The Israeli High Court of Justice is expected to decide over the next month whether an area in the occupied West Bank – where Palestinian Bedouin communities have resided long before the Israeli occupation – will continue to be used for military purposes.
Masafer Yatta, located south of the city of Hebron, spans some 36km (22 miles) and is comprised of 19 Palestinian hamlets that are home to more than 2,000 people.
The Israeli army designated part of the area a closed military zone for training in the 1980s, and “they have sought to remove the communities on this basis,” according to the United Nations.
Masafer Yatta is classified as being at risk of forcible transfer, in what the UN describes as coercive environment conditions” created through “a range of policies and practices that have undermined their physical security and sources of livelihood”.
Residents are forced to evacuate their homes during military exercises for temporary periods that could last days, while helicopters roam above the heads of the communities and heavily armed Israeli troops are present on the ground.
In addition to using the area as a training zone, Israeli authorities have expropriated thousands of dunams of land from residents to establish illegal Israeli settlements, including Ma’on and Havat Ma’on, and whose residents carry out attacks against the Palestinian communities. A dunam, an Israeli term for a unit of land area measurement of land, is equivalent to 1,000 square metres (0.2 square acres)
Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law.
“Israel wants this land because it’s the highest point in the south Hebron hills and is of strategic value for the growth of the Israeli settlements and outposts,” Masafer Yatta Mayor Nidal Yunis said.
Masafer Yatta falls within Area C, comprising 60 percent of the occupied West Bank, which the Israeli occupation’s administrative body, the Civil Administration, reserves largely for the benefit of Israeli settlers.
The occupied West Bank was divided into Area A, B, and C as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Israel retains total control of Area C while the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been granted limited powers to govern Area A and B.
The Israeli authorities grant few building permits to Palestinians in Area C.
“The designation of the area as a firing zone means that such permits are impossible to obtain,” the UN has said.
The area is also not connected to water and electricity grids, which supply the surrounding Israeli settlements and outposts.
“The state forbids them to legally build their homes or connect to water and power grids, restricts their grazing land, and enables acts of settler violence in order to make their lives so unbearable that they will leave of their own volition,” Israeli rights group B’Tselem has said.
Civil Administration officials, accompanied by Israeli soldiers and Border Police equipped with bulldozers, have destroyed any attempts at building or efforts to connect to the infrastructure by the Bedouin communities.
Mayor Yunis said that on October 25, Israeli officials confiscated a tent set up by the community in the al-Mufaqara hamlet.
“They also destroyed a dirt road leading from the community of Khirbet Khilet a-Dabe to the community of al-Fakhit and the main water line that serves the Masafer Yatta community was also demolished,” he added.
Israeli authorities have designated some 18 percent of the West Bank, or half of Area C, as military firing zones, in which any person is prohibited unless special permission is granted by the army.
Despite the prohibition, there are 38 small Palestinian communities – 12 of them in Masafer Yatta – home to more than 6,200 Palestinians located within these zones. Many of the communities were present prior to the army’s arrival and closure of these areas.
Over the years, settlers have destroyed at least 700 olive trees in Masafer Yatta, according to Yunis, and expropriated at least 2,000 dunams of land, with the majority of the land seized this year.
In September, dozens of settlers raided the al-Mufaqarah community in Masafer Yatta, attacking residents, homes, and vandalizing properties.
“The attack, which was one of the most severe and vicious recalled by residents, injured several villagers, including a toddler whose skull was fractured by rocks thrown by settlers as he lay in bed,” said Yunis.
B’Tselem said that Israeli soldiers who arrived on the scene fired tear gas canisters at residents and the settlers only left after an hour.
“Over the past year, settler attacks in Masafer Yatta have intensified as part of Israel’s policy of expelling Palestinians and taking over their land,” said the organization.
Fadel Raba’i and two of his sons from at-Tuwani, one of the hamlets in Masefer Yatta, were attacked by settlers from the Havat Ma’on outpost during the holy month of Ramadan in May.
“We were celebrating the holiday after breakfast when settlers set up a roadblock at the village entrance,” Fadel, 49, said.
“When we tried to enter the village, they sprayed us with pepper spray on our faces, and when we tried to push them away, they threatened us with guns before Israeli soldiers arrived and arrested us.
“I was released after spending 50 days in prison and paying a fine of about $6,000, but my sons are still imprisoned, charged with assault,” said Fadel.
In addition to blocking the village’s entrance, the settlers had tried to stop the farmers from reaching their land and as confrontations broke out as young men from at-Tuwani came to support the farmers.
“I was shot in the leg with live ammunition and beaten on the head,” 20-year-old Ribhi Raba’i, another family member, said.
According to human rights groups, settler attacks on Palestinians have spiked across the occupied West Bank this year.
A report released at the beginning of November by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), covering the period to the end of September, stated that 287 Palestinians were attacked by settlers this year so far, with 102 of those attacks resulting in casualties.
Last year, 274 Palestinians were attacked, resulting in 84 casualties, while 259 attacks were reported in 2019 with 76 people sustaining casualties.
But these attacks are not new.
In 2018 farmer Juma’a Raba’i from at-Tuwani was beaten badly by settlers with rocks, as he tried to reach his farmland. He is no longer able to farm or walk without the aid of a walking stick.
“I have learned to live with my disability, but when they beat my mother Fatma, 73, as she sat under an olive tree, that was the hardest for me,” Juma’a said, recalling how one settler held a gun to his head during the attack.
“She is no longer able to walk at all and is now confined to a wheelchair.”
Not only are Palestinians under increasing attacks, but also their infrastructure and property have been demolished by the Israeli army.
OCHA reported in a humanitarian report that between October 5 and 18 alone, Israeli authorities demolished or seized 23 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C on the grounds of lacking Israeli-issued permits, displacing four people.
“The displaced were in the herding community of Az Za’ayyem near Jerusalem. Twelve structures, mainly residential, were dismantled in Ras at Tin herding community in Ramallah, affecting 50 people,” reported the OCHA.
An estimated 350 farmers and their families were also affected by the demolition of a paved agricultural road in the Tayasir community, in the Jordan Valley, the OCHA said.
The remaining demolitions included structures in Salfit and Hebron.
The UN added that the number of structures that were demolished or seized in the first nine months of this year increased by 21 percent compared with the equivalent period in 2020, while 28 percent more people were displaced.
Yunis said that the future looks bleak as settler attacks on the community have increased, more land is being taken and farmers are unable to build the necessary infrastructure.
“Our only hope is if the international community will put pressure on Israel to withdraw from Area C so that the farmers and the community can live and work in peace.”