What is ‘Firing Zone 918’ and how Israel uses it to grab more Palestinian land

Mustafa Fetouri

Middle East Monitor  /  October 5, 2023

Israeli firing zones are usually closed military areas exclusively reserved for military training purposes. They are scattered all over the Occupied West Bank, encompassing many small and equally scattered Palestinian villages of mostly Bedouin communities.

The idea of the creation of “firing zones” was the brainchild of Ariel Sharon when he was minister of agriculture in 1979. Despite designating them as firing zones, Sharon, essentially a military man, had another sinister purpose in mind.

In a recently declassified document (in Hebrew), Sharon told a secret meeting with the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, that he wanted such zones to “provide an opportunity for Jewish settlements in the area.” He explained his intention behind creating the zones by saying “the firing zones were created for one purpose: land reserves for settlements.” Literally, to help settlers grab more Palestinian land.

Firing zones are not the same as “closed military areas” regularly announced by the Israeli army. Closed military areas are usually temporary, limited in scope and intended for a purpose. Usually, their designation, as such, is lifted once the purpose behind the designation has been achieved. For example, when the Israeli army and security forces besiege any Palestinian city, town or village looking for resistance fighters or seeking to murder or apprehend an individual, they designate such target area as a “closed military area”. Once the purpose is achieved, the designation is lifted.

Firing zones, on the other hand, tend to be permanent or remain as such for longer. Any civilians – and there are thousands of them – living in such zones or near them become less safe and face expulsion and their dwellings are demolished. Israel usually justifies such measures by “building without permit” or because the building is standing in a “military zone”, but usually avoids using the firing zone label.

Firing Zone 918, declared in the 1980s, is a good example of this. It encompasses a sizeable piece of land in Southern Hebron region, surrounding, particularly, the Masafer Yatta, area. Thousands of Bedouin Palestinians living in the area are facing expulsion.  Their case has been huddling in the courts for the last 40 years. By the time it reached the Israeli occupation High Court in May 2022, the court simply threw out all residents’ petitions by upholding the long-standing expulsion of thousands of them. In explaining its ruling, the court said that those Palestinians were not living in the area before it was designated as a firing zone.  However, historical Israeli sources show that Palestinians have been there, at least, since the end of the 19th century— long before Israel itself came into existence.

Under international law, firing zones are illegal since they are on occupied land. According to the United Nations 2022 report, firing zones take up to 18 per cent of the West Bank land which is about the same total area under the control of the Palestinian Authority pursuant to the Oslo Accords (some 17.7 per cent of the West Bank area is supposed to be controlled by PA) when, in reality, PA only enjoys limited and occasional authority over this area and it is always vulnerable to incursions by Israeli forces. On top of that, as per the Oslo Accords, some 30 per cent of area C of the West Bank has also been designated as a firing zone—area C is fully controlled by Israel and is supposed to be transferred to full PA control after the final status negotiations, which have never taken place so far. Area C is about 60 per cent of the entire Occupied West Bank.

The same UN report estimates that almost 5,000 civilian Palestinians in 38 communities are scattered within these firing zones. It says that only 20 per cent of the designated firing zones are actively used for military training purposes, while the rest are mostly inactive. Around these areas, settlers, under the protection of the Israeli army, usually erect their colonial outposts on Palestinian land and later expand them into fully-fledged settlements.

Firing zones are closed to the public and the Israeli military uses them whenever it wants without any warning, thus endangering the lives of the civilian population living within or around such areas, eventually, leading to their forced expulsion. They represent serious dangers including: displacement, damage to property, safety risks and access restrictions among others.

Last March, Cassandra Dixon, a 64-year-old peace activist from Wisconsin in the United States, joined other protestors in trying to prevent the expulsion of Tuba village residents. Tuba is one of 15 such villages that make up Masafer Yatta.

Despite her age and the fact that she was peacefully protesting, she was attacked by a settler who hit her with what she described as a “large stick” over her head, causing a fracture to her skull and bleeding in “my brain”, she said.

Because she is a US citizen, she managed to go to court with the help of the US State Department. With additional pressure from a US Senator, the Israeli authorities arrested the settler and the case went to trial.

Dixon, in an email message to me, wrote “the court scheduled another hearing for 2 November”.  In a previous hearing, on 6 September, she said the entire proceeding was held “in Hebrew”, without interpretation. She does not understand the language. To make things even worse, the presiding judge ordered the human rights lawyer, who was accompanying her, to leave the courtroom, leaving her alone.

The attacking settler, named Dovid Weinstock, was released from jail and put under house arrest, pending the court ruling.

Dixon told me she is determined to go back during next year’s olive harvest to help prevent the village being “seized” by Israel. In the meantime, while in Wisconsin she, along with a group of locals, are sponsoring olive trees to “replace” the ones destroyed by settlers.

Dixon managed to reach the court because she was a US citizen. Imagine how it is for Palestinians, whom Israel does not recognize as citizens of its own or that of any other state, including Palestine, and how their suffering is simply ignored by Israel and its judiciary.

Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist