Masafer Yatta: An Israeli firing zone and the ancient Palestinian village fighting for survival 

Ali Jabarin stands in Janba village in Masafer Yatta, a community of 2,500 Palestinians facing imminent expulsion by the Israeli army (Shatha Hammad - MEE)

Shatha Hammad

Middle East Eye  /  June 22, 2022

In the occupied West Bank hamlets, a community of 2,500 Palestinians are set for mass expulsion after a decades-old fight to make way for an Israeli army training area.

Ali Jabarin, 60, looks out with extreme caution on the peripheries of Janba village in the Israelioccupied West Bank hamlets of Masafer Yatta where he lives.

His anxiety is evident; a heavy unease has befallen all the residents in the village, who expect a violent raid by the Israeli army at any moment to forcibly remove them from their homes and displace them forever.

Janba is not the only village experiencing this fear. 

After a two-decade legal battle, the Israeli Supreme Court on 4 May issued a ruling permitting the Israeli army to displace hundreds of Palestinians from Masafer Yatta and classify it as a military training area for the army in which the Palestinians have no right to live.

This ruling came in response to two petitions submitted by 155 Palestinians from Masafer Yatta, one of them through the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). 

Masafer Yatta, located in southern Hebron Hills, extends over an area of ​​30,000 dunams, with a population of 2,500 residents distributed over 12 villages or hamlets. They are: Janba, Mafqara, Khallet al-Dabe’, Maghayer al-Ubaid, Asafat al-Fawqa, Asafat al-Tahta, Majaz, Tabban, Tuba, Fakheet, Halawa, and Markaz. 

The Palestinians who live there depend mainly on livestock and agriculture for their livelihood. 

Since the 1980s, Israel has considered Masafer Yatta’s lands to be closed military areas for training purposes, known as “firing zone 918”.

Israeli authorities were able to displace Palestinians from Masafer Yatta by force in 1999, but the residents were able to obtain an interim injunction order that enabled them to return, according to a study by the United Nations humanitarian affairs office (OCHA).

Decades-old fight 

Janba is the oldest of these villages, whose residents estimate it was built around 5,000 years ago and say they have found Roman-era wells and ruins in it. 

It is also one of the largest villages in terms of population; it is home to 300 Palestinians spread across 30 families.

Janba village gained importance due to its location on a historical transportation route that was built during the Ottoman period, linking Egypt with the Levant and used by commercial trade caravans. It was also one of the main routes for pilgrims. Water wells were dug along the route, a number of which still exist today.

Arriving at Janba, which is adjacent to the Naqab (Negev) desert near the 1949 Green Line, separating Israel from the West Bank, was not easy. Middle East Eye’s team crossed a very difficult and unpaved road that extended for about six kilometres. In the middle of the road, the Israeli army stopped the crew to check for ID cards and conduct field questioning before granting permission to cross. The same happened on the way back.  

The Israeli army has begun deploying military checkpoints in the vicinity of Palestinian villages in the area, in preparation for military training in Masafer Yatta, and perhaps paving the way for an imminent removal of the Palestinian residents. 

At the entrance to Janba, Jabarin was walking at a light and fast pace, moving between the houses of the village and inspecting their surroundings.

He is one of the descendants of the Jabarin family that has lived in the village since 1901, as Ottoman papers and documents owned by the family show proof of their ownership of the land. 

However, since the 1960s, life in the village has transformed from its calm, stable and secure nature to a permanent state of fear.

The first army raid on the village was in 1966, Jabarin tells MEE, when soldiers forcibly evicted all the residents and demolished 40 homes, leaving only four standing. The residents returned shortly after, and the daily battles in the long fight to remain on the land have not stopped since.

“Demolitions happened again between 1984-1985, and not a year passes without houses being demolished or we are handed demolition notices,” Jabarin told MEE. 

“We were born on this land, we cannot leave it, and we cannot depart from it.” 

The recent decision of the Israeli Supreme Court, which includes the village of Janba and all other villages in Masafer Yatta, is an extension of an Israeli policy aimed at extending its control over the entire area, as it is the gateway to the Naqab desert, Palestinians residents say. 

“We will never leave this land except through one way: if they decide to kill us all,” says Jabarin. 

The dwellings of Janba are mostly makeshift houses; their owners are forbidden by the Israeli army from developing and improving them or even adding to them, as is the case with the rest of the dwellings in most of the villages and hamlets of Masafer Yatta, and most of them are tin houses or concrete rooms. Several families also live in caves.

