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U.N. says Israel's "unlawful demolition" of Palestinian village leaves 41 kids homeless

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Beds and other family belongings sit in the dirt in what had been the small Palestinian settlement of Khirbet Humsa in the West Bank, in a photo provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. OCHA/UN

United Nations — Israeli forces sent demolition vehicles on November 3 to bulldoze a small Palestinian village, leaving some 70 civilians, including 41 children, homeless, the United Nations said. It was part of the largest forced displacement carried out by the Israeli government in years, according to the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  

The action in a small settlement in the Jordan Valley known as Khirbet Humsa was filmed by the U.N. agency as well as an Israeli human rights group. The images showed beds, cribs and other family belongings left on the dusty ground of the village. 

On Friday, the heads of mission of the European Union and more than a dozen "likeminded countries" visited the site and said that "local residents briefed the diplomats on the demolition of 84 structures, including residential, livelihood and sanitation facilities, by Israeli forces."

France's Foreign Ministry issued a separate statement unilaterally condemning the demolitions at Khirbet Humsa. 

The settlement is located within "Area C," an area designated under the international peace agreements known as the Oslo Accords, a landmark 1993 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The agreement established the framework for interim self-government for the Palestinians and reciprocal recognition between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. It was followed by the Oslo II Accords, which, in 1995 stipulated the withdrawal of Israel from particular cities and towns in the West Bank.

The Oslo II Accord divided the West Bank into three regions: A, B, and C. In short, Area A was to be under control of the Palestinian Authority; Area B was to be under joint Israeli-Palestinian security control with civil administration by the Palestinians; and Area C was to be under full Israeli civil and security control. In 1998, Israel, the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority agreed to the Wye River Memorandum, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from parts of Area C as part of the Oslo Accords. 

The Oslo Accords thus established the concept that parts of Area C in the West Bank would be transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction.

But, as Richard Haass, the Council on Foreign Relations President, wrote recently, "the Oslo Accords were never implemented in full. [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated, subsequent attempts at negotiating peace failed, Arafat died, and no Palestinian state materialized." But the rough division of the "areas" remains.

The Khirbet Humsa homes that were demolished were located within an area that countries view differently, although few dispute that "Area C," and the Jordan Valley within it, is under Israeli security control, as laid out in the 1995 Oslo II Accords. 

Israel's military unit in the West Bank, the office of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, said the destroyed structures were "built illegally in a firing zone in the Jordan Valley," adding that the enforcement action removed seven tents and eight pens.

The European Union, as the largest donor to the Palestinians and a part of the stalled "Middle East Quartet" of the U.S., Russia, the EU and the U.N., has been clear that, unlike Israel, they consider "Area C," and therefore Khirbet Humsa, part of Palestinian, not Israeli territory.

"The European Union (E.U.) considers Area C an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories," E.U. Representative Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff said in July.  

During the trip to Khirbet Humsa, European Union Representative von Burgsdorff, who led the delegation, said it was "very clear" that the demolition of the structures "is contrary to international law."

The Bedouin and sheepherding community was one of several in what the U.N. and the EU consider Palestinian territory that was constructed within designated Israeli army training areas, where building permits are rarely issued.  

The U.N. office there said: "Structures built without permits are regularly served with demolition orders, creating chronic uncertainty and threat, and encouraging people to leave."

On Monday, Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, Minister Riyad Mansour sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, stating that, "Israel demolished an entire community's residences in Khirbet Humsa Al Bqai'a, leaving more than 70 people, among them 41 children, homeless and even more vulnerable in this time of pandemic."

"Humanitarian agencies visited the community and recorded 76 demolished structures, more than in any other single demolition in the past decade, said Yvonne Helle, the Humanitarian Coordinator at the U.N. agency, adding that the destroyed properties included homes, bathrooms and solar panel arrays that were essential to the community. 

The heightened tension in the Middle East comes as the Trump administration's Israel-Palestinian peace plan, unveiled earlier this year, remains largely stalled and the parties divided over how to proceed.

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Although Israel's Mission told CBS News that it would not comment on the action in Khirbet Humsah, they forwarded recent statements about the U.N.'s approach to Israel. 

Israel and the U.S. have accused the U.N. of bias in favor of the Palestinians, and on Wednesday the Israeli ambassador to the world body, Gilad Erdan, accused its other members of adopting Middle East resolutions "that worsen conflict and increase religious tension." U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft made similar assertions to CBS News in a September interview.

The U.N. said Israel's actions this week were intended to move vulnerable families out of their homes. Overall, the U.N. said almost 700 civilian buildings have been demolished in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in 2020. 

"Their vulnerability is further compounded by the onset of winter and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Helle said of the Khirbet demolitions in particular, calling the actions "grave breaches" of international law.  

"The humanitarian community stands ready to support all those who have been displaced," the U.N. Secretary-General's spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Thursday. "They reiterate that they call on Israel to immediately halt these unlawful demolitions." 

Dujarric said U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov had contacted Israeli authorities, including its military division in the West Bank, on the razing of Khirbet.  

Asked by CBS News about Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' reaction to the demolitions, Dujarric said they were "of concern to us."

"We urge Israel to cease this practice across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem," he said. "We stand against these acts and we have denounced them." 

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