Palestinians left in a vacuum by Israeli expulsion order
AL-FAKHEET, West Bank (AP) — After repeatedly rebuilding his home only to have it demolished by Israeli soldiers, Mohammed Abu Sabaha has a new plan for staying on the land — he’s moving into a cave.
Abu Sabaha is among some 1,000 Palestinians at risk of deportation from an arid region of the occupied West Bank that the Israeli military has designated as a live-fire training area. Israel’s Supreme Court upheld their deportation in May after a two-decade legal battle.
Most residents of the area, known as Masafer Yatta, have remained in place since the ruling, although Israeli security forces periodically arrive to demolish the structures. But they could be deported at any time, and rights groups fear Israel is doing so gradually to escape international scrutiny.
The entrance to Abu Sabaha Cave is surrounded by the ruins of houses and animal enclosures that soldiers demolished in earlier raids. The cooing and cackling of chickens can be heard from inside a destroyed chicken coop. A series of stone steps lead to the cave, where he has hung electric lights, but it will take time to make it a home for his wife, parents and six children.
“We suffered a lot because of this decision. Especially the children, who were born here,” he said, standing in the dimly lit cave. “They fled the demolitions, then came back when we rebuilt, so many times.”
When the army is not demolishing the houses, it organizes training exercises nearby. Tanks throw up clouds of dust and heavy machine gun fire and explosions echo through the desert hills. Abu Sabaha says her 3-year-old daughter Zeynab tenses up every time she sees them.
“She’s always afraid that they’ll come and destroy one more time,” he said.
The army declared this part of Masafer Yatta a shooting and training area in the early 1980s. Israeli authorities said the inhabitants – Bedouin Arabs who practice a traditional form of agriculture and herding – only used the area part of the year and there were no permanent structures at the time. In November 1999, security forces evicted some 700 villagers and destroyed houses and cisterns. The legal battle began the following year.
The families say they have been there for decades – long before Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war – and have nowhere to live. Some residents have traditionally resided in caves for part of the year, as they graze sheep and goats in different areas.
Israel’s Supreme Court sided with the state in May after villagers rejected a compromise that would have allowed them to enter at certain times and farm for part of the year .
Since then, the army has demolished several structures and seized vehicles, erected roadblocks and checkpoints to limit movement, according to Nidal Younes, head of the local council.
“It’s all within the framework of the occupation, to scare, scare, make people’s lives extremely difficult to force them to leave,” he said.
Masafer Yatta sits in the 60 percent of the occupied West Bank known as Area C, where the Israeli military exercises full control under interim peace agreements reached with the Palestinians in the 1990s. Palestinian structures built without military permits – which locals say are almost impossible to obtain – are at risk of being torn down.
Area C is also home to several Jewish settlement outposts which are protected by the military despite being built without Israeli permission. Nearly 500,000 settlers live in communities across the West Bank, most of which have been planned and approved by the government. Many look like small towns or suburbs, with apartment buildings, shopping centers and factories.
The Palestinians and the international community see the settlements as a major obstacle to resolving the age-old conflict, as they absorb and divide up the land on which a future Palestinian state would be established alongside Israel.
Israel officially views the disputed West Bank territory as subject to negotiations, but every government since 1967 has expanded settlements, and the country’s dominant right-wing parties oppose a Palestinian state. One of the Supreme Court justices who ruled on Masafer Yatta is a settler.
Eugene Kontorovich, a legal scholar at Israel’s Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing think tank, said Israel could not allow “private squatters to determine the uses of state land” and that it was justified to prohibit people from entering a military firing range.
“The technical and legal justification is that it is not their land,” he added.
Rights groups say several other Palestinian communities across the West Bank could face similar deportation threats if the international community does not pressure Israel over Masafer Yatta. Israel has declared firing zones in 20% of the West Bank, affecting some 5,000 Palestinians from 38 communities, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Dror Sadot, spokesperson for Israeli rights group B’Tselem, said Israel would likely implement a ‘silent transfer’ in which it would gradually make life so difficult that families would get away with it themselves.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has been waging a legal battle on behalf of Masafer Yatta residents for more than two decades, filed another petition against the Supreme Court’s decision.
Roni Pelli, a lawyer for the group, said the “terrible decision” goes against international law, which prohibits the transfer of civilians out of occupied territories.
“The legal consequence is that international humanitarian law is no longer relevant in the West Bank because the military commander can issue any order he wants,” she said.
“You don’t need to put people in trucks to force them off the land,” she added. “I’m really, really worried that this could turn into a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Associated Press reporters Emily Rose in Jerusalem and Nasser Nasser in al-Fakheet, West Bank contributed to this report.