Israel begins mass evictions of West Bank villages in Masafer Yatta
Less than a week after the High Court ruling, the Najjars’ home has been demolished, marking the start of what activists say will likely be the largest mass eviction of Palestinians ever. in the occupied West Bank since the 1967 war, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from territories conquered by Israel.
The court was not swayed by historical documents presented by Palestinian advocates showing what they said was evidence that the proposal to establish a shooting range decades ago was intended to prevent Palestinians to claim the land.
“We had 30 minutes to pull out what we could,” said Yusara al-Najjar, who was born in a hand-dug cave on that same slope in the Negev desert 60 years ago. She looked over the pile of broken blocks and twisted metal that had been her family home and wiped her hands with a slap. “It didn’t take long and our house was gone, again.”
The demolitions have raised concerns from Washington ahead of President Biden’s planned June visit to Israel, at a time of growing instability in Israel’s coalition government and the recent approval of more than 4,200 new homes in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. . US State Department spokesman Ned Price, responding to a question about the High Court’s decision, pleaded with Israelis and Palestinians to avoid measures that increase tensions. “That certainly includes evictions,” he said.
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The European Union urged Israel to stop the demolitions. A group of United Nations human rights experts have warned that the “forcible transfer” of residents would constitute “a serious violation of international, humanitarian and human rights law”.
The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that the demolitions were in line with the High Court’s years-long review and unanimous decision on behalf of the military.
“The Supreme Court fully accepted the position of the State of Israel and ruled that the petitioners were not permanent residents of the area,” the statement said. “The court also noted that the petitioners had rejected any attempt at compromise offered to them.”
The tussle for these dry hills south of the biblical city of Hebron began in the 1980s, when Israeli officials claimed several areas of the West Bank for the stated reason of creating military training grounds.
This 8,000 to 14,000 acre region – known in Arabic as Masafer Yatta and in English as the South Hebron Hills – has been designated as Firing Zone 918.
“The vital importance of this firing range for the Israel Defense Forces derives from the unique topographical character of the area, which allows specific training methods for small and large cadres, from a squad to a battalion,” said the military in court documents. reported by The Times of Israel.
But human rights activists, both Palestinian and Israeli, argue that the real aim of most of the firing zones has been to eliminate Arab residents and strengthen Israel’s grip on more Palestinian territory. busy. Often the designation has given way to the expansion of Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal by most of the international community.
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Archived minutes from a 1981 meeting recently discovered by researchers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeared to support this idea. Then agriculture minister – later prime minister – Ariel Sharon is on record saying it was important to slow “the expansion of hilltop Arab villagers”, according to an article by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on the document. “We have an interest in expanding and enlarging the shooting areas there, to keep those areas that are so vital in our hands.”
The document was registered as legal evidence.
Israeli officials argued that residents of eight to 12 small hamlets in Area 918 – most of them herdsmen living in tents who still wintered in caves carved into the limestone – could not prove ownership land legal.
What followed was a legal Catch-22. Residents and their advocates have repeatedly applied for permits to build homes and power lines. Military officials, saying no one was allowed to live inside a firing range, denied requests, then routinely dispatched armed demolition teams to tear down “illegal” structures.
Authorities first issued eviction orders in 1999, but have since refrained from physically evicting the families as legal challenges dragged on. Instead, advocates say, the repetitive demolitions are strategic harassment intended to chase families away.
“I don’t think we’ll see pictures of people in trucks, because of the optics,” said Dror Sadot of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that worked on the case. . “What we will see will only be repeated demolitions, which will force the community to leave because they can no longer live there.”
Over the years, the court has considered compromises, including one that would allow expelled Palestinians to return to the fields during Jewish holidays and other times when no military training was likely to take place. Residents rejected these proposals out of hand.
The High Court finally ended the challenge on May 5, ruling unanimously for the military and finding that the Palestinian families had failed to prove they had a legal claim to the land or had lived there before. it is designated as a firing range.
“There is the law that works for Jews, but for us it is non-existent,” said Masafer Yatta village council chief Nidal Younes, who noted that a nearby outpost maintained by Israeli settlers is not subject to evictions under the order.
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In her village, Najjar shakes her head at the thought that she is a newcomer to the land where, she says, her grandparents dug a limestone shepherd’s shelter in the 1950s and where she was born in 1961.
Now she and her family have been forced to return to this cave, which they, like many families, have maintained over the years as a kitchen and additional living space. As the number of Israeli settlers in the area increased, and with it incidents of vandalism and physical attacks by settlers, they saw it as a haven from violence.
The simple houses with block and metal roofs that they built were all demolished.
Tending to a batch of traditional labneh cheese under solar-powered lamps, Najjar described the last unannounced appearance of the bulldozer, escorted by more than a dozen soldiers armed with automatic weapons.
“They didn’t say why they were here, they didn’t give us any papers,” she said. “But we knew.”
The soldiers ordered the male relatives to stay a safe distance from the house while the women rushed to grab the clothes and bedding. They struggled with a washing machine. Many of their belongings were still inside when the soldiers told them to step back.
It took the bulldozer less than two hours to flatten two houses and two sheep pens in the seven-family village, Najjar said. In total, the army demolished 20 structures in three villages that day, according to Basel Adra, a Palestinian activist who documents IDF activities in the area.
The IDF did not say when it planned to carry out further demolition orders.