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June in the Jordan Valley: In 7 days of maneuvers, military temporarily displaces hundreds and causes fires in farmland

Residents of Kh. Basaliyeh putting out fire caused by military’s training. Between Kh. Basaliyeh and Humsah. Photo: ‘Aref Daraghmeh,, B’Tselem, 25 June 2015
Residents of Kh. Basaliyeh putting out fire caused by military’s training. Between Kh. Basaliyeh and Humsah. Photo: ‘Aref Daraghmeh,, B’Tselem, 25 June 2015

This past month, June 2015, the Israeli military temporarily displaced hundreds of Palestinians from communities in the Jordan Valley, forcing them to leave their homes for varying periods of time over seven days in which maneuvers were held in the area. Since the beginning of the year, Palestinians in the Jordan Valley have been temporarily displaced over 20 days of military training. B'Tselem has documented the displacement of the residents and its impact on the lives of their communities.

Khirbet Humsah: Four displacements of some members of the community

On 10 and 16 June, ten families from the community of Khirbet Humsah were made to leave their homes for seven hours as of 7:00 A.M. The families, numbering 69 people, 43 of them minors, went to areas several kilometers from their homes, sometimes using carts dragged by tractors and sometimes on foot. On 10 June, when the residents returned to their homes, they found that grazing areas and cultivated farmland had gone up in flames, presumably as the result of firing by the military. In addition, water tanks used to water the flocks were pierced by bullets. The residents also reported that they found unexploded ammunition in areas close to their homes. On the morning of 16 June, Civil Administration representatives informed the same residents that they would be required to leave their homes again, together with five other families from the community, on 22 June and 25 June 2015.

On 22 and 25 June, 15 families numbering 92 people, 51 of them minors, were forced to leave their homes from 6:00 A.M. through 12:30 P.M. Testimonies that residents gave B'Tselem indicate that during the maneuver on 25 June, the military engaged in extensive shooting, leading to the outbreak of fires in grazing areas used by the residents some two kilometers from their homes. Yasser Abu Kabash, 42, a resident of the neighboring community of Khirbet Basaliyeh to the southwest of Khirbet Humsah, related in his testimony to B'Tselem field researcher ‘Aref Daraghmeh:

Yasser Abu Kabash shows pastures that caught fire. Photo: ‘Aref Daraghmeh,, B’Tselem, 25 June 2015
Yasser Abu Kabash shows pastures that caught fire. Photo: ‘Aref Daraghmeh,, B’Tselem, 25 June 2015

We heard mortar explosions and gunfire, and once in a while we could see fire. It spread across the grazing areas and came as close as half a kilometer from our tents in Basaliyeh. These grazing areas are the source of food for our flocks and they are our main lifeline. Without them, we will have to buy expensive fodder.

Our lives are difficult, and any small saving is very significant in terms of our survival. After discussing the situation with my brothers, we decided to take a risk and try to put out the fire, although the area was still a closed military zone and there was still shooting. We spoke to the military officers who were there, but they refused to allow us to approach the area until the training ended. Eventually, when we saw that the fire was destroying large areas, we went around and entered the grazing areas from an area far from the maneuvers, while mortars were still being fired in the area. Some soldiers saw us and wanted to make us leave, but we explained that we wanted to put out the fire and they allowed us to do so. I didn’t have anything on me that could help extinguish the fire. I took my pants off and used them to put out the fire. I told myself that this way I would save the grazing area for my flock, and that new pants would cost me much less than expensive fodder for the animals. We managed to put the fire out in several places.

During the month of May, residents of Khirbet Humsah had already been required to leave their homes for several hours over a period of one week. All told, from the beginning of the year through the end of June, residents of the community were required to leave their homes on 11 different days due to military training.

Khirbet al-Malih, ‘Ein al-Meyteh and al-Burj: Entire communities displaced three times

Throughout June, all the residents of Khirbet al-Malih, ‘Ein al-Meyteh and al-Burj - three Palestinian communities that live close to each other – were displaced three times due to military maneuvers near their homes. Together, the three communities are home to 29 families numbering 180 members, more than a hundred of them minors. On 11 and 17 June, the residents were evacuated for six hours on each occasion, beginning at 6:30 a.m. B'Tselem’s investigation found that no damage was caused to property or land during these military exercises. On 23 June, the residents were again evacuated (with the exception of two families who were in other grazing areas at the time). The residents distanced themselves from their homes, some on foot and others using carts dragged by tractors, and reported that they heard gunfire and explosions from a distance and saw fires break out in grazing land adjacent to al-Burj and to the nearby community of Khirbet Yarza, which was not required to evacuate. The residents also received orders to leave home on 26 June, but on that day representatives of the military and the Civil Administration did not come to the area as customary in order to ascertain that the residents had indeed evacuated. Accordingly, the residents remained in their homes. The reason for this was presumably that the training had been cancelled, although no-one bothered to inform the residents of this.

In May the residents of these communities had already been evacuated for two days, and in total they have been displaced from their homes five times from the beginning of the year through the end of June.

These military maneuvers cause unreasonable disruption to the lives of the communities in the area. The residents are required to leave their homes for many hours, sometimes on short notice of just a few hours. In some cases, they do not have any proper alternative location, and are left exposed to the harsh weather conditions that prevail in the Jordan Valley in the summer. In these conditions they must care for their families, from young children to the elderly, and find shelter, water and food. This hardship is particularly severe at present due to the month-long Ramadan fasting.

Residents of Khirbet al-Malih, ‘Ein al-Meyteh and al-Burj evacuating. Photo by ‘Aref Daraghmeh, B’Tselem, 17 June 2015
Residents of Khirbet al-Malih, ‘Ein al-Meyteh and al-Burj evacuating. Photo by ‘Aref Daraghmeh, B’Tselem, 17 June 2015

The Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley rely almost exclusively for their livelihood on grazing flocks and growing crops on land next to their homes. Extensive damage to farmland and grazing areas due to gunfire, fires, and the passage of tanks and military vehicles through the fields jeopardizes the communities’ very ability to survive in the area.

The minutes of a meeting held on 27 April 2014 by the Judea and Samaria Region Subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which were published on the website of the newspaper Ha’aretz, clearly show that the removal of Palestinians from these areas is one of the main goals behind the military training in the area. At the meeting, Colonel Einav Shalev, an operations officer in the Central Command, stated: I think that one of the good steps that could fall between the cracks is restoring firing zones in places where they are meant to be and still are not. [That is] one of the main reasons that we, as a military system, send a lot of the training maneuvers to the Jordan Valley… When the troops march, people moved aside, and I’m making no distinction between Jews and Palestinians here, I’m speaking generally… There are some places [where] we significantly cut down on the amount of training, and weeds cropped up.

According to international humanitarian law, an occupying state is permitted to act in the occupied territory on the basis of just two considerations: The good of the local population and immediate military needs relating to the military’s operations in the occupied territory. As an occupying power, Israel is not entitled to use the land for general military needs, such as training for war or general military exercises. It is certainly not permitted to damage the livelihood of protected residents on this pretext and to act to expel them from their homes. Israel must halt immediately all temporary displacements of communities for the purpose of military training, and all the other actions it undertakes in an attempt to forced the Palestinian residents of the Jordan Valley to leave the area.