The Wonders of Khirbet Humsa, A “Thrice-Demolished Village”

Khirbet Humsa is a “village” like none other in the world.

In thrice-demolished village, a Mideast battle of wills,” the Associated Press reported that after its initial demolition in November, the Jordan Valley Bedouin encampment was demolished again on Feb. 2 and a third time Feb. 4.

What other village in the world is demolished one day, magically rises phoenix-like from the wreckage the next, and is demolished again the following day?

Where else does demolition of 15 makeshift structures (according to the Israeli authorities, seven tents and eight goat pens) take on mythical proportions, amounting to the destruction of an entire village, then metastasizing into the destruction of villages (in plural), and finally culminating in the “burning” of multiple villages?

Where else does the evacuation of civilian squatters from a military firing zone amount to a “war crime under international law?”

The ‘Razing’ of a ‘Village’

In November, media outlets including CBS falsely reported that Israel “bulldozed a Palestinian village,” omitting that Israeli authorities said the demolition involved a grand total of seven tents and eights.

Last week, journalists hit rewind, again claiming the “village” was “destroyed,” while data from COGAT, the Israeli authority responsible for building enforcement in Area C of the West Bank, pointed to a much less sensational story: the dismantlement and confiscation of three residential tents, four goat pens, four bathrooms (donated by international organizations), five water containers, and two private vehicles that were located in the firing zone (one belonging to Walid Asaf, the head of the Colonization and Wall Resistance Committee). COGAT added that an hour after the confiscations detailed above, a truck arrived at the site, and Asaf along with other members of the resistance committee, which is a Palestinian Authority entity, began building the tents and pens anew. The Israeli authorities returned, and confiscated a truck loaded with equipment, iron rods, plastic, fencing, and four vehicles.

Once again, the news stories spoke of the destruction of a village. In addition to the aforementioned AP story about the “thrice-demolished village,” Agence France Presse published: “Israel destroys West Bank Bedouin village again,” “Israel razes Palestinian Bedouin village for second time,” echoed Reuters. A series of Reuters photo captions falsely claimed the “village” “was razed by Israeli forces”:

A Palestinian child lies on a plastic sheet in the village of Khirbet Humsah, which was razed by Israeli forces, in Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 4, 2021. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

 

Mohammad Shtayyeh, Palestinian Prime Minister, Sven Kuehn von Burgsdorff, the European Union’s representative to the West Bank and Gaza, and other foreign diplomats visit the village of Khirbet Humsah which was razed by Israeli forces, in Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 4, 2021. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

None of the three major wire services, which had uniformly reported on the alleged destruction of the village, cited COGAT’s figures for exactly how many structures were involved. Indeed, the confiscation of three tents, four pens, four bathrooms, some water container, and other miscellaneous supplies does not exactly paint the picture of a destroyed village.

High Court Findings Ignored

In November, at the time of the first demolitions that sparked news reports totaling thousands upon thousands of words, CAMERA reported that a 2019 ruling by Israel’s High Court found:

The land in question was declared a firing zone already in 1972. Furthermore, there is no dispute that the appellants do not have recognized property rights in these areas. Essentially, the case involves squatters using the land for shepherding purposes. It is undisputed that the IDF undertakes training exercises on these lands from time to time, and as a result during the training, the appellants, together with the residents, are requested to vacate the area not only for security reasons, but also for their personal safety. Moreover, building in the area is not authorized and not legal.

Yet, countless media reports, in their thousands of words, failed to note that Israel’s highest legal authority had adjudicated the case, ruling that the Bedouin have no ownership claim to the land in question.

The media failure to report this basic legal fact was a consistent feature of last week’s coverage as well. Ignoring the High Court ruling, the AP, for example, reported:

Israel said in November that the structures were built without permission, which the Palestinians and rights groups say is almost never granted. Just a few kilometers (miles) away on either side are two large Jewish farming settlements, with rows of greenhouses, animal enclosures and irrigated fields.

COGAT, the Israeli military body that oversees civilian affairs in the West Bank, said it informed residents of Khirbet Humsu that the area is in a military firing range and reached an agreement with them to move the community to another area. It said residents voluntarily dismantled structures on Monday but then refused to move, leading the military to confiscate them.

Residents who spoke to The Associated Press seemed unaware of any agreement with the military.

The AP obscured High Court’s rulings, from both 2019 and 2011, attributing the information about the firing zone to COGAT, which “informed residents,” as if the residents themselves had not been party to an extensive legal battle in which the court made precisely that ruling.

The War Crime Falsehood

While ignoring the actual legal rulings on the land dispute, AP’s Joseph Krauss gives a platform for a B’Tselem spokesman to make a false claim about international law: “Either way, [B’Tselem spokesman Amit Gilutz] says it amounts to forcible transfer, a war crime under international law.”

According to the ICRC’s International Human Rights Law database, “Parties to an international armed conflict may not deport or forcibly transfer the civilian population of an occupied territory, in whole or in part, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand.” (Emphasis added.) Given that Khirbet Humsa is located in land that has been used as an Israeli army firing zone since 1972, and as Israel’s High Court stated, the squatters “are requested to vacate the area not only for security reasons, but also for their personal safety,” there is no basis to Gilutz’s unfounded claim that enforcement of the law in Khirbet Humsa is “a war crime under international law.”

The ‘Village’ History, Population

As CAMERA previously reported, the claim that the Khirbet Humsa encampment, a handful of European funded tents and pens on land used as an Israeli military training ground since 1972, constitutes a “village,” is specious, at best. A 2019 aerial image of the site provided by Regavim, an Israeli NGO which opposes illegal Bedouin construction, casts doubt on that characterization. The 2019 photograph (at left) shows a largely barren land, with two tiny clusters of structures, built with funding from  European Union countries.

Footage from a 2016 B’Tselem video on Khirbet Humsa likewise shows extremely few structures, hardly enough to suggest a “village.”

A 2011 High Court ruling referred to aerial photographs which the court said showed that the structures on the site appeared to indicate temporary, seasonal residences and not permanent full-time homes.

In an aerial photograph (at bottom left, from Regavim) just three years prior to that ruling, even those apparently part-time structures cannot be seen.

Nevertheless, AFP cites Palestinian activist Moataz Bisharat, who said “the number of Palestinian families in Homsa al-Baqia area [another name for Khirbet Humsa] has dropped from more than 186 in 1990 to just 21 today ‘because of the occupation’s (Israel’s) measures.'” According to Reuters’ article from last week, Khirbet Humsa’s population now stands at 130 inhabitants, suggesting further growth in more recent years.

A consistent theme in the coverage is that Israeli measures have driven away the Khirbet Humsa population. “For the most part, Israel avoids actually loading people up on trucks and dumping them elsewhere,” AP quotes B’Tselem’s Gilutz. “Rather, what it does is it makes life impossible for these people so that they leave, as if by their own choice.”

CAMERA was unable to locate any source suggesting that Khirbet Humsa was some six times larger three decades ago than it is now, or to support the notion that the encampment’s population has been depleted in recent years. To the contrary, official data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics demonstrates that the encampment’s population increased by more than seven times over since the 1990s. According to PCBS’ Manual of the Palestinian Localities 1997 (December 1999), Khirbet Humsa’ population just 17 souls in 1997 (page 29). Those 17 people lived in a total of three housing units, reported PCBS’ Population, Housing and Establishment Census – 1997  (Table 10).

A decade later, both the population and the number of housing units swelled at least seven times higher than the modest 1997 figures.  According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics’ 2010 Tubas Governorate Statistical Yearbook (May 2010), in 2007, the number of housing units in Khirbet Humsa stood at 21 (Table 5) and the population that year numbered 133 (Table 4). In other words, for all of the occupation’s alleged cruel, determined efforts to empty the “village” of its population, the number of residents multiplied significantly, yet one more wonder surrounding the remarkable Khirbet Humsa.  

With research assistance from CAMERA Arabic