000 - Masafer Yatta
In the desert
Somebody knows it.
Jorge Luis Borges, Haiku 8
An interstice is a space between two things. It can also can be a part of a same thing to which it belongs and at the same time is a stranger. This is the story of Masafer Yatta, a space inside another space, a world that is strange to everyone. There is a story, one with numbers: this place during the Ottoman era was supposed to pay taxes for the land and for the animals, and each time that the collector appeared everyone disappeared, having the collector to write in his report “sifr, sifr, sifr”. Sifr, zero: null, emptiness, nothingness. From the sifr to the Masafer didn’t take long, almost as little as from the distance of this place to the city of Yatta. Here, like with the zero, there is nothing, only emptiness. At the same time, the whole can be contained. Here, in the whole, life is simple; it’s the life of people that live very close to the ground, so close that many of them sleep in its womb, in caves that they, their grandparents, and their great grandparents carved into the stone. So simple that everyone is doing the same thing for survival, raising goats and sheep and practicing a shy and scarce agriculture. Here, in the nothingness, survives a Palestinian population that is unknown both inside and outside Palestine, in an area with no access to water, electricity nor roads, isolated from the rest of the West Bank by a belt of illegal Israeli settlements, making a living in the place that becomes more and more difficult every day. In the middle, in the Interstice, the people of Masafer Yatta live, love, transform and adapt; keeping a lifestyle that in many cases is not a choice: here, everything is decided by others, strangers.
There is also a new story with numbers. The 000 was transformed into a 918, which is the number assignated by the Israeli army to this area: the Firing Zone 918. For that, they have declared the expulsion of its communities as soon as possible, and the request is still pending: here, everything is decided by others, strangers. Some say that the days of this lifestyle are counted. Others say that everything will remain as it is. Here, when the dawn breaks, somebody says nothing.
Masafer Yatta (Firing Zone 918)
In October and November 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 – long before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Their expulsion orders noted that 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 in 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 200 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 200 involved in the petition. 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 smaller area south of the city of Yatta. The villagers rejected the offer. Early in 2005, the process ended with no tangible results. Since that time, Israel has filed 27 requests to the Court to defer the date for submitting its position. For years the villagers’ petition has remained open and the interim injunction in effect.
During those years, the villagers continued to live in their expanding communities and 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 UK 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,” meaning 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 (and 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 organization Breaking the Silence 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 the State’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 to 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 the State 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 was reviewing its position and would present its full response in a supplementary statement within 90 days, i.e., by the end of June 2013. 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 Government has not yet agreed to the mediation process. The villagers’ agreed to the proposed mediation immediately. The State announced its agreement on 21 October 2013.
On 1 February 2016 the mediation process between the Israeli authorities and the communities ended unsuccessfully, and the parties informed the court of this outcome. Immediately thereafter, Civil Administration representatives went to Palestinian communities in Firing Zone 918 to photograph structures in preparation for their demolition. The following morning, Civil Administration personnel and soldiers arrived at the Palestinian communities of Khirbet Jenbah and Khirbet al-Halawah, which are in the area designated Firing Zone 918. They demolished fifteen residential structures that were home to 60 people, including 32 minors. Later that morning they went to Khirbet al-Halawah, where they demolished seven residential structures that were home to 50 people, including 32 minors. The Civil Administration and military also confiscated three solar panels in Khirbet Jenbah and two solar panels in Khirbet al-Halawah, all of which were donated to the communities by a humanitarian aid organization. Demolitions were halted at midday after Israel’s High Court of Justice – following an urgent petition filed by the Society of St. Yves – issued an interim injunction against the demolition of some of the structures pending a hearing on the matter.
Photos of the project “Interstice” about life in Masafer Yatta, Palestine.
Photos by Eduardo Soteras (eduardosoteras.com)
“Firing Zone 918” is the latest in a series of virtual field visits produced by the organisation Al-Haq. Designed to bring the place to people who are unable to visit the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), the virtual field visits use maps to illustrate the obstacles and human rights abuses faced by Palestinians on a daily basis.
“Firing Zone 918” in the Southern Hebron hills covers an area of 30,000 dunams and is home to about 1,300 residents who live in 12 villages. Most of the residents live in caves or shacks and make their living from agriculture and herding sheep. Since 1999, the villages have lived under threat of demolition, dispossession and eviction because the IDF has declared their land a firing zone. The IDF is no longer training in Firing Zone 918, but after two mediation attempts that continued for several years, the military and the residents have not reached an agreement.
Cave Dwellers in the 918 Firing Zone
The village of Jinba is home to a group of Palestinian farmers. It’s also part of the Israeli military’s “918 Firing Zone,” where the army carries out military training in the Occupied West Bank. Residents were already forced to leave their homes once, but returned on a reprieve. Now their village is again threatened with demolition.
Report: Marijke Peters, Deutsche Welle
An anthropological report from 2013 on the lifestyle of the residents of communities that reside in the area 918 Firing Zone, by social anthropologist Shuli Hartman (English version).
An article published in the Israeli newspaper Musaf Haaretz, on how the Israeli state will use any bureaucratic trick to keep the Bedouin shepherds and Palestinians from their homes. By Chaim Levinson and photographer Eduardo Soteras Jalil. Published on 27th of September 2013
A Locked Garden is a detailed, extensive reports on closed areas in the West Bank. The report was written by Kerem Navot.
The State of Israel makes sweeping use of closure orders in the West Bank for varied purposes, foremost among them the closure of areas for the declared purpose of military training. This study reveals that the ongoing closure of the overwhelming majority of training areas in the West Bank is not intended to serve “military need,” since in 80% of the area no actual military training is held. The size of these areas, their dispersal, the correlation between them and additional statutory elements that limit the possible Palestinian use of them, such as settlement jurisdictional areas and declared nature reserves, and the fact the Civil Administration continues mapping “state lands” in considerable portions of them and does nothing to evict settlers who enter these areas illegally (even when the lands in question are privately owned by Palestinians) lead to the conclusion that the ongoing closure of these areas is a key layer in the lands regime orchestrated by the State of Israel in the West Bank. It appears that the main goal of this regime is to drastically reduce the Palestinian population’s ability to use the land and to transfer as much of it as possible to Israeli settlers.
An article by Peter Lagerquist exploring the issues of time, culture, representation and memory in the Palestinian communities of South Hebron. Published in Jerusalem Quarterly, 46.