Recently I reported from the South Hebron Hills, one of the most rural regions of the West Bank. Most of its Palestinian residents are poor and live in temporary structures, subsisting on farming and grazing flocks. Israel’s discriminatory policies in the West Bank mean that while (illegal) Israeli settlements have unlimited running water, rural Palestinians get by on as little as 20 litres per day (the absolute minimum recommended for emergency situations). At hugely inflated prices, they buy this water from tankers often situated miles from their homes, and transport them back across rough dirt tracks. While settlers enjoy all of Israel’s public services, more than 20 percent of Palestinian communities have extremely limited access to healthcare. And while the settlements continue to expand, it’s virtually impossible for Palestinians to get permission from Israel to add new homes, farming structures or even essential solar panels to their communities.
But despite living with these deep inequalities, the Palestinian people I met in the South Hebron Hills were warm, hospitable, and passionately attached to their land.
Two weeks ago, the Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak informed eight villages in the area that they will be demolished so their land can be used for ‘military training’. The villages have a unique culture, with people many living in caves. They are home to around 1,500 people, and 10 times as many animals. The people have farmed here since the 1830s – long before Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.
But if the demolitions go ahead, the map will no longer show the villages of Majaz, Tabban, Sfai, Fakheit, Halaweh, Mirkez, Jinba and Kharuba. Instead it will simply say ‘Firing Zone 918’ – the term the Israeli military has given to the area.
The Israeli army has been trying to evict the villagers since 1999, when most residents in the area received eviction orders for “illegal dwelling in a firing zone”. In December that year, 700 people were evicted and Israeli forces demolished buildings, wells and confiscated property, leaving residents with no homes or livelihoods. Many later moved back to their villages after a successful court petition, though few had homes to return to.
On Tuesday this week, masked Israeli soldiers descended on one of these villages – Jinba – without warning. They photographed and mapped the cave dwellings, tents and structures, and damaged property during extensive searches and ID checks. While the army offered villagers no explanation, the raid has raised their fears that Israel is making final preparations for demolishing their homes and expelling them from the land.
Under Israel’s plans, residents will be forced to move to the nearby Palestinian town of Yatta, where unemployment is already high. The military has said residents would still have access to their farmland on weekends and Jewish holidays, when soldiers are not training. But this would hardly make up for the loss of an entire way of life.
“Farming is in our soul and in our blood,” Sara, a resident of Jinba, told my EAPPI colleagues in the South Hebron Hills. “If they take this away, we will be destroyed.”
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, has argued that Israel has no legal justification to evict these villagers. “International human rights law demands a pressing military need. Training soldiers is not a pressing need. Israel can’t simply take any land it wishes on this basis,” said Sarit Michaeli, the group’s spokesperson.
Not surprisingly, having homes demolished has a disastrous impact on Palestinian families. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that demolitions drive already poor families deeper into poverty. By destroying traditional sources of livelihood, they increase welfare dependency. Children suffer especially from the psychosocial impact of such upheaval.
The villages in question are classified as part of ‘Area C’ of the West Bank, which is under Israeli control. The 150,000 Palestinians living in Area C are under constant threat of having their homes demolished to make way for Israeli settlements and military zones. Last year, 200 homes were destroyed. At present, 3,000 demolition orders remain outstanding, including 18 Palestinian schools. Nearly two-thirds (60%) of the West Bank is considered Area C; there are growing fears that Israel is preparing to declare sovereignty over the area, removing yet more land from any potential Palestinian state.
These fears are viscerally shared by the villagers south of Hebron whose homes are slated for destruction: many are convinced Israel wants to remove them so that nearby settlements can be expanded. “We are one kilometer away from one settlement, and 700 meters from an outpost,” one resident told Haaretz. “Why aren’t they being evacuated?”