This info-sheet was prepared together with Rabbis for Human Rights and with Breaking the Silence.
For over a decade, the residents of twelve uniquely traditional Palestinian villages in the area of Masafer-Yatta in the south Hebron hills have lived under the constant threat of demolition, evacuation, and dispossession. The IDF has declared the area in which they live a “Firing Zone” and in 1999 issued evacuation orders to remove the inhabitants of the villages, claiming that they are not permanent residents and ignoring their ancient culture of cultivation and husbandry. The evacuation was halted by a interim injunction issued by the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ) in the year 2000 in response to two petitions filed by the Assocation for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Attorney Shlomo Lecker. Since 2005, after repeated attempts to settle the case lead to dead ends, the State Attorney filed continuous requests for extensions over the course of seven years, leaving the petitions pending and the interim injunction in force.. In 2012, after years of stagnation, a preliminary hearing was set, ahead of which the State Attorney announced that the Minister of Defense had solidified his position on the matter. In July 2012 the State announced that in accordance with the position of the Minister of Defense, the active firing zone would be slightly scaled back, such that four of the twelve villages will be able to remain where they are, with the remainder slated for evacuation.
In response to the State’s announcement, the Court decided to dismiss the old petitions and permit the petitioners to file new ones. In January 2013 ACRI filed a renewed petition against the forcible removal of approximately one thousand residents from the area, the destruction of eight villages, and the eradication of a remarkable way of life that has endured for centuries.
Background – Firing Zone 918
The area designated by the IDF as “Firing Zone 918” is located in the south Hebron hills near the town of Yatta. Spread over 30,000 dunams, it includes twelve Palestinian villages, or hamlets: Jinba, Al-Mirkez, Al- Halaweh, Halat a-Dab’a, Al-Fakheit, A-Tabban, Al- Majaz, A-Sfai Megheir Al-Abeid, Al-Mufaqara, A-Tuba, and Sarura, which is currently unpopulated. Research conducted by the human rights organization B’Tselem in cooperation with ACRI shows that today there are approx.1,300 people living in the area.
The residents of the villages maintain a unique way of life, with many living in or beside caves, and relying on farming and husbandry of sheep and goats for their livelihood. Most of them were born and raised in these villages to families that have been living in the area for several decades – long before 1967. The historical existence of the hamlets is well documented, including, among other places, in research endorsed by the Israeli Ministry of Defense [see Ya'akov Havakuk, Life in the Caves of South Hebron (1985, Israel Ministry of Defense)].
In August and November 1999 the majority of inhabitants of the twelve hamlets were served with evacuation orders due to their “illegal dwelling in a fire zone”. On November 16, 1999 security forces forcibly removed over 700 residents. The IDF destroyed homes and cisterns and confiscated property. The villagers, dispossessed of their lands and their livelihoods, were left homeless.
Legal Proceedings – General
In January 2000, ACRI petitioned the evacuation orders before the High Court of Justice on behalf of four families (HCJ proceeding 517/00) and requested an interim injunction that would allow them to remain in their homes and retrieve their confiscated property or be reimbursed for destroyed property. In February 2000, an additional 82 residents, represented by Adv. Shlomo Lecker, petitioned the HCJ (HCJ proceeding 1199/00), and in July 2001, 112 additional residents joined ACRI’s petition. In all more than two hundred households challenged the evacuation orders. The Court joined the two petitions and granted an interim injunction, allowing the villagers to temporarily return to their homes. Many residents had nothing to return to after the destruction, and security forces interpreted the interim injunction as narrowly as possible, allowing reentry only to the named petitioners and denying access to their relatives.
The villagers maintain that they are permanent residents of the villages. Security forces, on the other hand, argue that they are non-permanent, as some of them are seasonally nomadic. Under governing military law in the occupied territories, the IDF is authorized to remove persons from a firing zone or limit their mobility within the area, except in the case of permanent residents. In this case the IDF is attempting to remove these Palestinian residents from their land by characterizing them as non-permanent. While it is true that a small minority of the villagers spend six months working their land and six months outside of the area, security forces purposefully ignore the importance of continuous cultivation of the land during the six month period. This approach is lead to the forced evacuation of all residents of the villages in Firing Zone 918.
In December 2002, the parties entered into mediation in order to determine the status of the area’s residents and arrive at an agreement. Within the framework of negotiations, the State offered to transfer the petitioners to an alternate area. The petitioners refused. In early 2005, after more than two years of mediation, the process ended was terminated without an agreement being reached.
It should be noted that the residents have lived under the threat of evacuation throughout the twelve years over which the legal proceedings have extended. At the same time, the communities have continued to live and work on the land, and have developed and expanded.
Furthermore, according to a 2005 report by B’Tselem (“Means of Expulsion: Violence, Harassment and Lawlessness against Palestinians in the Southern Hebron Hills”), the army no longer holds live-fire training in Firing Zone 918. In fact, the two main military bases located in the area of the firing zone – Adasha Infantry and Um Daraj – have been closed down. It follows that the “need” for Israeli security forces to take over this area and expel Palestinians from their homes becomes even harder to understand and justify.
On 17 April 2012, the Court held a preliminary hearing on both the general-principal petitions (HCJ proceedings 1199/00 and 517/00 mentioned above) and on the specific humanitarian petition filed by HRH (HCJ proceeding 805/05). The State informed the Court and the petitioners that the Defense Minister had formulated his position regarding Firing Zone 918 and that the State’s complete response, based on that position, will be submitted to the Court within 30 days of the hearing (that is, by May 17 2012). The Defense Minister’s position will also determine the State’s response to the HRH petition (HCJ 805/05), which was to be submitted subsequently, by 3 June 2012.
