Israeli High Court greenlights forcible expulsion of more than 1,000 Palestinians in Masafer Yatta

The demolition of a house by an Israeli army bulldozer in Masafer Yatta (Mosab Shawer - APA Images)

Yuman Patel

Mondoweiss  /  May 6, 2022

Late Wednesday night, the High Court rejected an appeal by the residents against their expulsion, paving the way for the Israeli military to demolish their homes and forcibly expel them from their land, a crime under international law. 

The Israeli High Court on Wednesday greenlit the forcible expulsion of 1,200 Palestinians in the Masafer Yatta area of the southern occupied West Bank, ending a more than two-decade battle in the courts. 

The Israeli government claims the residents of eight herding communities in an area of the South Hebron Hills, known as Masafer Yatta, are residing “illegally” in a military firing zone, and has been attempting to expel them from the area for decades.

The residents of Masafer Yatta, however, date their presence in the area several decades ago, before the area was occupied by Israel in 1967, and declared a firing zone by the military in the 1980s.

Late Wednesday night, the High Court rejected an appeal by the residents against their expulsion, paving the way for the Israeli military to demolish their homes and forcibly expel them from their land, a crime under international law. 

In its ruling, the court found that the Palestinian residents “had not been permanent residents of the area” when it was first declared as a firing zone in the 1980s, therefore deeming their presence in the area “illegal.”

In its ruling the court urged the residents to reach “a compromise” with the Israeli military to allow them to use parts of the land for agricultural purposes, something the residents have rejected. 

In a statement after the decision, Masafer Yatta’s mayor Nidal Abu Younis rejected the court’s decision, saying it “proves that this court is part of the occupation,” Reuters reported.

“We are not going to leave our homes. We will stay here,” he said. 

Firing Zone 918

In the 1980s, the Israeli military declared an area of around 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) in Masafer Yatta, as a restricted military zone, dubbing it ‘Firing Zone 918’.

Since then, the Israeli government has sought to expel the residents from the area. Despite a number of legal petitions by the residents, Israel has treated the area as a closed military zone, forcibly expelling hundreds of residents from the area and demolishing their homes. 

The court’s decision on Wednesday dates back to a case that started in 1999, when the Israeli military expelled all of the residents of Masafer Yatta, numbering around 700 at the time, on the grounds they were “illegally living in a firing zone”. In response, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Attorney Shlomo Lecker filed a petition to the High Court on behalf of 200 Palestinian families.

Following the petition, the court issued an interim injunction allowing the villagers to return to their homes and use the land for agriculture purposes, but banned them from any new construction, including homes or essential infrastructure like power or water networks. 

According to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, since 2006, Israel has demolished 64 homes in the communities in Masafer Yatta, displacing at least 346 people, including 155 minors.

“After 20 years of legal proceedings, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that the forcible transfer of hundreds of Palestinians from their homes  – for the clear purpose of taking over their lands in the service of Jewish interests – is legal,” B’Tselem said in a scathing statement on Thursday.

“Proving once again that the occupied cannot expect justice from the occupier’s court, the decision, weaving baseless legal interpretation with decontextualized facts, makes it clear that there is no crime which the HCJ justices won’t find a way to legitimize,” the group said. 

The Norwegian Refugee Council also condemned the court’s decision, calling it a “dangerous step that must be reversed.”

“This court ruling effectively opens the door for the Israeli military to uproot entire Palestinian communities that have lived in Masafer Yatta for decades. The damage this decision will inflict on people’s homes and source of livelihoods is irredeemable. People could be made homeless overnight with nowhere for them to go,” Caroline Ort, NRC’s Country Director for Palestine said in a statement.

“If followed through, it would constitute a violation of international law which prohibits Israel as an occupying power from transferring members of the occupied population from their existing communities against their will,” she said.

Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss