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Masafer Yatta’s Fight for Survival

More than 1,000 Palestinians live under permanent threat of eviction in the West Bank community of Masafer Yatta, which Israel has designated a 'firing zone' – just one glimpse into life under its apartheid regime.

Residents watch as an Israeli bulldozer demolishes a Palestinian house in the Umm Qasas area of Masafer Yatta in the occupied West Bank, 25 July 2022. (MOSAB SHAWER / AFP via Getty Images)

In May this year, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the expulsion of swathes of Palestinian families from their homes in the South Hebron Hills of the Occupied West Bank, known locally as Masafer Yatta. That decision has paved the way for the demolition of close to 900 structures, including homes, livestock pens, schools, clinics, and mosques.

Up to 2,500 people live in Masafer Yatta, distributed over twelve villages or hamlets. These communities are mostly herders, raising goats and sheep throughout the year. Over 1,000 of those residents live in eight communities in what the Israeli state has deemed ‘Firing Zone 918’—a military training area in which civilians are prohibited. Israel is thus expropriating the land in what constitutes one of the largest single displacements of Palestinians in decades.

The decision to allocate this land to the army was made by then-agriculture minister Ariel Sharon in the 1980s, with the unambiguous purpose of forcing Palestinians out of their homes. As a result, in 1999, the Israeli government issued eviction orders against roughly 700 Palestinians for supposedly ‘illegally living in a firing zone’. Following an appeal by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Israeli High Court of Justice issued an injunction order allowing some of the residents to temporarily return pending a final court decision. They were, however, banned from any new constructions or developments in the area.

In the following years several court hearings were held, but the Israeli state has remained committed to expelling the occupants, arguing they were not permanent residents before the area was declared a firing zone. This is despite several families possessing proof of proprietorship of the land.

But Palestinian claims to land ownership have consistently been anathema to the Israeli establishment and their illegal usurpation of territory, and Masafer Yatta is no different. A document recently revealed that Israel creates ‘military firing zones’ in the West Bank as a mechanism for transferring land to illegal settlements. Since 2015, it’s estimated that around 17% of West Bank areas in the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea Area and the South Hebron Hills have been designated firing zones.

The Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem has called on the International Criminal Court to urgently intervene in Masafer Yatta to ‘stop Israel from committing a war crime’. UN Human Rights experts have also urged Israeli authorities to halt the forcible displacement of Palestinians.

Yet Israel has been characteristically unreceptive to the human rights community’s condemnation. In fact, as the Supreme Court ended the legal limbo in May, it was a bitter reminder that the systematic oppression of Palestinians is principally rooted in the modus operandi of many Israeli state institutions. The Israeli judicial system appears to be less interested in the rule of law and equality than upholding apartheid.

Within days of the ruling, residents in villages like Fakheet and Al-Majaz witnessed their homes and structures knocked down by bulldozers. Some families were made homeless in the space of thirty minutes and forced to live in tents.

Speaking to Tribune, Massafer Yatta resident and activist Basel Adra laid bare the extent of the horrors facing residents. ‘The occupation forces have demolished so many homes since the court’s decision. If you try to stop them, they show no mercy. In May, soldiers came to crush my neighbour’s house which I tried to film to raise awareness. They brutally beat me, ruthlessly dragging me to the ground. I felt my body being torn from the beatings and dragging.

‘The hardest thing,’ he continues, ‘is watching and documenting family after family being ethnically cleansed whilst the international community is silent.’

One particular home in Al-Majaz has been razed three times, to the extent the family have given up on rebuilding it and now permanently live in a tent. The future of the primary school that serves the area is also uncertain. According to Human Rights Watch, at least sixteen Palestinian schools in the West Bank have been destroyed or had associated buildings and property damaged by Israel between 2010 and 2018. When viewed in that light, concurrent with the knowledge that Al-Majaz primary school has already received several demolition warnings, it too is likely to be imminently flattened.

For those whose properties still stand, it is an agonising wait for the inevitable. In an interview with +972 Magazine, one mother from Masafer Yatta suggests it’s only a matter of time before her home is torn down. ‘They shot my son so why won’t they destroy my house? They’ll destroy it.’

It’s not just the dread of expulsion and destruction that residents face. Navigating the area has become increasingly strenuous. Roadblocks and checkpoints across different villages have made it difficult for inhabitants to move and carry out day-to-day activities, while non-residents are denied entry. Several families have detailed their exhausting experiences of walking for several hours to get medicine or having their cars confiscated on the way to hospital appointments.

‘Palestinians are often held up and interrogated by Israeli forces for several hours,’ says Mr Adra. ‘To avoid these encounters, residents have resorted to travelling on the unpaved, dangerous roads or avoided travelling altogether.’ Some families have even gone back to using donkeys to get around, he adds.

Haitham Abu Sabha, the principal of one high school, has spoken about children being consistently late or no longer attending school due to the difficulty in getting there.

Equally, where Israeli forces are not making life for Palestinians deliberately punishing, they use their presence to exert physical and psychological pressure. Military exercises have increased substantially in recent months, with military vehicles seen driving through cultivated fields making it impossible for residents to graze their herds. The live fire training has led to several homes being struck by bullets and leaving behind debris that the population fear could explode at any point.

To compound matters, the Masafer Yatta community is facing an upsurge in aggression by Israeli settlers, who also attack activists. At best, Israeli forces stand by, giving the settlers carte blanche to carry out their violence. At worst, Palestinians are arrested and taken to court for defending themselves.

Yet the circumstances of Masafer Yatta are less the exception and more the norm for Palestinians living under Israel’s colonial rule. Districts in East Jerusalem like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah continue to see their homes and communities ruined as they too face forcible eviction. The level of ferocity has also notably increased in the occupied territories in recent weeks, with the town of Huwwara in the northern West Bank seeing Israeli settlers and soldiers continuously attacking Palestinians and their properties.

Both Nablus and Jenin have been the target of near-daily raids, arrests, and killings by Israeli forces in the last few months. Five Palestinians were killed in Nablus in a recent raid, adding to the more than 105 Palestinians that have been killed by Israeli forces this year—including 26 children—in what the UN has said is the deadliest year since 2006 for Palestinian fatalities.

Israel’s multipronged barbarity is not waning. Now more than ever, it’s vital to not only call out the Israeli strategic objective for what it is—the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians—but also to stand with Palestinians in Masafer Yatta and beyond, and demand the international community hold Israel to account.