Eviction of Villagers in the Masafer Yatta Area of the South Hebron Hills
Photo: Yafit Jamila Biso, ACRI
For over two decades, ACRI has been supporting the residents of 12 Palestinian villages located in the Masafer Yatta area in the South Hebron Hills. Villagers live under the threat of demolition, eviction, and dispossession, as the IDF declared their area of residence a firing zone. In 1999, the residents were issued eviction orders on the grounds that they were not permanent residents of the area. This declaration was made with no regard for their unique lifestyle, ancient agricultural culture, or clear historical documentation that testifies to generations of Palestinian settlement in these villages -– previously within caves and outside of them as well over the years. Evicting residents from the area entails the demolition of historic villages, leaving entire families (roughly 1,000 people), their children and elders, without roofs over their heads. Such an eviction violates Israel's obligation to the Palestinian population under its control in the region, in accordance with both international and Israeli law.
For background on Palestinian residents of the South Hebron Hills, court documents, and details on developments following the petitions, see below.
The area designated Firing Zone 918 by the IDF is located in the South Hebron Hills, southeast of the city of Yatta. It spans approximately 30,000 dunams and includes 12 villages or ruins: Jinba, al-Merkaz, al-Halawah, Khallet a-Dab’a, 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 – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories in collaboration with ACRI, indicated that approximately 1,300 people currently reside in the area.
The villagers lead a unique way of life – many of them reside in or near caves and earn a living in agriculture and shepherding. Most residents were born and raised in the same villages to families that have lived in the area for several decades, long before 1967. The villages’ historical existence is well documented, among other things, through a study conducted by the Ministry of Defense (Yaakov Habakkuk, Life in the Hebron Hills Caves, 1985, a Ministry of Defense publication).
In August and November of 1999, most residents of the 12 villages received eviction orders due to, "Illegal residence in a firing zone." On November 16, 1999, security forces forcibly evicted over 700 residents. The IDF demolished homes and cisterns, and confiscated property. Residents were dispossessed of their land and livelihoods, and left homeless.
Parties’ Main Positions
Per the law applicable in the occupied territories, the IDF may evacuate people from the firing zone, or restrict their movement in the area, unless they are permanent residents. Villagers claim that they are permanent residents of the area, whereas security forces disagree and argue that some are seasonal nomads, such that they may be evicted. Per the petitioners, a small portion of villagers indeed cultivate their land for half of the year, spending the other half in another area. Yet security forces deliberately disregard the importance of ongoing cultivation of the land over the course of six months. The petitioners further claim that the state's position completely disregards clear historical documentation, including Ministry of Defense publications, among others, which attest to generations of Palestinian settlement in the villages in question, previously solely in caves and over the years also beyond them.
The state claims that the essential nature of the territory lies in the fact that it enables maintenance of the "required competence of the IDF forces.” On the other hand, the petitioners claim that use of occupied territory for such purposes exceeds the bounds of the military government’s authority in the territory. Per international law, the occupying force cannot turn occupied territory into a training ground and is not permitted to use it for general military needs, such as "maintaining the forces’ competence." All the more so, it may not expel protected residents from their homes in order to train on their land. The military commander is obliged to avoid compromising local residents’ rights and resources, unless necessary for specific security needs that relate to military activity in the area. The state’s declaration did not describe such a specific need. The petitioners claim that the fact that the state has not yet been able to explain why it needs this firing zone, and that it refuses to examine alternatives, raises concern that not only does the military need underlie the area’s declaration as a firing one, but also its effective purpose is to push Palestinians out of the area.
The petitioners further claim that the state’s position does not address the fact that the residents’ eviction from the area entails demolition of these historic villages, leaving entire families, their children and elders, without roofs over their heads. All this violates Israel's obligations toward the Palestinian population under its control in the region, both according to international and Israeli law.
It should be emphasized that throughout the entire period during which the legal process progressed, residents have lived in their homes under the auspices of the interim order, and under the threat of eviction. In parallel, the communities continued to live, cultivate their land, develop, and expand.
First Petition – High Court of Justice (HCJ) 517/00
In January of 2000, ACRI petitioned the Supreme Court against the eviction orders on behalf of four families (HCJ 517/00), and requested an interim order that would enable the families to remain in their homes and order the army to return their property or compensate them for destroyed property. In February of 2000, 82 additional residents petitioned the HCJ through attorney Shlomo Leker (High Court of Justice 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. Many residents have nowhere left to return, while 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 commenced a mediation process, in an attempt to determine the local residents’ status and reach an agreement. As part of the negotiations, the state offered to move the petitioners to another area. The petitioners refused. In early 2005, after over two years of mediation, the process was terminated without having reached any agreements.
