In October and November of 1999 the Israeli military expelled the approximately 700 Palestinian residents of a dozen small villages in the southeastern Hebron Hills, east of Route 317. The residents of these villages have lived there in natural and man-made caves – some on a permanent basis, others only seasonally – even before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The expulsion orders noted they were given on the grounds of “illegal residence in a live-fire zone.” Firing Zone 918, which encompasses approximately 30,000 dunams [3,000 hectares], was declared a restricted military zone as far back as the 1970s.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Attorney Shlomo Lecker filed a petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of some two hundred village families. In March 2000, the High Court of Justice issued an interim injunction permitting the villagers to return to their homes and cultivate their fields pending a ruling in the case. However, an additional appeal to the Court was necessary for the Civil Administration to accept that the injunction was universal and included all of the villagers, not only the petitioners. In December 2002 an attempt was made to define the status of the residents of these villages in a process of arbitration headed by Brigadier General (res.) Dov Zadka, former head of the Civil Administration. During the arbitration, Israel offered to move the villagers to a different, far small area south of the city of Yatta. The villagers rejected the offer. Early in 2005, the process ended with no operative results. Since that time, Israel has filed 27 requests to the Court to defer the date for submitting its position. For years the villagers’ petitions remained open and the interim injunction in effect.
For all those years the villagers continued to live in their expanding communities and to cultivate their land, in accordance with the court order. Yet they lived under the constant threat of demolition, expulsion and expropriation. The Civil Administration continuously tried to prevent the development of the villages, through interpreting the court’s injunction restrictively, as prohibiting any new construction in the villages in the firing zone. For example, in January 2005, the Civil Administration ordered the demolition of 15 cisterns and 19 outhouses built in the villages with the help of the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID). These structures served some 320 people in three villages in the firing zone. Following a petition filed by Rabbis for Human Rights, in February 2005, the High Court of Justice ruled that the demolition orders be suspended as long as the villagers pledge that the “status quo be preserved,” that there be no new construction of outhouses and that those structures not be inhabited.
It was not until April 2012, twelve years after the expulsion of the residents from their villages had been deferred – twelve years in which development and construction were prohibited – that the High Court of Justice resumed deliberations on all the petitions that address the restricted military area. In May 2012, for the first time in years, the military conducted live-fire exercises in the restricted area and erected concrete slabs along the area’s perimeter warning against entering “a firing zone.” Israeli soldiers who served in the area told the Breaking the Silence organization that in recent years the military had conducted no live-fire training exercises in the restricted area and had held only driver-training exercises with armored vehicles.
On 19 July 2012, Israel submitted the current position of Defense Minister Ehud Barak in this matter to the High Court of Justice: the state plans to demolish eight villages inside the firing zone – Khirbet al-Majaz, Khirbet a-Taban, Khirbet a-Safai, Khirbet al-Fakhit, Khirbet al-Halawah, Khirbet al-Markez, Khirbet Jenbah and Khilet a-Dabe’. Over 1,000 people live in these communities. According to the Israeli position, residents of these villages will be able to work their lands inside the firing zone only on weekends and Jewish holidays, as well as during two one-month periods each year. The state added that four villages could remain in the firing zone – Khirbet a-Tuba, Khirbet al-Mufaqarah, Khirbet Sarura and Sirat ‘Awad Ibrahim– and the military would conduct exercises without live fire in that area. The latter two villages were abandoned years ago, so that in effect, Israel permitted the 254 residents of only two, not four, villages to remain in the area. According to the map Israel submitted to the High Court of Justice, in the area designated as “permitted” there is another village, Maghayir al-‘Abid. The village is not listed together with the villages that Israel permitted to remain in the firing zone. Therefore, unless Israel makes an announcement to the contrary, the villagers of Maghayir al-‘Abid appear to be slated for expulsion as well.
In view of Israel’s statement, the High Court of Justice dismissed the petitions on 7 August 2012, after deciding that the statement signifies “a change in the normative situation” and therefore, the petitions have been “exhausted.” Justice Fogelman ruled that the petitioners could file new petitions and that the interim injunctions that compel the military to permit the villagers to live on site and farm their lands will be valid until 1 November 2012. The Court stressed that the dismissal of the petitions in no way reflects a position regarding the residents’ claims. Subsequently, the interim injunctions were extended until 16 January 2013.
On 16 January 2013 the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a new petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of 108 villagers facing expulsion. The petition appealed to the court that it prevent the forcible transfer of the villagers from their homes, legalize their residence in the area declared a firing zone and rescind its declaration. That very day, the court issued an interim injunction, forbidding the Israeli military to forcibly evict the petitioners and their families. The State was informed it must file its response within 60 days. In February, Att. Shlomo Lecker filed a petition on behalf of an additional 143 villagers slated for expulsion. The two petitions were merged into a single case.
In late March 2013 Israel submitted a preliminary response that addressed only the organizational aspect of the planning, and made no reference to the petition’s key demands, namely preventing the expulsion and retracting the designation of the area as a firing zone. The state added that it is reviewing its position and will present its full response in a supplementary statement within 90 days, i.e., by the end of June. The State did not submit its response by that date. On 7 July 2013, Justice Miriam Naor, Vice-President of the Supreme Court issued a decision which criticized the conduct of the State Attorney’s Office and ruled that the State must submit its response no later than 12 July. Accordingly, the court session was rescheduled, and deferred to 2 September 2013. At the end of the session that took place on the rescheduled date, the three justices (Grunis, Melcer and Barak-Erez) proposed that the sides enter into mediation, in order to reach an agreement acceptable to both the residents and the State. The State has not yet agreed to the mediation process. The villagers’ agreed to the proposed mediation immediately. The State announced its agreement on 21 Oct. 2013.