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Israel Uses Cover Of U.S. Election To Destroy Palestinian Homes, Critics Say

Israeli authorities demolished a rural Palestinian hamlet in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, residents and rights advocates said.

More than 70 structures were destroyed, making it the largest single demolition in the past decade and the biggest forced displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank in over four years, the United Nations said. The statement said 73 people — including 41 children — lived in what it called a "herding community."

"I am 99% certain this was taking advantage of the U.S. elections. ... There were no journalists around," Yasser Abu al-Kbash, a resident, told NPR.

The 48-year-old shepherd said he had lived there all his life. "They bulldozed everything," he said.

Israel gave lower numbers for the structures destroyed.

Khirbet Humsah, also called Humsah Al Bqai'a, was a small community in tents and shacks located in the Jordan Valley, the agricultural breadbasket of the West Bank that Palestinians claim for a future state. Israeli leaders have talked about seeking to permanently control the area for its strategic value because it borders Jordan.

"A demolition on this scale is extremely rare," said Amit Gilutz of B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that documents and opposes Israel's policies toward Palestinians. "Everyone's attention is directed elsewhere."

Smaller demolitions of Palestinian structures are frequent. This year, Israel broke a four-year record in the number of Palestinians it displaced by destroying their homes, Gilutz said.

The hamlet's tents, sheds, sheep pens and animal feed were destroyed, as were mobile toilets and a solar panel funded by Britain, Sweden and other European Union countries, he said.

The Israeli Defense Ministry's agency that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, said authorities demolished seven tents and eight animal pens built illegally in a military firing range. It did not return a request for comment about the timing of Tuesday's operation.

"The enforcement was carried out in accordance with the authorities and procedures, and subject to operational considerations," the Israeli agency said in a statement.

Abu al-Kbash said the area is used for agriculture and is only rarely used by Israel for military exercises.

A Palestinian aid group has provided tents as temporary shelter for the residents who lost their homes, but Abu al-Kbash said they were not sufficient for the village's families, including children. He said villagers were now sleeping on the rubble of their destroyed shacks.

"Our bed is the ground. Our roof is the sky," he said. "We hope people will come and see our situation. They will see that Israel, which pretends to be a compassionate country, is chasing us."

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.