Khalid Jabareen's tone was frantic as he discussed the future of his village and family, even though he thought the moment he dreaded – when they would be expelled from their homes – was months away.
“What should we do when they come to kick us out? They will come with bulldozers when our children are asleep. Then we don’t know where to go,” Mr. Jabareen said, speaking last week in the West Bank town of Yatta. “I think we have three or four months until we are expelled.”
Two days later, the Israeli military sent the first unmistakable sign to his village Jinba of residents' impending expulsion, as scores of armed soldiers entered their village, checked IDs, and photographed the residents’ cave dwellings and tents.
“We were all sleeping when we heard the noise of the helicopters,” Jabareen recounts a day after the raid. “They told us to leave our homes for an hour, set up an army tent close by, and took photos.”
His village of Jinba is one of eight in the South Hebron Hills, home to about 1,500 Palestinians altogether, that will soon be uprooted to make way for Firing Zone 918, a military training ground. The Israeli Ministry of Defense asked the High Court of Justice to green-light the necessary evictions and demolitions last month, setting in motion the eviction of Palestinian residents who say their roots there go back generations.
The Israeli plan to transform the hilly landscape at the southern tip of the West Bank into a firing zone goes back to the 1970s, when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declared some 30,000 dunams (7,500 acres) in the area a closed military zone. Under Israeli military law, only permanent residents are allowed to remain in closed military zones, and most of the residents do not meet the requirements to be considered permanent residents by the Israeli authorities. Some of them live in traditional tents and caves, by choice, while others have been unable to obtain the permits necessary to legally build.
Palestinians continued to live in the area relatively unperturbed until 1999, when eviction orders forced the evacuation of about 700 residents.
What followed were petitions by the residents and Israeli NGOs to the Israeli Supreme Court and an unsuccessful mediation effort. In the meantime, Palestinians continued to live and work on the land they say they have lived on for generations. The legal proceedings continued for 12 years, until the Israeli defense ministry finally pushed for the Supreme Court's approval for the evacuation of the area.
In its statement, the ministry contested residence claims by some of the 49 residents petitioning the court, stating that an investigation revealed that 38 of them actually had permanent residents in or near the nearby town of Yatta.
While humanitarian organizations and the European Union heavily criticized the planned evictions, Israel says it needs that particular area for training because of its unique topography and because of its security status.
“The vital importance of this firing zone to the IDF stems from the unique topographical character of the area, which allows for training methods specific to both small and large frameworks, from a squad to a battalion,” the Israeli defense ministry wrote last month.
"The area in question is characterized by numerous security threats, including the presence of illegal residents and criminal and terror elements. In response to these threats, ongoing and routine IDF exercises are carried out to deal with these security concerns. Part of the IDF's response to terror and criminal threats is a high level of familiarity with the area in question and those who inhabit it and thus a degree of surveillance is necessary," the IDF wrote in an e-mail to the Monitor this week.
Firing zones make up about 18 percent of the West Bank, and about 45 percent of all demolitions of Palestinian structures in the Israeli controlled sections of the West Bank since 2010 took place in such firing zones, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The West Bank is split into three zones – Area A, under full Palestinian control; Area B, under joint Israeli-Palestinian control; and Area C, under full Israeli control. For the estimated 150,000 Palestinians (a small fraction of the Palestinian population in the West Bank) living among the 300,000 Israeli settlers in Area C, building permits are extremely diffcult to get – but without them, Palestinians in Area C cannot legally build and establish permanent residency. Area C makes up about 60 percent of the West Bank.
The European Union has been pressuring Israel to change its policies in Area C and to issue more building permits for humanitarian projects and has also been critical of the demolition and evacuation plans for the South Hebron Hills.
“The intention by the Israeli Ministry of Defense to prohibit permanent residence in the firing zone and thus to evacuate 8 communities (…) entail the forced transfer of up to 1,800 people, contrary to Israel’s obligations as the Occupying Power,” the EU said in a statement released after a visit of EU diplomats in the firing zone the day after the IDF entered Jinba.
Hafez Houraini, who coordinates the Palestinian Popular Committee in South Hebron, says the demolitions and evacuations are an attempt to drive them out of Israeli-controlled Area C and into population centers in Palestinian-administered Areas A and B.
“Palestinians in this area are struggling peasants,” Mr. Huraini says. “Israel wants to push them out of the area.”
When queried, the Israeli foreign ministry denied that the government has any such policy goal.
'Here for generations'
The Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank says that the Supreme Court will most likely support the evacuation of firing zone 918 because it too considers Palestinians there illegal residents.
“The court told us to wait with the demolitions. Although the court has not ruled yet, we think that it will agree that these structures are illegal and continue to spread illegally,” Guy Inbar, spokesman of the Civil Administration, says.
But NGOs and residents point out that the villages existed prior to the beginning of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank in 1967 and that the area's “cave-dwellers” have practiced their traditional way of life for decades.
“These communities are there for generations and they have the right to a basic standard of living,” says Israeli attorney Tamar Feldman, director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel's (ACRI) human rights program for the Palestinian territories, which handled the resident’s legal cases. “But instead, the Israeli army uses this territory as a firing zone, although it is occupied territory.”
The Israeli Defense Ministry has said it would allow the communities to continue to graze their sheep and cultivate their land in the firing zone on Jewish holidays and weekends, when the military does not train.
But the Palestinian residents say that nearby Yatta, the poor and crowded town of 50,000 that is the most logical place to relocate, does not have what they need to make a living.
“We have 3,500 sheep in Jinba. What should I do with these animals in a city?” Jabareen says. “There is no space in Yatta.”
In addition to the eight villages slated for evacuation, there are four inside the firing zone which are not set for complete evacuation yet. However, they also face demolition orders for structures built without permits, which is many of the buildings in their villages, and say that their traditional way of life is threatened.
“This land here is our place, this is where we have freedom,” says Rasmiyye Hamamne, a woman from Mufaqara, one of the villages in the firing zone not slated for evacuation. Her husband, Na’man, says that this family has lived in a cave for generations. “My grandfather lived here, and his grandfather lived here. We will stay here as well.”