Evacuation of Villagers in the Masafer Yatta Area of the South Hebron Hills
For over two decades, ACRI has aided residents from 12 Palestinian villages in the area of Masafar Yatta in the South Hebron Hills. Villagers live under the threat of demolition, eviction, and dispossession after the IDF declared their place of residence a firing zone. In 1999, they were issued eviction orders on the grounds that they were not permanent residents of the area. This was declared in disregard of their unique way of life, ancient agricultural culture, and clear historical documentation attesting to generations of Palestinian settlement in these villages, formerly within caves and outside of them over the years. Residents’ evacuation from the area entails the demolition of historic villages, leaving entire families (approximately 1,000 people), including children and elders, without a roof over their heads. Such an evacuation violates Israel's obligations to the Palestinian population under its control in the region, both according to international and Israeli law.
The area deemed "Firing Zone 918" by the IDF is located in the South Hebron Hills, southeast of the city of Yatta. It spans roughly 30,000 dunams and includes 12 villages or extensions thereof: namely, Jinba, al-Merkaz, al-Halawah, Khallet a-Daba, al-Fakhit, a-Taban, al-Majaz, a-Safai Maghayir al-'Abid, al-Mufaqarah, a-Tuba, and Sarura, which is currently uninhabited. Research conducted by B'Tselem in collaboration with ACRI found that approximately 1,300 people currently live in the area.
Villagers lead a unique lifestyle, a significant number of them live within or near caves and earn a living through agriculture or sheep herding. Most of the residents were born and raised in the same villages, belonging to families that have lived in the area for several decades, long before 1967. The villages’ historical existence is well documented in a study conducted by the Ministry of Defense (Yaakov Havakkuk Life in the Caves of Mount Hebron, 1985, published by the Ministry of Defense, among other sources).
In August and November of 1999, most of the 12 villages’ residents received eviction orders due to "illegal residence in a firing zone.” On November 16, 1999, security forces forcibly evacuated over 700 residents. The IDF demolished homes and water cisterns, and confiscated possessions. Residents were dispossessed of their land and livelihoods, and left homeless.
The Parties’ Primary Positions
In accordance with the law that applies to the occupied territories, the IDF is permitted to evacuate people from a firing zone or restrict their movement in the area, unless they are permanent residents. Villagers claim that they are permanent residents of the area, yet security forces claim that they are not, and that some are even seasonal nomads, meaning that they may be evicted. According to the petitioners, a small portion of the villagers indeed cultivate their land over the course of six months and then spend the rest of the year outside the area. Yet security forces deliberately ignore the significance of ongoing cultivation of land over the course of six months. The petitioners further claim that the state's position completely disregards clear historical documentation, in Ministry of Defense publications among others, attesting to generations of Palestinian localities within the villages in question, previously solely within caves and over the years also outside of them.
The state claims that the area’s significance lies in that it allows for “the necessary training required of the IDF” to be safeguarded. On the other hand, the petitioners claim that use of occupied territory for general purposes of this nature deviates from the bounds of the authority of military rule in the area. Per international law, the occupying power cannot turn occupied territory into its training ground, nor is it permitted to use it for general military needs, such as “safeguarding its forces’ training,” let alone expelling protected residents from their homes in order to train on their land. The military commander is obliged to avoid harming the rights of local residents and their resources, unless the matter is necessary for isolated security needs, relating to military activity on the ground. The state's declaration did not describe a specific need of this nature. The petitioners claim that the fact that the state has not yet been able to explain why it needs this firing zone in particular and refuses to explore alternatives, gives rise to concern that the declaration of the firing zone in the area is not solely motivated by military needs, and that its aim is to effectively drive Palestinians out of the territory.
The petitioners further claim that the state's position does not address the fact that the evacuation of residents from the area entails the demolition of historic villages and leaving entire families, including children and elders, without a roof over their heads. All this also violates Israel's obligations toward the Palestinian population under its control in the region, according to both international and Israeli law.
It should be reinforced that throughout the entire period during which the legal process progressed, residents have lived in their homes under the auspices of an interim injunction, facing the threat of eviction. Furthermore, the communities continue to live there, cultivate, develop, and expand their land.
