The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

What Comes First, an Israeli Army Firing Zone or Palestinian Villages?

Palestinians in the southern Hebron mountains Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Amira Hass, Haaretz, 03/08/2020

Next Monday the justices of the High Court of Justice will discuss the State of Israel’s demand to destroy eight Palestinian hamlets in the southern West Bank. I should say: will once again discuss, because the government’s demand is not new.

For about 40 years the Israel Defense Forces and the Civil Administration did everything in their power to make these communities disappear, while they, in their heroic and prolonged battle against the order to become extinct, also turned to legal channels and to petitions. In military Hebrew, the area designated for demolition and the eviction of its Palestinian residents is known as Firing Zone 918. In ordinary Arabic and Hebrew it is Masafer Yatta.

Now the High Court justices are being asked to decide once and for all what comes first: an area for military training exercises, or an ancient fabric of life and relations between a city and the villages that grew up around it.

The “what comes first” is a question of chronology, principle and ethics. Israel claims that the firing zone was declared as such in 1980 and the residents are “illegal squatters” who settled there afterwards. The geo-historical facts, which are not subject to dates, maps and the overt and covert intentions of the occupying power, indicate otherwise.

The rural roots of the city of Yatta, already in the Ottoman period, are not in doubt. Sheep herding and agriculture were the basis of its existence and the cultural heritage of its families. Its expansion and the urbanization process it has undergone are natural phenomena. In the second half of the 19th century there were about 2,000 residents. Today there are almost 70,000. The overall area of its land, which was recognized and determined long before 1967, is 170,000 dunams.

The constant increase in the number of residents and the size of the flocks led to the creation of rural offshoots, by people searching for more available land for grazing and planting, and additional sources of water or a place to dig a new cistern to collect rainwater.

In Yatta, like everywhere in the country, they remained in the distant location for several days and weeks, depending on the season, the calving and the sheep shearing. Natural caves were sometimes adapted for residential purposes. Gradually the seasonal offshoot became permanent.

The familial, economic and social links to the village of origin – now town – have been maintained. But over time every community also develops its own characteristics independently. How much beauty is contained in this geo-human continuum, and in the universal nature of the process, which can be identified all over the globe.

Israel operated and operates in a variety of methods to cut off this natural Palestinian continuum. Declaring a firing zone is one of them. Other methods are the prohibition on connecting to the water grid, eviction notices and actual eviction, a prohibition against building schools and clinics and bathrooms – and their demolition, confiscating tractors and water pipe, blocking roads, a refusal to prepare master plans, or preparing limited master plans that don’t allow for genuine development.

All these methods were also tried and are being tried on the dozens of natural offshoots of Yatta, which were created before 1948, and in which thousands of people are living. And so, in an unnatural manner, the number of people in each community has remained limited.

At first “918” covered 32,000 dunams of Yatta’s land. Over the years about 7,000 dunams have been subtracted from it. That is precisely the area in which several Israeli outposts cropped up and swelled, and some settlements expanded.

Israel is now offering a generous “plan,” in its opinion: for the shepherds and farmers to abandon their villages, and come to cultivate their land and use it for grazing only on weekends and Jewish holidays. The government is also considering enabling them to come for another two months a year, when intensive cultivation or grazing is needed.

As we can conclude from its response to the villagers’ petitions, the government expects justices Esther Hayut, Uzi Vogelman and Hanan Melcer to decide that the Jews always come first. That it’s always kosher, suitable and proper to erase the natural human-geographical continuum of the Palestinian communities.