The United States has long seen Israel's plans to build settlements on the village's ruins as a fatal blow to the prospects of a two-state solution.
(Washington, D.C., January 31, 2023): The Biden Administration should reevaluate its "special relationship" with Israel if the Israeli government advances its plans to forcibly displace the Palestinian villagers of Khan al-Ahmar and destroy the village in the occupied West Bank, war crimes under international law. On Wednesday, February 1, 2023, the Israeli government is required to inform the country's High Court of Justice whether, and when, it intends to carry out its long-delayed plans to demolish the entire village.
"Israel's promised destruction of Khan al-Ahmar and E-1 is no longer the tipping point that makes the two-state solution impossible—that's moot at this stage," said Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, Director of Research for Israel-Palestine at DAWN. "But the Israeli government publicly and defiantly declaring its plan to commit war crimes should be a tipping point for the Biden Administration's relationship with Israel writ large."
Why is Khan al-Ahmar Important?
Khan al-Ahmar is a village populated by Palestinians who were expelled from the Negev region of Israel in 1948 and resettled in the Jerusalem Governorate of the West Bank, then under the control of Jordan. After Israel captured and occupied the West Bank in 1967, it included Khan al-Ahmar in the municipal boundaries of the illegal Jewish-only settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. The village is also one of the last remaining Palestinian enclaves in a strategic area referred to by Israel as E1, which if depopulated of its Palestinian residents would effectively cut off the northern and southern West Bank. The United States and others have warned such a move would preclude the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.
In 2018, after Israel was preparing to demolish the village, the United Nations, European Union, and local and international human rights groups warned that the plan would constitute a grave breach of international humanitarian law. Later that year, then-prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, published an extraordinary statement affirming that it would be a war crime under the ICC's Rome Statute and warning the Israeli government that she was watching closely and would "not hesitate to take any appropriate action."
Following Bensouda's warning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended plans to demolish the village, demonstrating the importance of international accountability measures in preventing war crimes. However, an Israeli settler organization, Regavim, petitioned the country's High Court of Justice seeking an injunction ordering the state to carry out the demolition. The state has received numerous extensions for filing its response, which must include whether—and within what timeframe—it intends to go through with its plans for Khan al-Ahmar. It must now file its response by February 1, 2023.
Regavim was co-founded by Betzalel Smotrich, an extremist Israeli settler who is now the Israeli minister in charge of all planning in the occupied West Bank. Smotrich, also the Israeli finance minister, along with many other members of the current government, has been very vocal in stating that the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar is a top political priority.
"If the United States believes that building new Israeli settlements on the ruins of Khan al-Ahmar will make a two-state solution impossible then it must wake up to what that says about Israel," said Adam Shapiro, Director of Advocacy for Israel-Palestine at DAWN. "Israel is determined to maintain its occupation and apartheid rule over Palestinians permanently, and the Biden Administration needs to understand it cannot reconcile that with the 'shared democratic values' it says are the foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship."
The current Israeli government has made explicit its policy of thwarting Palestinian statehood. Some of its senior-most members, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, advocate population transfer, illegal annexation, collective punishment, and political violence to make permanent Israel's occupation and apartheid regime. The rejectionist position of the Israeli government to Palestinian statehood is but one reason the United States should reevaluate the basis and logic of what is often described as its "special relationship" with Israel.
In its first few weeks in office, the new Israeli government has already challenged the notion of "shared values" with the United States, understood to mean a commitment to democratic governance under the rule of law, in ways unseen over the past 75 years of bilateral relations. It has undertaken or promised to execute policies to dismantle democratic institutions, expand settlements, annex parts of the occupied Palestinian territory, end any measure of accountability for security forces, and restrict key civil and political rights within Israel proper.
What Should the United States Do?
These plans and policies have already begun and will continue to undermine the foundations of the U.S.-Israel relationship as it has been understood historically. While Israel is the incontrovertible driver of those changes, it will be the United States' responsibility to decide what constitutes a tipping point—or tipping points—and what the relationship should look like once it has been crossed.
The potential destruction of Khan al-Ahmar should be one such tipping point. The Biden Administration should make clear to Israel that if it informs the High Court on Wednesday that it plans to demolish the village and forcibly transfer Khan al-Ahmar's residents, even if it gives no timeline for doing so, the U.S.-Israel relationship will start to change.
There are many options for what such changes could look like, including:
- Ending Washington's long-standing policy of vetoing any UN Security Council resolution that is critical of Israel, even if the resolution itself is in line with U.S. policy.
- A public affirmation from the administration that it views all Israeli settlements as illegal, and exclude any settlement products from the countries' 1985 free trade agreement.
- Target violent settlers and settler organizations with sanctions, including by disrupting the flow of U.S. financing to Israeli settlements.
- Order a thorough, independent review of how U.S. security and other financial assistance is contributing to Israel's human rights violations against Palestinians so that Congress can exercise proper oversight.
"Whatever the response, the United States should make clear that there is no such thing as an unconditional relationship," said Adam Shapiro. "If, as the Biden Administration has stated on numerous occasions in recent weeks, the U.S.-Israel relationship is built on 'mutual interests and shared democratic values,' it should prepare for the moment it can no longer maintain that facade."