On 19 July 2012, after several adjournments, the State Attorney submitted a response to the Court, based on a position formulated by the Minister of Defense, according to which “permanent residence will be prohibited” in most of the area declared as a firing zone. The meaning of this position is that the evacuation of 8 or 9 out of the 12 villages – that is, the expulsion of some 1,000 people from their homes. The Defense Ministry is offering to allow the residents of the villages slated for evacuation to cultivate their land and herd their sheep on Fridays, Saturdays, and Jewish holidays, and during two 30 day periods over the course of each year. The villages that are not slated for removal by the Defense Ministry’s position are small khirbes in the northwestern area of the firing zone. Practically, only two populated villages are in that area – Tuba and Mufaqara.
Legal Proceedings – The Palestinian villages of Sfai, Jinba, and Majaz and the DFID Humanitarian Project
In 2006, in parallel to HCJ proceedings 1199/00 and 517/00, Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) submitted a petition on behalf of Palestinian residents of Sfai, Jinba and Majaz (HCJ 805/05) against the demolition of 15 cisterns and 19 toilets, including cesspools that were built within the framework of the DFID humanitarian project launched by the British government. These structures serve 18 families (approximately 320 persons), the majority of whom reside in the village of Sfai. The petitioners sought an injunction nullifying the decision of the Subcommittee of the High Planning Council to demolish the said humanitarian structures and to initiate a planning procedure for the area which would allow, inter alia, the establishment of humanitarian structures there. At the very least, the petitioners requested an interim injunction calling on the Military Commander-in-Chief to consider their requests in the framework of negotiations between the sides. The petitioners noted that international humanitarian law places responsibility on the occupying power to ensure public order and to serve the interests of the occupied population.
Security forces, the respondents in the above cases, argue that the establishment of the cisterns and cesspools is a violation of the Court’s decision of March 29, 2000 (HCJ 1199/00 and 517/00), which calls upon Palestinian residents to preserve the status quo in Firing Zone 918. The respondents interpret this decision to prohibit the establishment of new structures in the firing zone, including those used for humanitarian purposes. The petitioners assert that such an interpretation is both unfounded and fails to comply with international humanitarian law, for it does not stand to reason that when the Court issued an order allowing the villagers to return to their lands it also meant to deny them their most basic needs (access to clean water and sanitary conditions). The cisterns and cesspools built in the framework of the DFID project ensure a basic standard of living for Palestinian residents; without these structures, a humanitarian crisis would surely arise. The respondent’s assertion seems even more preposterous when one considers that twelve years have passed since the Court’s decision. Naturally, over such a lengthy period of time, the Palestinian communities have grown and their needs have changed accordingly.
The State’s Position
According to the State Attorney’s July 2012 announcement, what makes the area essential is that it facilitates the conservation of “the required capability of IDF forces.” But use of occupied territory for general needs of this sort exceeds the authority of the military rule in this territory. Under international law, the occupying force may not use the occupied territory as it sees fit and is not allowed to use it for general military needs, such as “maintaining the capability of the forces.” The military commander must refrain from harming the rights and resources of the local residents unless it is essential for specific security needs that relate to military activity in the area. The State’s response did not describe any such specific need.
The evacuation orders issued to the Palestinian residents of the villages are based on the State’s claim that they are not permanent residents of the area and are therefore prohibited from being present without a permit in the firing zone, which is a closed military zone. But this claim completely ignores clear historic documentation, including Defense Ministry publications, that shows generations-long Palestinian settlement in these villages, at one time only in caves, and later also outside of them. The State’s position ignores the fact that removing the residents from the area will result in the destruction of these historical villages and will leave entire families, including children and the elderly, without a roof above their heads. All of this contravenes Israel’s obligations – under both international and Israeli law – towards the Palestinian population under its control in the area.
In August 2012, following the State’s announcement, the Court dismissed the petitions without prejudice. The justices stressed that all of the parties’ claims are preserved and that the petitioners would be permitted to file new petitions against the Defense Minister’s position. The interim orders that allow the residents to continue living in their homes and working their land remained in place until November 2012, and were extended by request of the petitioners until mid-January 2013.
ACRI filed a new petition (HCJ 413/13) on January 16, 2013, on behalf of 108 village residents facing evacuation. The Court granted a temporary interim order the same day, preventing the state from forcibly transferring the petitioners and their families, pending any other decision.
On January 21, 2013, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel received reports that the IDF was performing training exercises in the fields around Jinba and Tabban at the center of the Firing Zone. ACRI Attorney Tamar Feldman sent an urgent letter to the State Attorney’s office demanding the immediate cessation of such training. After no response was provided to this urgent request, ACRI petitioned the High Court of Justice, in the name of the residents, to rule that the state was in contempt of court. To read more about this petition and ACRI’s legal activities to have the injunction order enforced, click here.
The High Court of Justice held a hearing on the new petition on September 2, 2013. During the hearing, Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, together with Justices Hanan Melcer and Daphne Barak-Erez recommended that both parties begin a mediation process. The Justices suggested that retired Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Zamir be appointed as an external mediator. The petitioners informed the court that it was prepared to consent to the suggestion. The state requested some time to consult on the matter, and a few weeks later also consented to mediation. On October 27, the Justices issued their decision naming Yitzhak Zamir as the court-appointed mediator. The Justices allocated a period of 4 months for the mediation process along with the possibility of an extension.
Haaretz | When a Palestinian home isn’t really a home (20 February 2013)
The Telegraph | Cave-dwelling Palestinian farmers facing eviction from homes
Haaretz | A Toxic Attachment
New York Times | Israel Seeks Army Use of West Bank Area (23 July 2012)
Haaretz | Israel orders demolition of 8 Palestinian villages, claims need for IDF training land (23 July 2012)