Razing of Palestinian homes picking up speed

Israel has stepped up demolitions of Palestinian homes in the Jordan Valley, the eastern part of the occupied West Bank, leaving more than 700 homeless since the beginning of the year, a rights body said yesterday.

Israeli bulldozers have razed 103 homes so far this year, said B'Tselem, a respected Israeli human rights organisation, marking a sharp increase from the 83 homes it said were demolished last year. The policy has drawn sharp condemnation from NGOs, which accuse Israel of deliberately displacing thousands of Palestinian rural communities in a strategic border area that the Jewish state considers critical to its security.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians, many of them nomadic Bedouin, live in the parched area that runs alongside the border with Jordan. A much smaller number of Jewish settlers also live in the valley illegally, under international law.

Israel has defended its demolitions policy on the grounds that homes were erected without building permits or within military firing zones, a reasoning derided by rights bodies, who say it is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain permits in Area C, the Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank that include the Jordan Valley.

"Israeli policy is intended as... a de facto annexation of the Jordan Valley," said Sarit Michaeli, B'Tselem's spokeswoman. "The Jordan Valley is an occupied area... [that is] perceived by the government and the vast majority of Israelis as part of Israel."

The Civil Administration in the West Bank called B'Tselem's figures "completely wrong". A spokesman said the government was drawing up zoning plans for Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley that would ameliorate the situation. Many of the Bedouin lack land-ownership deeds.