While the imminent destruction of Khan al-Ahmar is an utmost humanitarian concern and quite possibly a war crime, many are overlooking the strategic importance of this tiny hamlet for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The residents of Khan al-Ahmar have spent the past several weeks waiting for Israeli bulldozers to arrive to demolish their entire village and forcibly displace all 170 people who live there, a move that human rights organizations and some European governments say would constitute a war crime.
But while the humanitarian situation and legality of the demolition and displacement are of great concern, much of the media coverage and activism on Khan al-Ahmar has overlooked the strategic importance of this tiny hamlet.
Khan al-Ahmar is located in E1, the name of the 12 sq. kilometer area located between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. For decades, Israel has hoped to build up the area with settlements in order to connect the two cities. Doing so would bifurcate the West Bank, leading to what has been described over the years as the nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.
In a statement published late last week, the local European Union’s mission blasted Israel’s plans to demolish Khan al-Ahmar, along with the planned settlement construction in E1, saying they “exacerbate threats to the viability of the two-state solution and further undermine prospects for a lasting peace.”
“This is red flag for key members of the European Union,” explained Daniel Seidemann, an attorney and activist who runs the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, and who has spent the last 20 years monitoring how the city’s changing landscape is making a political solution increasingly difficult. “Should it raze the village despite European engagement, Israel will likely suffer the consequences.”
+972 spoke to Seidemann on Monday about why Netanyahu is willing to jeopardize so much for one tiny village, the geopolitical implications of E1, and how the Trump administration is likely to handle the crisis.
Khan al-Ahmar has been at the focus of the world’s attention for the past few weeks. Why is the Israeli government so intent on displacing such a small community?
“That’s the $64,000 question. Khan al-Ahmar has recently exploded on the front pages, but it has been simmering with a great deal of attention under the radar for a number of years, so much so that if you wake up European heads of state at 3 a.m. and ask them what is Khan al-Ahmar, they’d be able to give you an answer. What those heads of state have been telling Israeli leaders is that forcibly displacing a civilian population under occupation is a war crime. You haven’t committed that war crime yet, so don’t do it. We can’t defend you doing it, so don’t go there.”
“The question becomes why Israel wants to jeopardize so much. There were 12 consul generals in the village last week. Why risk all of that for a small encampment? It is clear that this was a fixation that was coming from the higher echelons in Israel. That it was coming from Netanyahu. Khan al-Ahmar could not have taken place without the consent and support of the prime minister.”
Khan al-Ahmar is located in the highly problematic area known as E1, in between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. Why is that significant?
“As dire and enormously problematic the situation of Khan al-Ahmar is, it would not have received the attention it received if it weren’t in E1, the area that will determine whether a viable, contiguous Palestinian state can exist or not. Khan al-Ahmar has become the humanitarian issue of the day. E1 has become the geopolitical issue of the last 23 years.
“Imagine that Jerusalem is at the center, and immediately to the east of Jerusalem in the West Bank, halfway between the Dead Sea, is Ma’ale Adumim, the third largest settlement in the West Bank with around 40,000 residents. It has been the intention of the Israeli government since the mid-90s, when Netanyahu was first in power, to build a massive land bridge between Ma’ale Adumim with tens of thousands of residential units. E1 is the quadrant between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim.”
In a 2012 paper, your organization said that E1, “if built, it is a game-changer, maybe a game-ender” for the two-state solution. Can you explain that?
“From the moment Ma’ale Adumim was established, it was viewed as a doomsday settlement, since it could destroy the possibility of a two-state solution, since it would dismember, fragment, and fracture any potential Palestinian state, and would divide the West Bank between a northern canton of Ramallah and a southern canton of Bethlehem and Hebron.
“There is a reason every administration until Trump has opposed building there. When Ariel Sharon started construction there in 2004, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stopped him after major infighting in the White House over whether to engage.”
Netanyahu tried to build there a few years ago but buckled to international pressure. Is the government now laying the groundwork now that Trump is in the White House?
“Netanyahu proceeded on E1 on November 30, 2012 in retaliation for the acceptance of Palestine as a non-member observer state in the UN General Assembly. International pressure managed to stop the building, and since then it has not proceeded. Now I believe there is pressure from his government to proceed on E1, and what we are witnessing is Netanyahu doing everything except proceeding. Instead, what we’re seeing is every possible preparation.
“From the Israeli point of view, E1 is an important piece of real estate. For Palestinians, it is a devastating piece of real estate. But regardless, it is the most contested piece of real estate in the West Bank, especially as it pertains to future permanent status borders. So when the Americans when would weigh in they wouldn’t say ‘this isn’t Palestine, keep your hands off.’ They’d say, ‘you want E1? Great. It’s a permanent status issue, negotiate over it and do not dictate the outcome.’
“The folks in Khan al-Ahmar fell into Netanyahu’s crosshairs by being present in an area over which there is a titanic contest. You also have the most compelling embodiment of a war crime, and this is a particularly vulnerable population as well. So you take the geopolitical implications of E1 and the stark humanitarian implications of Khan al-Ahmar, you put the two of them together and you get the perfect storm for BDS.”
Is the current action a result of Trump’s complete lack of engagement on the issue? What else can we expect as a result?
“I have personally heard two things from high-ranking members of the administration. One view is that E1 doesn’t trouble the Palestinians, they can drive around. The second view is that Trump has not changed U.S. policy on E1.
“As for Khan al-Ahmar, it’s impossible to know whether the demolition will take place or not. What I can tell you is a gut feeling that Khan al-Ahmar is going to be pivotal one way or the other. If the demolition is stopped, it is clear that the only reason is because of serious, consequential, articulate international engagement by the key capitals in Europe. That is a lesson that will be noted both in Jerusalem as well as in Europe. As problematic as he may be, Netanyahu can be engaged and can be deterred.
“The second scenario is he goes ahead with the demolition anyway, in which case the message will be loud and clear: who needs London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels when we have Warsaw and Budapest?”
Why is this different than Susya, for instance, where the village was able to stave off an impending demolition with the support of the international community?
“I think Susiya was a dress rehearsal for Khan al-Ahmar. But annexing Susiya, which I am not advocating in any way, would not undermine the viability of a Palestinian state. In Khan al-Ahmar you have an alchemy of taking a hugely powerful humanitarian issue that compels you to look in black-and-white terms, harnessed to the geopolitical drama of E1, which is clearly going to be one of the most contested issues in any future negotiations. Taking the geopolitical and the humanitarian at the peak of their power is an act of nuclear fusion.”