In the early 1980s, the Israeli military declared an area of about 30,000 dunams [3,000 hectares] in the South Hebron Hills known as Masafer Yatta a restricted military zone, and dubbed it 'Firing Zone 918'. At the time, dozens of Palestinian families had been living in the area for years, since before Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. They lived in 12 small villages, in natural or man-made caves, some all year round and others only seasonally, and earned a living as farmers and shepherds.
After their home was declared a closed military zone, the families continued to lead their lives mostly undisturbed. Although the military reached various arrangements with them that ostensibly limited their access to their land, these arrangements were barely implemented. The residents continued to work their land and graze their flocks without any major interference.
Yet in October and November 1999, the military expelled all 700 or so residents of these communities on the official grounds that they were “illegally living in a firing zone”. This flimsy argument blatantly ignored the fact that the families had been living in the area for many years, with the full knowledge of Israeli authorities. Moreover, it contradicted the wording of the military order itself, which stipulated that the restrictions regarding the firing zone would not be applied to the residents of the area.
Following the expulsion, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Attorney Shlomo Lecker filed a petition to the High Court of Justice (HCJ) on behalf of 200 families from Masafer Yatta. In March 2000, the HCJ issued an interim injunction permitting the villagers to return to their homes and cultivate their land pending a ruling in the case. The Court encouraged the parties to hold an arbitration process, which was led by the former head of the Civil Administration, Brigadier General (res.) Dov Zadka. During the arbitration, Israel offered to move the villagers to a different, far smaller area south of the city of Yatta. The villagers rejected the offer. In early 2005, the process ended with no operative results. After that, Israel filed 27 requests to the Court to defer the date for submitting its position. The villagers’ petitions remained open for years.
It was not until 19 July 2012, twelve years after the expulsion, that Israel submitted its updated position to the HCJ. In its statement, the state declared its intention to demolish eight of the 12 communities inside the firing zone, which were home to more than 1,000 people at the time. However, it would allow the residents to continue working their land inside the firing zone on weekends, on Jewish holidays and in two non-consecutive months a year. In view of that statement, the HCJ dismissed the petitions, yet allowed the families to file new petitions to address the state's position.
In January 2013, ACRI and Att. Lecker filed new petitions on behalf of the residents. Again, the HCJ issued an interim injunction forbidding the state to expel the residents. In the last HCJ hearing in these petitions, on 10 August 2020, the State argued again that the petitioners had not been permanent residents of the area when it was declared a “firing zone”, and therefore had no right to continue living in their homes. It further argued that the communities were taking advantage of the interim injunction: people not included in the interim injunction were moving into the area and residents were building without permits. The State councel claimed that Israel had been willing to offer a “compromise”, such as allowing residents to live in their homes for two months a year with prior coordination or on weekends and Jewish holidays when the military does not train in the area, but that the petitioners had rejected all the proposals.
Relying on this statement, the justices directed the petitioners to examine various solutions that would enable the military to train in their area of residence, maintaining that “the solution lies in one balance or another”. The petitioners’ counsel rejected this possibility. Nevertheless, the justices gave the parties 60 days to reach a settlement in the matter before the Court issues its ruling.
While the power of interim injunctions since 2000 has prohibited Israel from expelling the residents, it has also put their lives on hold. They continue to live in their homes and work their land under constant threat of demolition, expulsion and dispossession. At the same time, Israel denies them any possibility of construction or development. Faced with no other choice, residents have built homes without permits, as well as infrastructure to serve their daily needs, such as power and water systems. The Civil Administration has responded by issuing demolition orders and in some cases has demolished the structures and confiscated the infrastructure. Since 2006 B'Tselem has documented the demolition of 64 residential structures in these communities, which were home to 346 people, 155 of them minors. In addition, B'Tselem has documented the demolition of 19 non-residential structures in the same period.
Entire communities are under threat of demolition and hundreds of people are living in limbo, facing expulsion. The State of Israel is citing formal arguments such as “living in a firing zone” and “violating planning and building laws”. Yet given its longstanding policy, it is clear that these are false claims meant to conceal Israel’s annexationist aspirations.