End Masafer Yatta nightmare, rights group tells ICC

Israeli forces conduct a military exercise near and inside villages in the Masafer Yatta area of the southern West Bank (Keren Manor - ActiveStills)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  October 7, 2022

A prominent Israeli human rights group is calling on Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to urgently intervene to prevent the expulsion of Palestinians from a rural area of the West Bank.

In a letter delivered on Monday, B’Tselem requested Khan’s “urgent intervention to prevent Israel from continuing to carry out this policy” and to clarify that forcible transfer constitutes a war crime under the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court.

Israel seeks to expel some 1,000 Palestinians from Masafer Yatta in the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills “by making the conditions they live in so unbearable they are forced to leave the area they have lived in for generations,” B’Tselem states in its letter.

“While these efforts have been underway for decades, Israel has recently massively stepped them up – in scope, severity and frequency,” the rights group adds.

Those efforts were accelerated after Israel’s high court rejected a legal challenge to the state’s plans to turn the area into a military training zone.

One of the Israeli judges who issued the verdict is a settler who was born in the UK and lives in a Jewish-only colony in the West Bank built in violation of international law.

Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s agriculture minister, admitted in 1981 that the area was declared a firing zone for the purpose of displacing Palestinians from their land so it may be seized by Israel.

The high court’s ruling in May concluded two decades of legal challenges mounted by Palestinians in Masafer Yatta.

Since 2006, Israel destroyed nearly 70 “residential structures in these communities that were home to 355 people, 175 of them minors,” according to B’Tselem. The group has “also documented the demolition of 32 non-residential structures in these communities.”

Violence by Jewish settlers also serves the state’s aim of pushing Palestinians off of their land in Masafer Yatta.

‘Nightmare’

“Jewish settlers physically assault Palestinian shepherds and use their land, sabotage water sources and enter homes, among other violent acts, with full state backing and often the active participation of Israeli soldiers and police,” B’Tselem states.

Since the high court ruling earlier this year, “life for Palestinian residents has become a nightmare,” according to B’Tselem.

Israel’s aim, the rights group says, is to make Palestinians’ lives “miserable enough so they will leave their homes and land, and the state will take over the area.”

Israel has conducted military training exercises involving tanks and live fire in the area. The military has confiscated vehicles and imposed roadblocks hindering Palestinians in the rural area from accessing nearby population centers.

“Soldiers at roadblocks make it difficult, and often outright prevent, access to humanitarian agencies, human rights organizations, activists, journalists and diplomats,” according to B’Tselem.

An intervention by Khan’s predecessor, Fatou Bensouda, is believed to have discouraged Israel from destroying Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin community in the West Bank.

Bensouda warned Israel in 2018 that the planned eviction of Khan al-Ahmar would constitute a war crime.

Despite this warning, several lawmakers pledged to destroy the village while campaigning for votes during Israel’s last general election.

Before her term as ICC chief prosecutor ended last year, Bensouda opened a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, amid fierce opposition and hostility from Israel and the US.

Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank is likely a primary focus of the ICC investigation.

Israeli officials responsible for executing policy in Masafer Yatta may be treated as suspects by the court, which tries individuals rather than states.

According to B’Tselem, those responsible include Israel’s prime minister, defense minister, military chief of staff and the high court judges “who legally sanctioned the policy.”

Even though the ICC opened an investigation in Palestine last year, international justice remains an uphill battle.

Palestinian human rights groups have expressed frustration that since beginning his term as chief prosecutor last June, Khan, Britain’s nominee for the post, the ICC investigation in Palestine hasn’t moved forward.

The chief prosecutor – who was nominated for his post by the UK, which also opposes the ICC investigation in Palestine – has made no public statement regarding Israel recently banning and raiding the offices of Palestinian human rights groups that have submitted evidence files to the court on behalf of victims.

During his visit to Jerusalem in July, US President Joe Biden affirmed that Washington would work with Tel Aviv to “combat all efforts to boycott or de-legitimize Israel, to deny its right to self-defense, or to unfairly single it out in any forum, including at the United Nations or the International Criminal Court.”

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada