Theodor Herzl, the father of Israel’s foundational Zionist ideology, once said, “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct”.
Recent examples of Herzl’s colonial paradigm of displacement and replacement include continuing large-scale home demolitions in Wadi Hummus, a neighbourhood in southeast Jerusalem that is supposed to be under the Palestinian Authority’s control (PA), and threats to demolish 52 West Bank schools, such as the Ras al-Tin primary school near Ramallah. Most recently, the bulldozers and diggers of the Israeli army demolished the Palestinian village of Khirbet Humsa, leaving 74 people, including 41 minors, homeless.
Those actions represent a transgression on the clauses of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993 and 1995. They are also in violation of a system of international law that has developed in the period of decolonisation much different from the rapacious age of European Imperialism Herzl lived in, which strictly bans demolitions in occupied territories.
“Displace and replace” is the deeply exclusionary logic Israel has operated on since its inception. The efforts to displace Palestinians to make way for Israeli settlers is also intertwined with the well-established Israeli project to achieve and maintain ethnic purity. Thus, despite hopes held by some that US President Donald Trump’s so-called “Abraham Accords” might halt Israel’s anticipated annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, recently there has been an alarming spike in house demolitions in East Jerusalem and across the illegally occupied West Bank.
Israel is even planning to force dispossessed people in Wadi Hummus to cover the bill for the demolition of their homes, making the act both territorially and financially profitable. The demolitions add an extra burden on the scarce public financial resources of the Palestinians because the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership has promised to compensate all families who lost homes in this way. Altogether these acts represent a triple loss for Palestinians, in a shrinking pandemic economy with less aid coming in to give it air to breathe.
Strongly worded statements from the international community urging Israel to halt its annexation plans did not translate into any action. The Palestinian leadership’s threats to end security cooperation with Israel, and approach international bodies of justice in response to Israel’s actions in Wadi Hummus, also proved hollow. Meanwhile, the destruction continues.
Measuring the effects
The continuing demolitions in Wadi Hummus, and most recently the case of Khirbet Humsa, underline the need to create additional tools to put at the disposal of Palestinians to better record and then challenge the damage being wrought upon them. They reinforce the need to document and expose the costs of colonisation on the international stage. This should go beyond measuring just the transactional economic costs on gross domestic product (GDP) and gross national income (GNI) of the Israeli occupation, which the World Bank is already doing because such economy-focused efforts ignore the human context.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA) recently took important steps to document and expose the real cost of Israel’s colonialism and occupation. Yet, these efforts need to be expanded. This includes reaching out to more of the countless Palestinian analysts who are better equipped to measure these costs than outside experts. Efforts to document and expose all costs of Israel’s colonialism should also include recording and sharing the personalised experiences of its victims. Any accounting that ignores the psychological and emotional scars, just because they are difficult to translate into numbers, or uncomfortable to acknowledge, will remain short-sighted and ineffective.
This information can be used to slow colonialism’s impact and plan out a future recovery. It is critical to stress this will need to be accompanied by action by the international community to put a stop to further displacement and replacement. That step is also the only possible way to finally establish the conditions for Palestinians to build institutions, foster a stable economy and improve their social wellbeing. This is also imperative because colonisation should not be normalised, sponsored or sustained in a world governed by international law. Ending Israel’s displacement and replacement paradigm is critical to regional peace and stability, too.
Rather than holding Israel to account for its ongoing colonisation of Palestine, the international community’s most powerful actors are choosing to justify and rationalise its crimes against Palestinians. As a result, Israeli policies that blatantly violate human rights and international law are starting to be perceived as “normal” and even “righteous”. Colonisation is one of the most easily recognised forms of oppression in the world. However, to this day, the international community never truly acknowledged the colonial nature of Israel’s occupation and allowed it to violate international law with impunity. Thus, Israel continues its expansion into what is left of Palestine, undermining a fundamental principle of international law that bans states from taking land by force.
Regional normalisation schemes like the Abraham Accords only serve to encourage yet more colonial annexation, and many more Wadi Hummus’s and Khirbet Humsa’s. Normalisation efforts that are not preceded by a determination to hold Israel to account for its colonial policies and illegal occupation will not lead to regional peace, definitely not for millions of Palestinians.