In 1999 the residents of Masafer Yatta were told by the military that they were “dwelling illegally in a firing zone.” Soldiers arrived and forcibly removed over 700 people, including women, elderly and children. The soldiers destroyed homes, animal shelters and cisterns, and confiscated property.
During 2000 and 2001 many families returned to their lands and began appealing to the court for the right to live in their villages. More than two hundred households, working with ACRI, petitioned the court and won an interim injunction allowing them to temporarily return to their land and what remained of their homes. The military has chosen to interpret the interim injunction as narrowly as possible, allowing reentry only to the named petitioners and denying access to their relatives and all others, regardless of their relationship to the families. The villages entered mediation with the state in 2001, but the process terminated in 2005 without an agreement.
The residents have lived under threat of forced removal for the entire 12 years of legal proceedings. Residents continue to live and to work their lands, and the villages have developed and expanded, despite the continued use of the area as a firing zone. Since 2000 the villages have built two schools, which are both now under threat of demolition. Because they have not been allowed to access the electricity grid, the villages have installed solar panels to provide electricity to the schools, and these energy installations are included in the demolition orders. Despite the fact that their children attend schools in the villages throughout the winter months, and despite the obvious presence of continuously cultivated gardens and fields, security forces argue that the villagers are “non-permanent.” Under governing military law in the occupied territories, the military is not authorized to remove permanent residents from a firing zone or to limit the mobility of permanent residents within the area.
In 2013 the families again petitioned the court and won a temporary order preventing their forced removal and destruction of their homes, schools and mosques, but their presence on the land remains precarious. Despite the temporary order the residents of Masafer-Yatta are vulnerable to violence from settlers in nearby settlements and outposts, and the military conducts frequent trainings in their midst. As a result the families have asked for protective international presence in their villages and at their schools while children are present.
Current legal status
On January 16, 2013 the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) filed a petition at theIsraeli High Court of Justice on behalf of 108 residents of Masafer-Yatta, most of whom were heads of large families living in the area. The petition sought to prevent the forced expulsion of the 1000 Palestinians living in eight rural villages in Firing Zone 918, and to end the threat of eviction which has hung over the villagers since they returned to their lands in 2000. The petition also questioned the justification for the closed military zone order around the area, arguing that it should be lifted and that petitioners’ dwellings be fully recognized. The Court granted a temporary interim order the same day, preventing the state from demolishing structures and forcibly transferring the petitioners and their families, pending any other decision. This interim order remains in effect and is all that prevents the demolition of homes and other civilian structures.
On September 2, 2013, the High Court of Justice held the first hearing on this petition. At the close of the hearing, the Justices suggested that the parties enter a mediation process in order to reach a mutually agreeable settlement. On October 27, the court named a mediator and allocated a period of 4 months for the mediation process along with the possibility of an extension. The initial four month period will expire at the end of February 2014.
An Appeal based on International Law and Human Rights
Israel claims that following the 2006 Lebanon War, its security needs increased and that troops now require additional ongoing training and more firing zones are needed, including Firing Zone 918 in the Masafer Yatta area.
However, this Israeli military requirement has no direct relation with the occupation because it refers to general army trainings; as such and according to international law, it is not a ‘military necessity. This means that the planned Israeli measures of eviction and demolition of eight villages within Firing Zone 918 would be unlawful; They are not permitted under the Hague Regulations and would constitute grave breaches of the IV Geneva Convention as according to international law, ‘military general training’ cannot for any reason be considered as a military need.
Moreover if a firing zone for general military trainings is established under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), in no case could expropriations and movement restrictions be justified in the twelve villages located within Firing Zone 918. According to Article 46 of the Hague Regulation, private property must be respected and cannot be confiscated, which includes the destruction of private property for establishment of a firing zone. Under these circumstances, Israel’s planned destruction of the villages with the purpose of using Firing Zone 918 would constitute a clear violation of the Article. 53 of the IV Geneva Convention and would amount to a grave breach according to Article 147. Finally, in the matter of prohibition of forcible transfer, IHL does not differentiate between permanent and non-permanent residents as the Israeli legislation does. Forcibly displacing any of the inhabitants or any community of the twelve villages (either for general military training or for their purported lack of building permits) is a violation of Article 49 of the IV Geneva Convention and constitutes another grave breach to Article 147. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), since 1967 Israel has designated about 18% of the West Bank as a closed military zone for the purposes of military training (not including the closed military areas around Israeli settlements, all the lands located between the Separation Wall and the Green Line), rendering the areas effectively off limits for Palestinians. (Association for Civil Rights in Israel, ACRI)