israel and members of the US Congress referring to “ethnic cleansing” and serious crimes” committed by Israel in the case of Khurbet Humsa.

Although Regavim was not involved in this case, here are some facts to give you a more accurate picture of the story, which the European Union has failed do to.

First, the High Court of Justice decision, which refers to three earlier appeals on the same matter, in 4/2011, 7/2011 and 11/2014.

In each case the appellants tried a new excuse – Ramadan, the weather, who knows what – to prevent their removal from the site; in each case the court rejected the appeal out of hand. The area has been an active IDF training ground since 1972 (Firing Grounds 903), and the Bedouin didn’t set up camp there until 2010.

The satellite images we obtained are of the training grounds in 2008, focusing on the spot that was recently evacuated, followed by an image of the same point in 2013 (where only one structure is visible), and another in 2019 (where the recently-demolished structures, complete with European donors’ symbols, stand).

We haven’t done in-depth research on this illegal outpost, and weren’t involved in the legal process that resulted in last week’s demolitions, but this phenomenon is repeated over and over in IDF training grounds. In the case of the southern Hebron Hills area, a city has sprung up on what was IDF Firing Zones 917 and 918. As the Palestinian Authority and the European benefactors flooded the training grounds with more and more structures (not tents or shacks but massive, even palatial homes), the IDF gradually withdrew in order to avoid injuring the squatters, eventually abandoning the training grounds altogether. It’s no coincidence that this area was targeted for aggressive take-over: It forms a land bridge between Area A to the Negev and beyond, and is an active smuggling route.

UNTSO compound in Armon HaNatziv
Regavim’s petition regarding the UNTSO Compound in Armon HaNatziv continues.

In March 2017, Regavim petitioned the Jerusalem Magistrates Court for a temporary injunction requiring the Israeli authorities to issue evacuation and restoration orders against illegal construction at the UNTSO compound in Armon HaNatziv, in southern Jerusalem.

This petition was the result of Regavim’s discovery that the UN was carrying out blatant violations of Israeli law and sovereignty at the site, including seizure and unauthorized use of property adjacent to the compound originally “rented” to the UN by the State of Israel, and construction of a number of buildings – including an illegal gas station – at and around the original site for which permits were never requested or received. The work that had either been completed or that was then underway had already caused significant changes to protected historic structures, and posed a possible environmental threat, aside from the basic violation of Israeli law and Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.

In the hearing of Regavim’s petition on 8 November 2017, the State’s representatives confirmed that these construction projects had, in fact, been carried out and were still in progress, but stated that the Israeli government would be carrying out diplomatic discussions with representatives of the UN on this matter.

Over the course of the next three years, these “diplomatic discussions” continued, and last week (15 September 2020) the State’s representatives notified the court that this process had reached a successful conclusion: The sides agreed that all future construction work at the site will be “consonant” either substantively or substantially (the wording in Hebrew is extremely vague) “with Israel’s Planning and Construction Code, and will be carried out according to mutually acceptable parameters.” In addition, the government’s attorney notified the court that its inspectors had received and studied plans and other documentation for the construction work that has already been initiated or completed at the site, and found the documentation “satisfactory.”

The State therefore argued that Regavim’s petition had been made redundant and should be rejected.

“While Regavim is happy to hear that the Israeli government and the United Nations have reached an understanding regarding future construction at the site, with all due respect – this ‘understanding’ is worthless,” said Naomi Kahn, Director of Regavim’s International Division.

“There is no argument that Israel’s planning and construction laws apply to the Armon HaNatziv compound, and that the UN and its representatives are required to obey these laws; in fact, this is stated clearly in paragraph 5 of the State’s response. The ‘understanding’ reached with the UN that future construction will be ‘consonant’ with Israeli law is another way of saying that the UN is somehow above the law, and has voluntarily agreed to take Israel’s Planning and Building Code into consideration. At the same time, the Israeli government’s acquiescence to this ‘understanding’ exempts it from enforcing the law.”

“This is an ‘understanding’ that we must not accept,” Kahn continued. “Regavim’s petition, from the very outset, has been as much about the physical damage caused to the historic compound as it is about the blatant disregard for Israeli sovereignty in our capital. ”

“We are unwilling to accept the Israeli government’s behavior in this matter,” added Attorney Avi Segal, who represents Regavim in this case. “The ‘satisfactory’ documentation presented by the UN should not empower our government or its agencies to undermine the basic principles of equal and universal law enforcement. If the planning and building code becomes nothing more than a set of recommendations, if the ramifications for our environment and the allocation of national resources of large-scale projects are only of secondary concern, and if political pressure suffices to suspend all semblance of legal process, Israel is in sad state indeed.”

“Regavim will continue to pursue this matter in court,” said Meir Deutsch, Director General of Regavim. “We will not accept our government’s willingness to forgo Israeli sovereignty – particularly when the challenge is posed by an organization that acts consistently against Israeli sovereignty on every possible front.”