Special Report: Palestinian Villages in the Firing Zone
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 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 when they are left homeless?
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."