The First Petition – HCJ 517/00
In January 2000, ACRI petitioned the High Court of Justice (HCJ) on behalf of four families against the eviction orders (HCJ 517/00), and requested an interim order that would permit the families to remain in their homes and order the army to return their property to them or compensate them for destroyed assets. In February of 2000, 82 additional residents petitioned the HCJ through attorney Shlomo Leker (HCJ 1199/00), and in July of 2001, another 112 residents joined ACRI’s petition. In total, over 200 households petitioned against the eviction orders. The court consolidated both petitions and issued an interim order, under which the residents were temporarily permitted to return to their homes. For many residents, there was nowhere left to go, and security forces interpreted the interim order as narrowly as possible, solely permitting registered petitioners to return to their homes, without allowing their relatives to do so.
In December of 2002, the parties entered into a mediation process, in an attempt to determine the status of local residents and reach an agreement. Within the framework of the negotiations, the state proposed to move the petitioners to another area. The petitioners refused. In early 2005 after over two years of mediation, the process was terminated without any agreements having been reached.
In 2005, in parallel with HCJ proceedings for cases 517/00 and 1199/00, the organization Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) submitted a petition on behalf of the residents of the villages of a-Safai, Jinba, and al-Majaz against the demolition of 15 cisterns and 19 toilets, which were built within the framework of a humanitarian project on behalf of the British government (HCJ 805/05).
On April 17, 2012, the court held a preliminary hearing on the two primary petitions (HCJ 517/00 and HCJ 1199/00, noted above), and RHR’s respective humanitarian petition (HCJ 805/05), and the state informed the court that the Ministry of Defense had formulated a position regarding Firing Zone 918.
On July 22, 2012, the State Attorney's Office submitted a notice to the court, based on the Minister of Defense’s position, according to which "permanent residence will not be permitted" in most of the territory declared a firing zone. The position entails that the residents of three or four of the 12 villages will be able to continue living in the area, whereas eight or even nine of the 12 villages will be evacuated—that is, approximately 1,000 people will be evicted from their homes. The Ministry of Defense proposed permitting residents of the villages slated for evacuation to cultivate their land and graze their flocks on Saturdays and Israeli holidays, as well as during two additional periods throughout the year, each lasting a month. According to the Ministry of Defense, the villages that will not be evacuated are small ones located in the northwest part of the firing zone. There are effectively two populated villages alone that are currently in the area – Tuba and al-Mufaqarah.
In August 2012, following the state’s declaration, the court ordered the petition’s deletion without making a ruling on the matter. The judges emphasized that all the parties’ claims had been saved for them and that the petitioners could file new petitions against the Defense Minister's decision. The interim orders permitting residents to continue living in their homes and cultivating their land remained in place until November 1, 2012, and were extended until mid-January 2013 at the petitioners' request.
The Second Petition – HCJ 413/13
In January 2013, ACRI filed a renewed petition, HCJ 413/13, on behalf of 108 residents of the villages facing expulsion. The court issued a temporary injunction instructing the state not to forcibly remove the petitioners and their families from their homes until another decision was made.
In a hearing held on September 2, 2013, the HCJ recommended that the parties enter into mediation proceedings, and following both parties’ consent, the retired Judge Yitzhak Zamir was appointed to serve as the mediator. The judges allotted a four-month period for the mediation process, with the possibility of an extension. Ultimately, the mediation process lasted two years and four months, and on February 1, 2016, the parties informed the HCJ that they had been unable to reach an agreement and the proceedings were concluded. Following this notice, the court ruled that the interim injunction issued prior to the mediation remained in effect and scheduled a hearing on the petition for March 23, 2016.
The day after the conclusion of the mediation process, on February 2, 2016, large military and civil administration forces arrived and demolished 15 dwellings in the village of Jinba and nine structures in the village of al-Halawa. The demolished structures were home to 78 people, of whom 60 were children. Following the home demolitions, two urgent petitions were filed with the HCJ to prevent further demolitions. The first was filed on the same day by the Society of St. Yves (HCJ 857/16), and the second was filed by RHR two days later (February 4, 2016, HJC 983/16). A temporary injunction was issued for both petitions, to prevent the execution of additional demolition orders until another decision was made.
During the hearing regarding our petition (HCJ 413/13) on March 23, 2016, the state presented a proposal for a new demarcation of the training area, and the court ordered the petitioners to respond. On May 10, 2016, the petitioners submitted their response, according to which the proposal presented by the state was even worse than those submitted throughout the mediation process that had not been accepted by the petitioners, as it implied that Palestinians living in the area would be compelled to vacate a significant part of the area for extended periods of time, including the farming season, to enable the IDF to train. Surprisingly, the demarcation also includes the villages of Maghayir, al-'Abid, and al-Mufaqarah, which the Minister of Defense had already excluded from the territory of the active firing zone. The petitioners repeatedly asked the court to issue a conditional order, in which the state would be asked to explain why it insists on expelling residents from their homes and land.
