How zoning laws allow the Israeli Army to demolish Palestinian villages
More than a thousand Bedouin Palestinians living in the hills of Mount Hebron in the West Bank are at risk of losing their homes under zoning laws that allow the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to evict them at any time. In the 1980s, the IDF declared their homeland a so-called “firing zone”, or a closed military zone, allowing it to remove people and destroy their homes. In early May, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition to reclassify the area, meaning residents continue to live in fear of being forced out.
The sounds of shooting, bulldozers and diggers have become normal background sounds for people living in the 12 Bedouin villages and hamlets in the Masafer Yatta region. These communities are home to about a thousand people who are farmers and raise livestock.
These communities have been desperately trying to stop the demolition of their remaining homes, schools and health centres. They have launched petitions and even turned to the courts. However, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected their appeal in August 2022.
🚨The occupation forces demolished a house in Bani Naim, they used violence against the residents, firing live bullets and sound and gas bombs, arresting a young man after brutally beating him.— #SaveMasaferYatta (@basel_adra) October 25, 2022
🚨Forces gather in Masafer Yatta, and we do not know what they will destroy. pic.twitter.com/72Fjv90Iu4
In early May, the Israeli Supreme Court authorised the demolition of a 30 square kilometre area to make way for an army shooting range. The buildings slated to be bulldozed included schools and health centres, as well as water tanks. All of these represent critical infrastructure for the region, which already faces a shortage of facilities.
It was back in 1981 when the village of Masafer Yatta was named “firing zone 918”, establishing it as a closed military zone and giving the army the ability to displace people living there. The first mass eviction in the area took place in 1999, when the IDF drove 700 people off of their land. They claimed these people were “non-permanent residents” and thus illegally settled in the region.
But it wasn’t until May 2022 when a full green light was given to the IDF to demolish all of the Palestinian villages, hamlets and communities in Masafer Yatta, including four schools and several health centres and agricultural buildings.
'The Israeli government is putting pressure on the residents'
Nidhal Younes is the president of the united villages in Masafer Yatta. He lives in a village called Jinba, located 18 kilometres to the south of Hebron. A long-term resident, Younes has borne witness to numerous expulsion campaigns, including one in 1985, another in 1999 and that of 2022.
In 1985, the army destroyed a dozen homes that were built before 1948 [Editor’s note: the date of the first Arab-Israeli war]. People who lost their homes during that demolition went and lived in caves in Mount Hebron for several years. Actually, some people still live in those caves. Back then, the Israeli army even confiscated our livestock and kept us from rebuilding.
Today, the Israeli government is putting pressure on the residents of Masafer Yatta, trying to get us to leave ourselves. Nearby, soldiers carry out exercises at all times of day and night. there is a lot of shooting and explosions go off really close to our homes. Some homes were destroyed in the hamlet of Khallet ed Dabaa, which is home to the only school in a several-kilometre radius. And now the school is just sitting there, waiting to be destroyed.
Along with the military training exercises, there are frequent raids on the villages. The soldiers will burst into homes and tents and fire bullets to terrorise residents.
The military barricades at the entrance of each village are often closed, making it impossible to leave or enter these hamlets. There are checkpoints everywhere.
Their aim is to restrict our movements within the zone as much as possible. They seize our cars. They prevent farming materials and medical supplies from being delivered to our village. They also prevent international associations from entering our territory.
They will also stop teachers and schoolchildren at roadblocks, preventing them from returning home because many of them travel by car from quite far away. Now, those who live in the hills around the villages have resorted to walking for several kilometres on mountain paths to get anywhere.
There was a permanent roadblock put up in my village, Jinba, in early May. Getting through the checkpoint depends entirely on the mood of the soldier in charge that day. I personally was stopped for half a day at the checkpoint outside of Jinba. They also searched me, under the pretext that what I was transporting looked “suspicious.”
'They steal our livestock, destroy our fields and attack villagers'
There are also settlers in the area, who work alongside the soldiers. When there is an expulsion operation or a demolition planned, the civilian settlers will join in alongside the army.
They steal our livestock, destroy our fields and attack villagers. This often happens during the olive harvest [Editor’s note: Jewish settlers attacked villagers with knives during an olive harvest on October 19 in Kisan, a community located to the east of Bethlehem. A 70-year-old woman was stabbed].
More than 30settlers from the illegal Susiya settlement, accompanied by the occupation army, stormed the village of Wadi Jaish in Masafer Yatta, destroying at least 3 tents and stole trees from families. pic.twitter.com/7PBoDKMuuA— #SaveMasaferYatta (@basel_adra) October 9, 2022
These same settlers regularly launch raids on our villages. And when they are met with resistance, they call on the army and the police and “denounce” homes that they believe are “illegal” so that they will be demolished or seized. When I tried to build my own home, settlers came and took photos of the construction and reported to the army that it was being “illegally built”. I had to demolish it before the construction was even finished.
'Either you demolish your own home or the army will do it'
We often see settlers bring their children along. Unlike Jewish children who live in cities, these children aren’t properly schooled and take part in their families’ criminal activities. They grow up being fed hatred for the Palestinians. They will come and celebrate the demolition of homes or the expulsion of Arab villagers because their clan teaches them that our land is actually theirs and that they aren’t doing anything but defending their heritage. That’s how our homes are seized and then converted into new colonies.
The IDF has not provided an explanation for why they are using this zone for military training exercises, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). An investigation by Israeli media outlet +972 revealed that “firing zones” were created after the war in 1967 with the aim of transferring ownership of this land to the military and then eventually to settlers.
Kareem Jobran, from the Israeli-Palestinian organisation B'tselem, says that this strategy of intimidation amounts to a war crime.
These confrontations are the direct result of the army’s decision to push people out. However, in order to avoid having to explain the expulsions, they carry them out bit by bit. For example, they might lead expeditions into this area several times over the course of a few weeks in order to avoid attracting the attention of the international community.
Right now, the army, as well as the civilian settlers go nearly every day to the villages they want to bulldoze. They pressure the residents, trying to get them to leave themselves and abandon their villages. We consider this intimidation and provocation synonymous with war crimes and they occur on a daily basis.
B'tselem already sought legal action over this situation, bringing the case to the Israeli Supreme Court. In early October, we also brought this case to the International Criminal Court because we consider it a war crime. We are calling for a stop to this violent intimidation. Back in 2018, we were able to stop a mass expulsion of people living in the village of Khan-al-ahmar [located to the east of Jerusalem], thanks to the international criminal court. The Israeli government backtracked due to international pressure.
Today, the army is once again threatening this village with expulsion and demolition. We are calling for real action and are calling on the criminal court to do more than just denounce these crimes.