‘Better than New York’

Near the entrance to Janba lies one of the ancient Roman wells, which has been built up and developed by the residents who use it to collect water in the winter season. 

Around the well where Jabarin was standing, Khaled Khalil Jabarin and Naim Hussein Jaber, both 61 years old, joined him and began to recall their childhood memories in Janba, and how they used to play the basic games they invented.

“We inherited our presence on this land from our fathers and grandfathers… Despite the difficulty of life here, we consider Janba better than New York and life in it is more beautiful than living in the best city in the world,” Khaled, a father of 10 and grandfather to 25 children, told MEE

“I rarely leave Janba, but when I leave, I feel like I can’t breathe… I just breathe here, and I feel alive,” he added. 

Khaled tells the story his father and grandfather told him about the centrality and importance of Janba as one of the most important and developed villages of Masafer Yatta because it was located on the Hajj transportation line.

He said that before the 1940s, the village contained four shops which he said was an indication of its active economic status at the time. 

“Janba was a resort for Palestinians in Masafer Yatta and some areas of the Naqab, as a summer resort, because of its beautiful weather and lower temperatures,” said Khaled. 

The residents of Janba are clinging to their village despite the difficult life they suffer from; there is no infrastructure in the village, especially the lack of electricity lines. Recently, the families began using solar panels which only enable them to operate the refrigerator to preserve food. There are also no water pipes, forcing them to transport water manually from the well.

Naim Jaber told MEE he inherited the cave in which he and his family live from his grandfather, who built a room on top of it and lived there. 

“My grandfather bought a piece of land in Janba for an exorbitant amount so that he could live here, where there is space to graze his livestock,” Jaber said. 

Going down memory lane, Naim started recalling his childhood in Janba when the lamps they used at night were lit up with oil.

“Janba’s children used to study by the lamp and excel and succeed, just as the women used to sew dresses by the light of the lamp,” said Jaber. 

“Despite the many attempts to get us out of Janba, we would go back every time and hold on… we are not afraid of any decision issued by Israel, and just as we have persevered here, our children and grandchildren will persevere.”

A school under threat 

The greatest concern in Janba is that the Israeli army will demolish the three most important landmarks in it: the village’s mosque, its one school, and the last ancient house remaining which is used as a social club for the elders and called the “Khatayra House”.  

Perhaps the demolition of the Janba school, which was built in 2008, is the most worrying for the villagers, who have become increasingly invested in educating their children as a means of developing the village and strengthening their perseverance in it.

Issa Abu Aram, 48, is a father to 12 sons and daughters. His eldest daughter managed to complete her bachelor’s degree two years ago, and he now has two sons in university, and another in high school. 

“My sons study in the village until the ninth grade and then move to the village of Fakheet [to complete high school]. As for my sons in universities, they live in Yatta and come here on the weekends,” Abu Aram told MEE

He explained that secondary school is very difficult for Janba’s residents to reach because they have to travel on a rugged and dangerous road to get to the Fakheet school three kilometres away, a road that becomes more difficult in the winter and flooding seasons. 

“Despite all the difficulty, we are interested in education and in educating our children, because only with education can we survive here and develop our village,” said Abu Aram. 

“I insist a lot that my sons finish secondary school at least, and I refuse that we give up under any circumstances.”  

‘The whole world ignores’

Clinging to hope during the 22-year-long legal battle in Israeli courts, now the residents feel completely abandoned in their fight and the prospect of expulsion looms large. 

Nidal Abu Younes, head of the Masafer Yatta local council, says the Supreme Court’s latest decision is politically motivated. 

“The decision issued to declare Masafer Yatta as a military zone is a political decision aimed at seizing the land and clearing it of its owners and replacing them with settlers,” Abu Younes told MEE

The May ruling is one of the most serious decisions issued against Masafer Yatta, as it gives the green light for the start of demolitions of Palestinian homes, including four schools, and displacing residents.

“The decision directly targets eight out of 12 villages but in fact, it will affect the entire Palestinian presence in the area,” said Abu Younes. 

The people of Masafer Yatta are now worried about their fate and their existence on their lands, as the implementation of the decision on the ground may come into force at any moment, although they equally fear that it might be a gradual and silent process.

“The Palestinian is persevering today in Masafer Yatta with basic essentials,” said Abu Younes.

“Meanwhile, the whole world ignores him, and must today open their eyes and look at what Israel is doing to us, and take a humanitarian position on our cause.”

Shatha Hammad is a Palestinian freelance journalist