Special Report: Palestinian Villages in the Firing Zone

This is a special report by my friend and colleague Leah Levane.

“Farming is in our soul and in our blood, if they take this away, we will be destroyed” Sara, resident of Jinba

The 30,000 stony, barren dunams of Massafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills are beautiful in a stark and awesome way.  It is also, apparently ideal training terrain for the Israeli army, particularly in the event of another war with Lebanon.

Consequently the 1500 people, 14,000 sheep and 2,000 goats that currently live in 8 villages towards the southernmost part of the West Bank, will be evacuated and their villages destroyed so that the training can take place. The Israeli Minister of Defence gave these orders in the Israeli High Court on July 23rd 2012, as the government’s response to the villagers’ appeal to the designation of their homes and land not as Massafer Yatta, not as a collection of hamlets with their own names but instead as FIRING ZONE 918’.

Although the Court has still to make its final decision on this case, the army has already been closing roads and on August 7th, set up a checkpoint between the villages of Jinba and Khirbet Biral’Idd. Helicopters flew over the South Hebron Hills to support the army’s actions, and soldiers then entered the village, frightening residents and damaging property. Even before the announcement was made, a car was impounded for 10 days that belong to Comet ME, an organisation linking these and other villages in the south Hebron Hills to electricity by putting in solar panels and wind turbines.

Life is hard in these villages even without the Occupation to contend with; water is difficult and expensive to obtain and transport across the rough terrain where there are only dirt roads. The school in Jinba operates from tents, which are cold in winter and access to teaching materials is very limited. The school in At Tuwani (just outside the northern perimeter of Massafer Yatta, was under a demolition order for many years and was also contending with settler violence from the nearby Havat Ma’on settlement outpost (illegal even under Israeli law, although all Settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law),

The area was first declared a firing Zone in 1999. 700 residents were evacuated.. The evacuation was halted by a interim injunction issued by the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ) in the year 2000 and in response to petitions filed by the residents and this limbo has continued since then following further petitions,, but no final decision has yet been made and this has meant that for over a decade, the residents of these twelve uniquely traditional villages have lived under the constant threat of demolition, evacuation, and dispossession.

Israel’s claims are that the people who live and continue their ancient culture of husbandry cultivation are nonpermanent residents and the villagers maintain that they are permanent residents but the Security Forces say they are not and that they are seasonally nomadic. School records in the area show that families are there year round.  (The Israeli Army is permitted under international law and if for security reasons, to remove people from a firing zone or limit their mobility within the area, except in the case of permanent residents.

These hamlets existed long before 1967 and some residents have ownership documents from the Ottoman period. And the historical existence of the hamlets has been recognised by the Israeli Ministry of Defense [see Ya’akov Havakuk, Life in the Caves of South Hebron (1985, Israel Ministry of Defense).

Now, after twelve years of waiting for a final decision, the Minister of Defence has announced that he wants to order the people from 8 of the 12 villages to leave.  These villages are: A-Sfay,  Al Kharuba, A-Tabban, Al Fakheit, Al Majaz, Al Halaweh, Al Mirkez, Jinba. Of the remaining 4 villages, at least two, Tuba and Um Fagara, have demolition orders on most of the structures in their villages. If the decision is implemented, what will happen to the people there?

In August and November 1999 the majority of people in these twelve hamlets were served with immediate evacuation orders due to their “illegal dwelling in a fire zone”. On November 16, 1999 security forces arrived and evacuated over 700 residents by force. The IDF destroyed homes and cisterns and confiscated property.  The villagers, dispossessed of their lands and their livelihoods, were left homeless. (ACRI – May 2012)

We met Sara, who is a teacher who lives with her husband and in-laws in Jinba.  Her husband died during the second intifada and later she married again. She has 5 children and the whole family have been subject to military incursions over the years. The DCO do not grant them any building permits, no matter how often they apply. Because of her first husband’s connection to the intifada, the family members are not allowed to work in Israel.  The option the Israeli government give them is to move to the nearby large town of Yatta where unemployment is very high and 75% work in the Israeli economy. Furthermore, as a large extended family they rely solely on agricultural activities for livelihood. Sara said “farming is in our soul and in our blood, if they take this away, we will be destroyed. “

Is the area needed by the Army?

The army had not held live-fire training in the firing zone for many years and by 2005, the two main military bases located in and around the firing zone, Adasha Infantry and Um Daraj, had been closed down. (Of course, this was before the loss of the Second Lebanon War in 2006).  These bases have not been reopened. (See 2005 B’Tselem Report (“Means of Expulsion: Violence, Harassment and Lawlessness against Palestinians”)

The Army has objected to the fact that there are people living in the area and visiting the area, other than those who in 2000 were granted the right to return to the area pending a final decision. Of course, the legal proceedings have been going on for 12 years and so it is to be expected that the villages have developed, the population grown and needs have changed. (See also section below)

British Aid and humanitarian needs in the area

The UK government funded 15 cisterns and a series of 19 toilets, including cesspools as part of the DFID humanitarian project. These structures serve 18 families (approximately 320 persons), the majority of whom reside in A-Sfay.  All these structures have had demolition orders on them for some years and the Security Forces contend that the establishment of the cisterns and cesspools was a violation of the Court’ agreeing that residents could come back into the area in March 2000 pending a permanent decision because this calls upon  Palestinian residents to preserve the status quo that existed at the time the (1999) evacuation orders were served. (my emphasis).

It is important, however, to note that international humanitarian law requires an Occupying Power has a responsibilityfor the humanitarian needs of the population and it is does not make sense to the residents that when the Court issued an order allowing the villagers to return to their lands in 2000, that it meant to deny them their most basic needs. Without these cisterns and cesspools structures, a humanitarian crisis would surely have already arisen.

Finally….

Massafer Yatta is in Area C, an area comprising 62% of the West Bank, including all the Israeli Settlements and Settlement outposts.  It is almost impossible for Palestinians in Area C to get permits to build houses, schools, cisterns, clinics, tents. Everything is considered a structure, solar panels and wind turbines and even the water tankers that have to be driven in by tractor to all the Palestinian villages in this area. There are now more Israeli citizens living in Area C of the West Bank than Palestinians (350,000 Israelis compared with c. 150,000 Palestinians and these figures exclude the 200,000 Jewish Israelis living in the annexed part of Jerusalem, which was part of the West Bank until 1967.)

My thanks to ACRI (Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who together with Rabbis for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence provided much of the history and technical information

Leah Levane is serving for three months with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). EAPPI brings internationals to the West Bank to experience life under occupation. Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. When they return home, EAs campaign for a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the occupation, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions.

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