+972 Magazine / July 28, 2022
Meet the inspector who prevents Palestinians in Masafer Yatta from building on their land while living in a home Israel says was built illegally.
Israeli building inspectors handing out demolition orders in the occupied South Hebron Hills has become a common sight. Spend just a few days under the blazing sun in the area, and you are bound to see a white pickup truck pull up, and an inspector climb out, walk up to the Palestinian owner of a home or shack, and hand them a slip of paper that seals their doom.
But what happens if that inspector himself lives in a home that was built illegally according to the very state he represents? Such is the case of Avia Hagar, the Civil Administration inspector who spends his days handing out orders to Palestinians in Masafer Yatta forcing them to stop “ruining” archaeological sites, and who built his home in contravention of the law in the adjacent outpost of Avigayil.
Hagar, who is the antiquities inspector for the Civil Administration — the branch of the Israeli army that is charged with running the day-to-day life of millions of Palestinians under occupation — has spent the last three years handing out dozens of such orders to villages in the South Hebron Hills, claiming they live in a designated archaeological site, and thus are forbidden from building their homes and other structures.
Many of Masafer Yatta’s villages consist of underground homes within stone caves, which serve as the residents’ traditional dwellings. Those who still live in caves today do so not by choice, but due to the fact the Israeli army rejects all their requests for building permits, and refuses to approve master plans for their villages.
The story of Muhammad Abu Aram illustrates this policy. Abu Aram was born in a small cave in the village of Al-Rakeez. In 2001, settlers established the Avigayil outpost, where inspector Hagar lives. Settlement outposts are considered illegal according to both Israeli and international law, and every single one of the homes in Avigayil, including that of Hagar, is slated for demolition. In practice, however, this is meaningless: the outpost was built with government funding, and its residents live in homes replete with electricity and running water. Their neighbors in Al-Rakeez, meanwhile, live in caves and enjoy none of these amenities, simply because they aren’t Jewish.
Two years ago, an inspector knocked on the door of Abu Aram’s cave. “The officer told me: you cannot build here, there are ancient caves here,” Abu Aram said. “I told him that we live in these caves, that this is our village, that my grandparents lived here. My family dug these caves.”
Abu Aram built a small agricultural structure adjacent to the cave. A few weeks after it was completed, the army demolished it. The difficulty of making ends meet, let alone existing without basic infrastructure or the ability to build a home, convinced Abu Aram to leave behind his 17 acres of land and rent a home in a nearby city.
When he came to work his land, Abu Aram found his land around his cave completely destroyed, an act he attributes to the settlers of Avigayil. The solar panels had been smashed with rocks, the closets were looted, and the water pipes were cut.
Hagar also visited the village of Tawamin after settlers attacked a cave belonging to Barakat Mur. Hagar handed Mur a demolition order for his home after settlers had already destroyed the cave, broke four water containers, and stole a solar panel. This is not an anomaly: a number of villagers from Tawamin have left in the wake of settler violence from the surrounding outposts.
Hagar arrived in the village two days after the attack, and gave Mur two orders that prevented him from repairing his cave. Mur told the inspector that he was only fixing his home after it had been attacked by settlers. It didn’t help — any further repairs could lead to Mur’s arrest. According to the orders, Mur had “damaged antiquities” while the solar panels were placed “inside an archaeological polygon.”
A review of the Civil Administration’s maps reveals that the village area is not within the boundaries of what Israel has declared an antiquities zone, and it is unclear which legal authority issued the order.
Between 1920 and 1948, the British Mandate authorities declared around 1,000 archaeological sites across what is now the occupied West Bank. Many of the villages in Masafer Yatta were marked by the British in the 1940s as archaeological sites, which today the Israeli army has declared a firing zone, and whose residents are currently in danger of forced expulsion.
“All the Palestinian villages in the West Bank are built on archaeological sites,” explains archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi, the former head of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO that examines the interplay between archaeology and the occupation. “[Palestinians] are continuing [ancient]] settlements that existed 500 or 1,000 years ago, and they always sit on top of or next to the same place. The only Palestinian localities that do not sit atop ancient sites are refugee camps.”
One would think the archaeological finds in Masafer Yatta could strengthen the historical connection of the local Palestinian residents to the village, rather than weaken it. Read, for example, the words of a Jewish geographer named Natan Shalem, whose book “Judean Desert” includes a description of a visit he made to the village of Jinba, in Masafer Yatta, almost a century ago:
“I entered one of the caves, which, according to the testimony of its inhabitants, they carved themselves. Its interior did not make a depressing impression on me, and in some senses it surpasses the stone-built village houses. Jinba’s square is strewn with flint vessels from all periods, including various clay pots, a faithful testament that [the village] never ceased here, starting from the ancient prehistoric times.”
At the time Shalem wrote these words, no Jewish settlements existed on the site, and therefore there was no political concern over highlighting the connection between Palestinian presence and the presence of antiquities.
Over the last four years, as part of a series of measures designed to limit Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank (which is under full Israeli military and administrative control), the Civil Administration has been devoting more of its resources to enforcing and overseeing Palestinian construction in and around archaeological sites. In 2019, an amendment to the Antiquities Law granted, for the first time, the same powers to Civil Administration inspectors as those held by Israeli soldiers, giving them the right to detain and interrogate Palestinians. Since then, and under pressure from the settler right, the Civil Administration has issued more orders that stop Palestinians from allegedly “damaging antiquities.”