In 2005, in parallel to the HCJ proceedings on 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 storage pits and 19 toilets that 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 both principal petitions (HCJ 517/00 and HCJ 1199/00, noted above) and RHR’s individual humanitarian petition (HCJ 805/05), and the state announced to the court that the Ministry of Defense had formed a position regarding Firing Zone 918.
On July 22, 2012, the State Attorney's office submitted a notice to the court, based on the Defense Minister's position, according to which “permanent presence in the area is prohibited" in much of the area declared a firing zone. The position entailed that the residents of three or four of the 12 villages would be permitted to continue living in the area, while eight or even nine of the 12 villages would be evicted – that is, approximately 1,000 people would be expelled from their homes. The Ministry of Defense proposed to permit residents of the villages slated for eviction to cultivate their land and graze their sheep on Saturdays and Israeli holidays, as well as two additional month-long periods throughout the year. The villages that would not be evacuated, per the Ministry of Defense, are small ruins located in the northwestern area of the firing zone. There are solely two inhabited villages currently in the area – a-Tuba and al-Mufaqarah.
In August of 2012, following the state’s announcement, the HCJ ordered the deletion of both petitions without ruling on the matter itself. The judges emphasized that all parties’ claims would be saved, and that the petitioners could file new petitions against the Minister of Defense’s decision. The interim orders that allowed residents to continue living in their homes and cultivate their land, remained in place until November 1, 2012, and were extended per the petitioners’ request until mid-January 2013.
Second Petition – HCJ 413/13
In January of 2013, ACRI submitted a new petition (HCJ 413/13) on behalf of 108 residents of the villages facing eviction. The HCJ issued a temporary interim order instructing the state to refrain from forcibly transferring the petitioners and their family members from their homes until another decision is made.
At the hearing that took place on September 2, 2013, the HCJ judges recommended that the parties engage in a mediation process, and with the parties’ consent, they appointed retired judge Professor Yitzhak Zamir as mediator. The judges set a four-month period for the mediation process, with a possibility for an extension. Ultimately, the mediation process lasted two years and four months, and on February 1, 2016, the parties informed the HCJ that they were unable to reach an agreement and that the process was over. Following the announcement, the court determined that the interim order issued prior to the mediation was valid, and scheduled a hearing on the petition for March 23, 2016.
The day after the mediation process concluded, on February 2, 2016, considerable forces from the military and Civil Administration came and destroyed 15 residential structures in the village of Jinba, and nine structures in the village of al-Halawah. A total of 78 people lived in the structures, including 60 children. Following the home demolitions, two emergency petitions were submitted to the HCJ to prevent further destruction. The first was submitted on the same day by the Society of St. Yves (HCJ 857/16), and the second was submitted two days later by RHR (February 4, 2016, HCJ 983/16). A temporary order was issued for both petitions, to prevent the implementation of additional demolition orders until further notice.
At the hearing held on our petition (HCJ 413/13) on March 23, 2016, the state presented a proposal for a new training plan in the area, and the court ordered the petitioners to respond. On May 10, 2016, the petitioners submitted their response, according to which the state’s proposal was even worse than those submitted throughout the mediation. The petitioners had rejected them as they entailed the forcible eviction of local Palestinian residents from a large part of the area for extended periods of time, including the agricultural season, to allow for IDF training. Surprisingly, the plan also included the villages of Maghayir al-’Abid and al-Mufaqarah, which the Defense Minister had already excluded from the active area of the firing zone four years ago. The petitioners returned and asked the court to issue a conditional order, in which the state would be asked to explain why it insists on evicting residents from their homes and land.
On January 1, 2017, a hearing was held on the petition. Following the hearing, the HCJ issued a conditional order, in which it ordered the state to submit a reply to the petition, detailing alternative solutions to eviction, including the most minimal military training program possible. The court clarified, both in the oral hearing and its decision, that it deemed reaching an agreeable solution appropriate, thus ordering the state to present its minimal needs for training in the field. The petitioners’ representative, Attorney Dan Yakir, made it clear at the hearing that the petitioners are unwilling to leave their homes.