On January 11, 2017, a hearing was held on the petition. After the hearing, the HCJ issued a conditional order, in which the state was instructed to submit a response to the petition to the court, specifying alternative solutions to evacuation, including the minimal training plan necessary for the military. The court clarified, both in the oral hearing and in the decision, that it believes it would be most appropriate for an agreement to be reached toward resolving this case, thus ordering the state to present its minimal requirements for training in the field. The petitioners’ representative, Attorney Dan Yakir, made it clear at the hearing that the petitioners were not willing to vacate their homes.
In its response, the state submitted a training plan, which requires that many of the petitioners leave their homes for several hours each day between eight and 20 days a month. The state noted that this is the most limited format of training and that the amount and scope of training is expected to increase. To date, the military has yet to explain why this territory is essential for its needs in the West Bank, and why Israel's vast firing zones may not be used interchangeably, beyond offering budgetary considerations.
The petitioners submitted a document found in the Israel State Archives by the Akevot Institute to the court, namely a transcript of a meeting from 1981 in which Ariel Sharon, who served as Minister of Agriculture at the time, suggested that military representatives establish training areas in the South Hebron Hills to displace Palestinian residents from their land. Sharon explained that the government has an interest in maintaining a military presence within these territories due to “the spread of Arab villagers on the mountainside toward the desert.” Sharon's proposal was translated into an official decision. The petitioners also submitted an opinion from 1967 written by Meir Shamgar, Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court at the time, stating that the expulsion of residents of Masafer Yatta for training purposes violates Article 49 of the Geneva Convention and that agricultural cultivation is sufficient to prohibit the declaration of a firing zone.
On August 10, 2020, another hearing was held on the petition, at the end of which the court clarified that it prefers a compromise be reached between the parties.
In early February of 2021, the Israeli military held a large military exercise in the area, during which heavy machinery passed through the village of Jinba and damaged property. As a result, the petitioners filed an urgent request for an interim injunction to prevent such training, and the army responded with a pledge not to conduct training of this sort until a verdict was reached.
On February 24, 2022, the Masafer Yatta Village Council submitted a request to join the proceedings as an amicus curiae. The application presented an additional collection of testimonies, affidavits, historic, geographic, architectural, and archeological documents and analyses, used to teach of the villages’ historic consecutive and fixed localities within Masafer Yatta, from the British Mandate period to date.
Following the application’s submission, the last hearing on the petition was held on March 15, 2022. On May 4, 2022, a verdict was issued rejecting the petition, and effectively authorizing the residents’ expulsion. The verdict includes critical determinations regarding international law, that deviate, so to speak, from Israeli law, and regarding the interpretation of the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on deportation. In light of the misguided verdict (in our opinion) that international law does not apply in the occupied territories, the judges avoided discussing our key claims regarding the prohibition on seizing private land by way of a court-ordered land closure and regarding the restrictions on military training in occupied territory.
Immediately after the ruling’s publication, the military commenced intensive operations in the territory, including the confiscation of vehicles, the demolition of structures, and the erection of roadblocks. The military also began to conduct a population census of the villagers and informed them of its intention to conduct active training in the firing zone. The aforementioned increases the concern that the country is preparing for a mass deportation in the region.
On June 19, 2022, we filed a petition for another hearing on the ruling. We claimed that the ruling establishes three new laws that contradict previous laws and that the petition must thus be discussed once again: the first is the determination that claims regarding outright rejection of the petition may be discussed, even after issuing a conditional order; the second is that Israeli law takes precedence over international law in the occupied territories; and the third is to permit the forcible transfer of protected persons, in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. We claimed that the ruling effectively nullifies all protections granted by international law to the protected residents of occupied territory, and is liable to enable the execution of war crimes.
We further requested that the court issue an interim order instructing the military to refrain from training in the field until a decision is made regarding the request for another hearing, yet the court rejected the request. On July 11, 2022, we filed another request for a temporary order and an interim order, following military training in cultivated fields that damaged nearby homes and property.
On October 2, 2022, the Supreme Court rejected our request for another hearing, and did not accept our claim that the verdict established new laws. Supreme Court President Hayut expressed reservations about the ruling’s dire and precedential determinations regarding forcible deportation and the preference granted to the military commander's order over international law, determinations that contradict international law and Supreme Court rulings over the past 40 years. Nevertheless, the president refrained from scheduling another hearing due to her determination that these were incidental statements that were not necessary in order to reject the petitions.