Ziyad Mahamra, from Bir al-Eid in Masafer Yatta, received such an order after he cleaned his cistern. Mahamra is forbidden from building a home with a roof and walls, and is thus forced to continue living in the cave where he was born and which he says his grandfather built. After Mahamra cleaned the cistern two years ago — a mundane act he does every year — Hagar knocked on his door and handed him an order that claimed Mahamra had been “cleaning an ancient cave” inside an archaeological site.
Beginning in 1999, settlers used violence to try and expel the 15 families that lived in Bir al-Eid, causing all of them to gradually leave over the course of four years until 2003. Around this time, the outposts of Havat Talia and Mitzpe Yair were built around the village. In 2012, following a petition to the High Court, Israel allowed the residents of Bir al-Eid to return to use their caves and cultivate their land. However, they were not allowed to build structures above ground. “In essence, they told them: continue to live in caves like rats. It’s not a problem. But we will not give you building permits,” said Quamar Mishirqi-Assad, the co-director of Haqel: In Defense of Human Rights, who represented the villagers in the case.
‘A chain of corruption and decay’
In the middle of a crowded Palestinian village, in front of Ghandi al-Amur’s home, lies a plot of empty land. It belongs to members of the al-Amur family, but they are too afraid to build on it. Ghandi, a resident of the village of A-Tuwani, discovered that the plot is, in fact, encircled by an archaeological site.
Last year, Hagar was filmed arriving at her home accompanied by soldiers and wearing a shirt carrying the logo of “Guardians of Judea and Samaria” (Hashomer Yosh), an organization that sends Jewish volunteers to work in West Bank outposts.
“There is a synagogue here from 2,000 years ago, don’t put a donkey here, it desecrates the place. And don’t build a house here either,” Hagar can be heard saying in the video. A soldier who accompanied him can be seen standing next to the clotheslines on which the family’s laundry was hanging, telling them: “It is forbidden to hang laundry here,” then pointing to a rock, and saying: “This stone has been here for 2,000 years. It is disrespectful.”
Ghandi said that since the visit, the family has stopped using the yard, fearing they will be summoned for police interrogation. “We demolished the bathroom and the animal pen with our own hands,” she added.
Her yard was the site of a 2010 archaeological dig, which was part of the Civil Administration’s condition for providing a master plan for A-Tuwani — the only village in the area that has been granted such a plan. The excavations unearthed evidence of a structure from the Byzantine era; Binyamin Har-Even, the officer who led the excavation on behalf of the Civil Administration, wrote an expert opinion identifying the structure as an ancient synagogue. David Amit, an archaeologist who also studied the findings, disputed Har-Even’s interpretation, saying it was impossible to determine the nature of the structure.
Archaeological findings do clearly show that there was an ancient Jewish settlement in the South Hebron Hills, and some researchers believe that the Palestinians who currently live in these villages today are descendants of Jews who converted to Islam over 1,000 years ago.
In the village of Susiya, the excavation of an ancient synagogue in 1986 was accompanied by the expropriation of the village land, followed by the mass expulsion of all its residents. Today, the archaeological site is managed by the adjacent Jewish settlement that goes by the same name. Visitors to Susiya can tour the synagogue and the stone caves, where they hear about ancient Jewish settlement in the area, but will never meet a single resident of Palestinian Susiya who was expelled from that very same area — and who has spent much of their lives living those very caves.
According to Yonathan Mizrachi, the preservation of ancient cities should be done using master plans that take into account the needs of the local residents and define clearly where and how they are allowed to build. But in the occupied West Bank, in what Mizrachi calls a “cynical” act, the Civil Administration has refrained from preparing master plans for most of the Palestinian villages in Area C,” barring their residents from any legal option to build and exposing them to repeated home demolitions.
Between 2009 and 2020, Palestinians submitted 5,155 requests for building permits. The Civil Administration rejected 98.7 percent of these requests, approving only 66 of them. During that period, the Civil Administration approved 20,301 applications for building permits for Jewish settlers.
That the person who oversees illegal construction in the West Bank himself lives in an illegal home is not necessarily unusual in the West Bank. A former official in the Civil Administration told +972 that the majority of the administration’s inspectors live in settlements or outposts. “It’s for convenience. They live near their workplace,” the former official said.
Dror Etkes, who researches land policy in the West Bank for the NGO Kerem Navot, uncovered a number of cases in which Civil Administration inspectors were themselves in violation of Israeli law. David Kishik-Cohen, the former head of the Civil Administration Inspection Unit, took over five acres of land belonging to a Palestinian from the town of Deir Jarir, which he used to plant olive trees. After he left the Civil Administration, inspector Yossi Levitt took over a plot of privately-owned Palestinian land that he was tasked with overseeing during his tenure. Inspector Yair Albiliya built a home in a military firing zone, on privately-owned Palestinian land in the illegal outpost of Mitzpe Kramim.
“This is part of a chain of corruption and decay,” Etkes said, “in which the inspector Avia Hagar, from the illegal outpost Avigayil, is just one link.”
Both Avia Hagar and the Civil Administration refused to respond to requests for comment.
Yuval Abraham is a journalist and activist based in Jerusalem