In its reply, the state submitted a training program, which required many of the petitioners to vacate their homes for several hours each day, between eight and 20 days each month. The state noted that this is the most minimal scale of training, and that the amount and scope of training is expected to increase. To date, the army is yet to explain why the area is essential for its needs in the West Bank, and why it is not possible to make alternative use of the vast firing zones in Israel, beyond budgetary considerations.
The petitioners submitted a document found by the Akevot Institute in the state archives to the court: namely, the transcript of a meeting from 1981, in which Ariel Sharon, Minister of Agriculture at the time, suggested that military representatives establish training zones in the South Hebron Hills, in order to dispossess local Palestinian residents of their land. Sharon explained that the government has an interest in military presence in these territories due to the “Arab villagers’ expansion from the hills toward the desert.” Sharon's proposal was translated into an official decision. The petitioners also submitted the written opinion of the Military Advocate General in 1967, Meir Shamgar, according to which eviction of residents of Masafar Yatta for training purposes constitutes a violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, and that agricultural cultivation is sufficient in prohibiting its declaration as 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 for a compromise to be reached between the parties.
In early February of 2021, the army conducted a large military exercise in the area, during which heavy vehicles passed through the village of Jinba causing damage to property. As a result, the petitioners submitted an urgent request for an interim order to prevent training of this nature, and in response the army committed not to conduct such exercises until a ruling was issued.
On February 24, 2021, the Masafar Yatta Village Council submitted a request to join the proceedings as a friend of the court. In the request, additional testimonies, affidavits, documents, and historical, geographical, architectural and archaeological analyses were presented that revealed the villages’ background and taught of the prolonged history of permanent localities in Masafar Yatta from the British Mandate period, to date.
Following submission of the request, a final hearing on the petition was held on March 15, 2022. On May 4, 2022, a ruling was issued rejecting the petition, effectively authorizing the residents’ eviction. The ruling includes grave determinations regarding international law, which has seemingly been extracted from Israeli law, and regarding the interpretation of the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on deportation. In view of the (mistaken, in our opinion) determination that international law does not apply in the occupied territories, the judges refrained from addressing our central claims regarding prohibition of the seizure of private land by way of closure orders and regarding restricting training in occupied territory.
Immediately after the ruling was issued, the army began intensive operations in the field, including the confiscation of vehicles, demolition of structures, and erection of roadblocks. The military also began to conduct a population census of the villagers, and informed them of its intention to conduct training with live fire in the area. All of the aforementioned heightened the concern that the state is preparing to conduct a mass deportation in the area.
On June 19, 2022, we filed a petition for another hearing on the ruling. We argued that the ruling establishes three new laws that contradict previous ones, on account of which the petition should be heard once more: the first is the determination that claims for outright rejection of the petition may be heard even after a conditional order has been issued; the second is that Israeli law prevails over international law in the occupied territories; and the third is permitting forcible transfer of protected residents in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. We argued that the ruling effectively annuls all protections granted to the protected residents of occupied territory, by way of international law, and is liable to enable the execution of a war crime.
Furthermore, we asked the court to issue an interim order instructing the army 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, after military training in agricultural fields and near homes caused damage to property.
On October 2, 2022, the Supreme Court rejected our request for another hearing, and did not accept our claim that the ruling established new laws. President Hayut expressed reservations regarding the ruling’s grave precedential determinations on forcible deportation and the supremacy of the military commander's order over international law, statements that violate international law and Supreme Court rulings over the course of the past 40 years. Nevertheless, the president refrained from ordering another hearing due to her determination that these incidental statements were insufficient to reject the petitions.
Following the court ruling
During the proceedings in court in July 2022, the state submitted a response in which it stated that the Palestinians residing in the firing zone "are not prevented from entering it; they are not prevented from reaching their homes; their vehicles are not confiscated, and certainly, no violence is used against them. At this stage, the people residing in the firing zone are permitted to move within it, and they do so without disruption." Despite this stated policy, residents occasionally experience harassment by the military.
On January 2, 2023, residents of Masafer Yatta were informed that the military planned to begin preparations for their eviction in the near future, but the situation on the ground remained unchanged. At the end of August 2023, without prior notice, the state began enforcing orders to close off the area to residents, and soldiers and inspectors confiscated more than 10 vehicles for "entering firing zone 918 without a permit."
For links to all the legal documents in Hebrew please click here.