Demolitions, Displacement and Denied Permits

With attention focused on Gaza, Israel steps up home demolitions in the West Bank (Spring 2024)

As Israel continues its genocidal attack on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, its decades-long project of ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues largely unreported in the mainstream media.

Demolitions and Displacement

According to UN OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) figures, in 2023 almost 4,000 Palestinians were displaced ‘due to policies and practices implemented by Israeli authorities or Israeli settlers’. This is the highest number of displacements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem recorded by OCHA in a single year since it started keeping records in 2009. OCHA uses the term ‘displacement’; we call it ‘ethnic cleansing’.

The largest number (over 1,500 people) were driven from their homes due to settler violence, access restrictions and shrinking access to grazing land. Shockingly, 1,208 Palestinians (81% of the total) were displaced between 7th October 2023 and the end of the year. At least 14 Palestinian communities were completely ethnically cleansed and are now non-existent.

Over 200 structures, mainly in area A, were destroyed during operations by Israeli forces, resulting in over 900 Palestinians being made homeless. Particular targets were Jenin, Tulkarm and Nur Shams. The bulldozing of roads by the Israeli authorities destroyed vital infrastructure, such as water and sewage networks, affecting ‘hundreds of thousands of Palestinians’ according to OCHA.

In acts of collective punishment, Israel demolished 37 homes on ‘punitive grounds’, leaving 173 people, including 73 children, homeless.

The forced demolition of homes and other structures due to lack of building permits has long been a tool of ethnic cleansing. Demolitions are carried out by Israel, at an estimated cost of between $20,000 and $30,000 (£15,700 and £23,500) to the owner, or by the owners themselves. In 2023 such forced demolitions accounted for the destruction of 895 buildings, 214 of which were homes. The remaining buildings were not inhabited but their destruction undermined people’s livelihoods or access to services. These demolitions made over 1,100 Palestinians homeless, almost 600 of whom were from East Jerusalem.

And the demolitions and ethnic cleansing continues this year. Worryingly, up to 5th March, a further 229 buildings were demolished, rendering 545 more Palestinians homeless. This compares with 347 people displaced during the equivalent period last year. If this level of destruction continues, the number of people driven from their homes this year will far outstrip the 2023 figures. There is more detailed information on demolitions and displacement here.

Denied Building Permits

Most of the buildings demolished in the West Bank are due to construction taking place without an Israeli issued building permit. These are practically impossible for Palestinians to obtain due to Israel’s discriminatory laws. As mentioned above, in 2023 a total of 895 buildings were demolished for this reason – 76% of all demolished structures. The guise is law enforcement but the reality is ethnic cleansing. At a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of the Knesset in July last year representatives of the Civil Administration and Minister Bezalel Smotrich reported that 95% of building permit applications submitted by Palestinians in Area C were rejected. However, according to a ‘Peace Now’ article (10th Aug. 2023) the situation is even worse, with only 21 building permits granted between 2016 and 2018. Data provided by Bimkom, an Israeli Human Rights organisation, shows that between 2016 and 2020 Palestinians submitted 2,250 building permit applications and only 24 were agreed – a 99% rejection rate. Bimkom’s full report can be found here.

As permits are almost impossible to obtain, Palestinians are forced to build without a permit. Consequently an estimated 28% of homes in East Jerusalem are ‘illegal’. According to Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer specialising in this area, Israeli authorities have issued orders to demolish most of them There are approximately 20,000 outstanding demolition orders for properties in East Jerusalem and these orders will never expire.

Home demolitions are prohibited under international law unless they are necessary for military operations. But Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that Israel had created a legal structure to allow it to demolish Palestinian homes. According to Shakir the different ways to enforce demolitions all further the same objective of ‘forcing Palestinians off their land and maximising land for Jewish Israelis’.

Illegal Settlements

Meanwhile the approval and construction of illegal Israeli settlements continues apace. Most recently the Israeli government advanced plans for more than 3,400 new homes in settlements in the occupied West Bank. About 70% of the homes will be built in Ma’ale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, with the rest in nearby Kedar and Efrat, south of Bethlehem. This is in addition to a previous decision to authorise approximately 50 illegal agricultural outposts with the aim of taking control of open lands in the West Bank (for information about the JNF’s funding of illegal outposts see ‘Ethnic Cleansing Dressed as Welfare Work’ in the November 2023 StJNF Newsletter). After the announcement, Smotrich, who is in charge of civil affairs in the West Bank, stated that 18,515 housing units had been approved for construction during the past year. He posted on X ‘The enemies try to harm and weaken us, but we will continue to build and be built up in this land.’ It is worth noting that Smotrich was one of the founders of Regavim, an Israeli settler organisation which promotes the expansion of Israeli settlements and campaigns for the demolition of Palestinian homes. 

The expansion of the number of housing units in Ma’ale Adumim is of particular concern. At the time of writing there are no further details but the ‘frozen’ plan for the so called “E1 area” (which runs between the eastern edges of illegally annexed East Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim) would effectively split the West Bank in two, cutting off East Jerusalem from Palestinian communities in the West Bank and preventing the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state. Are the plans to construct almost 3,500 new illegal settlement units in the area part of ‘unfreezing’ this plan?

There has been widespread condemnation from a number of countries to this recent announcement. Antony Blinken, the United States Secretary of States, surprised many when he announced that the USA viewed settlements as illegal under international law. The statement brought the USA back in line with the vast majority of countries by reverting to a position overturned by the Trump administration in 2019.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, declared that ‘Reports … that Israel plans to build a further 3,476 settler homes in Maale Adumim, Efrat and Kedar fly in the face of international law’. In his report to the Human Rights Council Turk said that the establishment and continuing expansion of settlements amounts to the transfer by Israel of its own civilian population into the territories that it occupies, which amounts to a war crime under international law (our emphasis). Furthermore, that the policies of the current Israeli Government appear aligned, to an unprecedented extent, with the goals of the Israeli settler movement to integrate the occupied territory into the State of Israel.

But although many world leaders deplore and condemn the destruction of Palestinian homes, the resulting forced evictions, and the expansion of the illegal Israeli settlements, this is little more than hand-wringing. There is little, if any, appetite to take meaningful action such as ending the arms trade, implementing sanctions, or, in the case of the USA, ending it’s long-standing military ‘aid’ of $3.8 billion a year to Israel. It’s left to us, the ordinary people of the world, to take action – boycott Israeli goods and those companies complicit in Israel’s war crimes; call on our politicians to stop arming Israel; demand that Local Government Pension Schemes divest from companies that support Israel’s violations of international law; and campaign to end the role of the JNF in the ongoing displacement of indigenous Palestinians from their land and the destruction of the natural environment. Let’s make our voices heard!

Sources Al Jazeeera, BBC News website, UNOCHA,, Peace Now, UN OCHA, Jerusalem Story, Bimkom.