Background on the South Hebron Hills

Published: 
1 Jan 2013

The region of the South Hebron Hills is in Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli control. Israel’s policy there threatens the continued existence of some thirty Palestinian villages. The region, also known as Masafer Yatta ("Greater Yatta," namely the villages surrounding the city of Yatta), is home to approximately 4,000 people most of whom earn their living as farmers and shepherds.

Israel's Policy: Preventing Palestinian Construction in Area C

The policy of the Civil Administration is to prevent construction in nearly all Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills. One way this is done is by not preparing master plans that would enable the legalization of existing construction as well as future development.

House demolition, al-Mufaqarah, South Hebron Hills, 24 November 2011. Photo: Nasser Nawaj'ah, B'Tselem.
House demolition, al-Mufaqarah, South Hebron Hills, 24 November 2011. Photo: Nasser Nawaj'ah, B'Tselem.

The Civil Administration maintains that the master plan in force is the one approved by the British mandatory authorities in 1942. Under that master plan, the area was zoned for agricultural use. However, although the plan does permit some construction on agricultural land, the Civil Administration has misinterpreted the plan’s instructions and has forbidden any and all construction.

Without approved construction plans, Palestinians are denied any possibility of obtaining building permits, be it for housing or for public buildings such as schools and medical clinics. Nor can they get approval for paving proper roads. In addition, the Palestinians may not hook up to either the power grid or the water pipelines that Israel has laid in the area, even though Israel has connected the settlements to both – including the so-called outposts that were constructed without the proper permits. Although the Civil Administration has prepared several master plans for Area C West Bank Palestinian villages, these plans were in fact aimed at obstructing the possibility of development for those villages. For example, in the early 1990s the Civil Administration prepared a plan for the village of a-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills. In 2009 the plan was updated and the area it covered was expanded. Contrary to the stipulations in the Jordanian planning and construction law to which Israel is bound, the plan was prepared without a prior planning survey that presents the needs of the village. The Civil Administration plan allocated only 52 dunams [5.2 hectares] to the village and allocated no land at all for future development. Moreover, the plan did not include the entire built-up area of the village so that, if implemented, some existing houses would be detrimentally affected. Meanwhile the Civil Administration plan allocated 385 dunams [38.5 hectares] to the nearby settlement of Ma’on irrespective of the similarly sized populations of the two communities. Furthermore, the plan apparently discounts the fact that a-Tuwani, with its school and medical clinic, services all the surrounding villages.

Over the past year, the Civil Administration has argued that it cannot approve construction plans in the South Hebron Hills, because they do not meet the planning criteria it has stipulated for the legalization of construction for Area C Palestinian villages. These criteria address the size of the built area; the age and density of construction; proximity to existing communities, nature preserves or archeological sites; and the feasibility of constructing public buildings and infrastructure. These criteria are intended primarily to impede construction in Palestinian villages. They do not take into account the complex structure of land ownership, the history of Palestinian residence on the land (documented at least as far back as the nineteenth century) or the residents’ independent ability to construct public buildings to serve the neighboring Palestinian communities. These criteria do not apply to Israeli settlements in the West Bank for which there is a separate planning track. The construction plans for the settlements in the area, for which the Civil Administration made the necessary changes to the British plans, granted the settlers substantial tracts of land for agricultural use and future development. Moreover, the Civil Administration has not enforced planning and construction legislation in the settlement outposts in the area: Northwest Susiya, Avigayil, Mitzpe Yair, Havat Ma’on, Nof Nesher, Asael and Sansana. These outposts were all established without building plans and without any land allocation. Some were even built on private Palestinian lands.

Water

Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, has laid out water pipelines in the South Hebron Hills to supply water to the settlements and outposts and to their agricultural enterprises: dairies, greenhouses and vineyards. The pipelines pass near the Palestinian villages in the area but, with the exception of Khirbet a-Tuwani, the Civil Administration has not hooked up any other village to the water grid. The local Palestinians collect water in cisterns: both rainwater and water they purchase from water trucks. However, the Civil Administration has issued demolition orders for many of the cisterns, alleging that they were constructed without permits, notwithstanding that some of them have existed since the days of the British mandate.

Several factors, namely, the absence of a local water supply infrastructure, low annual rainfall in the South Hebron Hills and ongoing desertification, have resulted in very low water consumption in these Palestinian villages, averaging as few as 28 liters per capita per day. This level of consumption is similar to levels in humanitarian crisis areas elsewhere in the world, in places such as Darfur, Sudan. For the sake of comparison, the World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 100 liters per capita, per day. Average daily water consumption per capita among Palestinian West Bank residents is 73 liters, whereas consumption in rural areas in Israel as well as in the Israeli settlements in the South Hebron Hills is 211 liters per capita per day, an amount 7.5 times that of the neighboring Palestinian communities.

Palestinian boy drawing water from a cistern, Khirbet Jenbah, South Hebron Hills, 7 August 2012. Photo: Sharon Azran, B'Tselem. . צילום: שרון עזרן, בצלם
Palestinian boy drawing water from a cistern, Khirbet Jenbah, South Hebron Hills, 7 August 2012. Photo: Sharon Azran, B'Tselem.

The local Palestinians buy water transported by trucks that usually come from the Palestinian city of Yatta. The price of water depends on how far the truck must travel from Yatta to its destination. Consequently, prices range from NIS 35 (US$10) per cubic meter in Susiya – more than four times the price of water for residential use in Israel – to as much as NIS 50 per cubic meter in Khirbet Jenbah, a village relatively distant from Yatta, which can be reached only by a long, bumpy dirt road. These high prices mean that local Palestinians may spend as much as a third of their monthly income on water. In contrast, in Israel, the average family spends only 1.3 percent of its monthly income on water.

Alternative Energy Sources

Israel does not authorize Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills to hook up to the electric power grids it installed for the Israeli settlements and settlement outposts. Permission is not granted even when the electric cables are only a few dozen meters away from the villages. In 2008, the Israeli-Palestinian organization Comet-ME began introducing alternative energy to the villages. Comet-ME is supported by the German government and works with Danish and Swiss NGOs. Since 2008 it has been installing energy devices such as solar panels and wind turbines, and these supply power to a population of 1,300 people in 18 villages. The devices supply the basic electric needs of the villages using the clean, renewable energy sources of the sun and the wind. The use of alternative energy sources does not cause pollution like diesel-powered generators or kerosene stoves. Each family in the village is allotted electricity based on its relative size, and the villagers pay for it accordingly.

Solar panels constructed by Comet-ME supply electricity to residents of Khirbet Susiya, South Hebron Hills; Israel refuses to connect the village to water and power grids, 13 June 2012. Photo: Sharon Azran, B'Tselem.
Solar panels constructed by Comet-ME supply electricity to residents of Khirbet Susiya, South Hebron Hills; Israel refuses to connect the village to water and power grids, 13 June 2012. Photo: Sharon Azran, B'Tselem.

Alternative energy enables lighting at night in residential areas, increasing residents’ sense of security. It also enables the villagers to operate electric butter churns and washing machines, to refrigerate their sheep cheese, and to charge their cellular phones – instead of relying on generators or traveling to Yatta. Since the beginning of 2012, the Civil Administration has issued demolition orders for these energy facilities in seven villages– a-Tha'lah, Khirbet Wadi Ejheish, Haribat a-Nabi, Mantiqat She’b al-Baten, Qawawis, Khirbet a-Safai al-Foqa and Susiya. The orders have not been carried out to date.

The Palestinians who live in the South Hebron Hills are frequently the victims of violence perpetrated by residents of the nearby Israeli settlements. The violence escalated with the establishment of the Havat Ma’on settlement outpost in 1997 and then in 2000, with the outbreak of the second intifada. The Israeli authorities – military and police – generally do not intervene in these violent incidents and generally fail to exhaust the investigative means necessary for enforcing the law on violent settlers.


Settlers attack elderly Palestinian shepherds, Khirbet Susiya, South Hebron Hills, 8 June 2008

Violent incidents include the following: attacking Palestinians in their living areas and attempting to burn down their tent dwellings; attacking shepherds as well as Israeli and international activists who accompany the villagers; vandalizing or chopping down olive trees and fruit trees; burning grain; setting dogs on people; stealing and harming sheep. Attacks of this type – which escalate during planting and harvesting – make it difficult for villagers to get their herds to pasture and restrict their access to their agricultural plots and water cisterns. Since 2004, schoolchildren who live in in the area declared a firing zone and who attend elementary school in a-Tuwani are accompanied every day by Israeli soldiers and international volunteers, who protect them from the residents of the Havat Ma’on outpost.