Following an Israeli court order, the largest Palestinian displacement in decades is expected. ATTA, West Bank: After a decades-long legal struggle that ended last month in Israel’s highest court, 1,200 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank region of Masafer Yatta risked being forcibly removed to make space for an army shooting zone.

The decision paved the stage for one of the greatest displacements since Israel’s 1967 Middle East war victory. Residents, on the other hand, refuse to leave, thinking that their defiance and international pressure will prevent Israel from carrying out the evictions.

Wadha Ayoub Abu Sabha, a resident of Al-Fakheit, one of a collection of hamlets where Palestinian shepherds and farmers claim a traditional connection to the land, said, “They want to steal this land from us to establish settlements.”

“We’re not leaving,” she stated emphatically.

 

Israel proclaimed the area a closed military zone known as “Firing Zone 918” in the 1980s. It contended in court that the 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) along the Israel-West Bank border were “very important” for training purposes, and that the Palestinians who lived there were only there for a short period of time.

 

“It’s been a year of enormous pain,” Abu Sabha remarked, her voice quivering as she sat in one of the few remaining tents, lighted by a single light bulb.

 

In this section of the South Hebron Hills, communities used to dwell in underground caves. They’ve also started building tin shacks and modest rooms above ground in the last two decades.

 

According to Abu Sabha, Israeli soldiers have been dismantling these new structures for years, but now that they have the court’s approval, the evictions are certain to increase.

 

Soldiers arrived with bulldozers to raze several of the structures nearby, reducing her family’s things to a pile of debris. She bemoaned the enormous losses, particularly the diminishing livestock and the ruined furniture.

During the protracted litigation, most of the debate was around whether the Palestinians who live in the region are permanent residents or seasonal occupants.

 

Before the area was classified a fire zone, the occupants “failed to show their claim of permanent residency,” according to the Supreme Court. Aerial photographs and snippets from a 1985 book were used as proof by both sides.

 

Israeli anthropologist Yaacov Havakook spent three years investigating the life of Palestinian farmers and shepherds in Masafer Yatta for his book “Life in the Caves of Mount Hebron.”

 

Havakook declined to comment, referring Reuters to his book instead. However, he said that he attempted to offer an expert opinion on behalf of the inhabitants in response to a request from one of their lawyers, but that he was barred from doing so by the Israeli military ministry, where he worked at the time.

 

The United Nations and the European Union have both criticised the court decision and asked Israel to halt its demolitions and evictions.

“The formation of a firing zone cannot be regarded an’imperative military justification’ to remove the population under occupation,” said an EU official.

 

According to a transcript of a 1981 ministerial meeting on settlements unearthed by Israeli researchers, then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, who later became Prime Minister, suggested that the Israeli military expand training zones in the South Hebron Hills to evict Palestinians from their homes.

 

“Given the spread of Arab communities from the hills toward the desert,” Sharon stated, “we want to offer you more training zones.”

According to Reuters, the region was deemed a firing zone due to “a range of pertinent operational factors,” and Palestinians have repeatedly disobeyed the closure order by building without licenses.

 

According to the United Nations, Israeli officials reject the majority of Palestinian building permit applications in “Area C,” a two-thirds of the West Bank under Israeli control and home to the majority of Jewish settlements. Palestinians have limited self-rule in other parts of the West Bank.

 

According to UN figures, Israel has designated roughly 30% of Area C as military fire zones. The designations have heightened the prospect of forcible displacement for 38 of the most vulnerable Palestinian communities.

 

In the meantime, settlements in the area have continued to grow, restricting Palestinian movement and reducing the amount of land available for residents to farm and graze their sheep and goats.

 

“All of these olives are mine,” Mahmoud Ali Najajreh of Al-Markez, another threatened hamlet, remarked, pointing to a nearby grove. “How are we going to get out of here?”

 

He numbered each of the 3,500 olive trees he planted two years ago as they began to bud.

 

“We’ll wait until the dust settles before we start building again,” Najajreh told Reuters. “Rather than leave here, we’d rather die.”

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