In the firing zone: evictions begin in West Bank villages after court ruling

Palestinians survey destroyed homes in Masafer Yatta (Quique Kierszenbaum)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  May 22, 2022

 Palestinians in Masafer Yatta – or Firing Zone 918 to the Israelis – vow to rebuild as homes are bulldozed.

Below the dusty plateau, home to Khribet al-Fakhiet village, on the southern edge of the occupied West Bank, sheep, goats and camels belonging to Palestinian Bedouin roam the hills. The Israeli town of Arad glitters in the distance and, across the valley to the east, the mountains of neighbouring Jordan rise up to meet the sky. Much closer to home, the illegal Israeli settlement of Mitzpe Yair looms from the next ridge.

Bone-shattering unpaved roads crisscross this poverty-stricken, hilly semi-desert, part of the 60% of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control. Palestinians call it Masafer Yatta, a collection of villages with a population of about 1,000. To the Israeli state, however, this is Firing Zone 918, a military training area in which civilians are prohibited. The fight for control of this 3,000 hectares (7,410 acres) is one of the fiercest battles of the Israeli occupation.

Earlier this month, Israel’s supreme court finally ruled in a two-decade-old legal case over the area’s fate: the land can be repurposed for military use, upholding the Israel Defence Forces’ (IDF) argument that Palestinians living here could not prove they were resident before the firing zone was established in 1981. The decision – one of the most significant on expulsions since the occupation began in 1967 – paved the way for the eviction of everyone living here.

The long-feared demolitions, which UN experts have said may amount to war crimes, have already started. Last week, 11 homes and workshops in Fakhiet were demolished. Another nine structures in nearby al-Majaz were torn down with bulldozers by an Israeli company, to whom the state contracts out the demolition work. IDF soldiers and police, tasked with securing the perimeter, looked on.

Mohammed Ayoub, a farmer, and 17 members of his extended family in Fakhiet were made homeless in the space of 30 minutes, and all are now living in a single tent.

“It’s too hot for the small children and too crowded for so many people,” he said. “We will rebuild because this is our home. They may come back and destroy it again … Home is supposed to be a safe place.”

The IDF did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the demolitions.

About 18% of Area C, the West Bank under full Israeli control, has been repurposed since the 1970s as “firing zones” for IDF use. According to the minutes of a 1981 ministerial meeting, the then agriculture minister, Ariel Sharon, who later became prime minister, proposed creating Firing Zone 918 with the explicit intention of forcing local Palestinians from their homes.

In 1999, 700 residents of Masafer Yatta were evicted, forcibly pushed on to trucks by soldiers, but after a legal appeal the community was allowed to return until a final decision was made.

Since then, the Palestinians living within the Zone 918 parameters have been repeatedly threatened with demolition of their homes and the confiscation of agricultural land because they lack building permits, which are issued by the Israeli authorities. According to the Israeli civil administration, just 75 building permits have been granted to Palestinians living in Area C since 2006, while 20,500 have been approved for illegal Israeli settlements, which are viewed by the international community as a major impediment to lasting peace.

During Donald Trump’s Israel-friendly US administration, there was a 150% growth in settlement building. And despite the fact Israel’s new government is a diverse coalition of left and rightwing parties, it appears likely to continue approving planning applications in the West Bank.

“It’s not really about destroying the houses,” said Hamdan Mohammed al-Huraini, a local activist. “It’s about destroying the life.”

Nadav Weiman, the deputy director of Breaking the Silence, an NGO that collects testimonies from former Israeli soldiers about what they witnessed while enforcing the occupation, said: “When I was doing my military service, I trained here. We were told we were looking for smugglers. We were supposed to make people’s lives miserable. That was the point.”

In Jinba, a community that has lived in the cool hillside caves since the days of the Ottoman empire, the Bakar family is regularly harassed by Israeli settlers and the army. Zakaria, 18, was attacked by settlers a few weeks ago, leaving him with burns on his face and arm, and last weekend another family member was detained at the side of the road overnight after his car broke down near an IDF base.

When there is military activity in the area, artillery shelling in the middle of the night scares the children, said Zakaria’s mother, Nadja Mohammed Bakar, 52.

“One of the excuses the Israelis use is that they are worried about us and our way of life, that’s why they want to evict us and move us to the town,” she said. “First, it’s none of their business how I live my life. Second, if they are so worried, why don’t they let us build?”

At a school in Fakhiet on Wednesday, 15 people, including teenage girls and elderly men, were getting to grips with new cameras at a workshop run by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights NGO. The group were learning the principles of evidence gathering, filming skills, and how to keep themselves safe, making sure they stayed out of the way of soldiers and bulldozers when recording.

“I am worried that I will lose my home,” said Bira Mohammed Mazra, 21, from a nearby village. “This feels like a way I can help. We are being attacked and we need to show the world … I am not afraid to do that.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian