For the first time in 13 years, the fate of the small illegal West Bank Bedouin herding village of Khan al-Ahmar lies with a centrist left-wing politician: Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
That is a potential game changer for the small community perched on the edge of Route 1, just below the Kfar Adumim settlement, whose fate has been symbolically linked with the creation of a Palestinian state in Area C of the West Bank.
Lapid wrote last year to former attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit and former prime minister Naftali Bennett, opposing the community’s evacuation.
“The evacuation carries with it many heavy challenges, both internally and internationally, and for that reason, it can lead to many political consequences,” Lapid wrote.
“The evacuation carries with it many heavy challenges, both internally and internationally, and for that reason, it can lead to many political consequences.”Prime Minister Yair Lapid
He urged Bennett and Mandelblit to re-examine the issue from a new perspective, particularly in light of diplomatic consequences. At the time, it appeared that the matter rested with Bennett, who had spoken in the past in support of an evacuation.
Bennett’s government was expected to issue its first statement on its plans for Khan al-Ahmar on July 13. The High Court of Justice had ordered the submission of that document as part of an ongoing petition against Khan al-Ahmar filed in 2019 by the right-wing NGO Regavim.
The July 13th timing was not fortuitous given that Bennett had been under pressure to support an evacuation in an effort to keep his party and his coalition intact.
The collapse of his government and his replacement with Lapid on July 1 was a potentially fortunate move for the Khan al-Ahmar residents. Overnight they became the potential beneficiaries of Israeli domestic politics rather than its casualty.
Regavim immediately sought to salvage the situation, in hopes of by-passing Lapid and pushing the High Court of Justice to issue an immediate final ruling on the community’s eviction. It justified this request by noting that the state had failed to meet the July 13th deadline.
The court has been frustrated with the state’s foot-dragging, but on Sunday, in a nod to Lapid, it rejected the Regavim petition noting that in light of a court strike at the end of May and the start of June, the state actually had until September 11th to submit a plan for Khan al-Ahmar.
The significance of the small encampment of 180 members of the Abu Dahuk clan of the Jahalin tribe, is not evident to the naked eye. Its huts and tents look as if it would only take a small gust of wind to blow them away.
Few paid attention to Regavim in 2009 when it filed its first petition with the High Court of Justice. In the intervening years, however, the threat of a forced demolition of Khan al-Ahmar grew. Simultaneously, the Right’s campaign against illegal Palestinian and Bedouin building in the West Bank gained traction.
The community’s battle to remain in its current location became entwined with the Palestinian push for a state in Area C and the campaign on the Right to preserve that territory in Judea and Samaria for inclusion within Israel’s final borders. Area C is currently under IDF military and civilian control.
The Israeli Right's fear that authorization of Khan al-Ahmar would give the Palestinian Authority an increased foothold along the strategic Route 1 corridor, has made its evacuation a campaign issue during the last four elections.
But its geopolitical impact has caught the attention of the White House, the UN, the EU, and the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The ICC’s former chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, warned in 2018 that a forced demolition could be considered a war crime.
Abu Dahuk clan
The Abu Dahuk clan originally lived in the Negev but was forcibly evacuated to the West Bank in the early 1950s, when the area was under Jordanian rule.
Their evacuation has been one of the flagship issues for Regavim, a group that was created in 2006 and launched its campaign against Khan al-Ahmar in 2009.
Under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership, the state has held, including before the High Court, that it intends to raze the Khan al-Ahmar structures and the IDF has issued demolition orders. It also came up with alternative relocation options.
The 2018 High Court ruling that the Khan al-Ahmar structures could be razed appeared to spur Netanyahu into action. He promised to remove the structures, and security forces appeared poised to move against the community, but at the last minute Netanyahu halted any evacuation plan.
His refusal to act but his continued pledges to do so kept Khan al-Ahmar alive as a campaign issue. Right-wing politicians, including his opponents, pushed for a Khan al-Ahmar evacuation in hopes that Netanyahu would see it as a savvy move to secure votes.
This time around, Netanyahu is not in office and thus cannot use the Prime Minister’s Office to advance a right-wing agenda. Khan al-Ahmar will still be part of the Right’s campaign discourse, but it can never move beyond the stage of slogans.
Lapid, however, can effectively use his time in office to score points on the Left, particularly with issues that relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Both Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Blue and White) have already understood that support for Palestinian development in Area C has the added benefit of pleasing both the Biden administration and the EU.
Western governments that Lapid has been carefully courting have been particularly frustrated with Israel’s past history of issuing only a small number of permits for Palestinian building, arguing that the absence of such approvals almost necessitates illegal Palestinian construction.
The Right in past elections might have galvanized around “raze Khan al-Ahmar” types of slogans. The Left in this election, however, can issue statements to save Khan al-Ahmar that could resonate with meaning.
The court might still be the final arbiter, but in the short term it has given Lapid breathing space to make good on his statements last year that a new approach is needed when it comes to Khan al-Ahmar.