Ramallah, occupied Palestinian territories - In July 2012, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the expulsion and demolition of eight villages in the South Hebron Hills, claiming the zone to be vital for Israeli army training exercises.
The 3,000-hectare area of Masafar Yatta, in the arid hills of the southern occupied West Bank, is home to about 2,000 people living in traditional Palestinian herding communities.
This 12-community area, however, is also known by another name and dedicated to an entirely different purpose. "Firing Zone 918" - as Israeli authorities call Masafar Yatta - doubles as a live-fire training zone for the Israeli military.
Officially declared a "closed military area" in the mid-1970s, residents of Masafar Yatta say the Israeli army has been active there since the mid-1980s. Things were relatively calm until the autumn of 1999, when Israeli military forces, accompanied by Civil Administration employees, entered and confiscated the property of 700 residents, destroying their shelters and water cisterns, scattering their flocks, and expelling them from the area.
Several months later, two Masafar Yatta families successfully petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice to allow them and 200 others to return to their homes. Immediately following the court's ruling, most of the expelled residents returned to their villages without the required legal permission. The court forbade their expulsion pending a final ruling as to whether inhabitants of Masafar Yatta are "permanent residents".
Things came to a head on July 19 when Defense Minister Barak unilaterally informed the court that "permanent residency will not be allowed", ordering the demolition of eight of the 12 Masafar Yatta communities. Barak said the area is needed in order to "maintain the necessary fitness of the IDF".
The villages slated for evacuation, Majaz, Tabban, Sfai, Fakheit, Jinba, Kharuba, Mirkez and Halaweh are home to 148 families, or about 1,500 individuals. The four remaining villages of Mufaqara, Sarura, Tuba, and Megheir al-Abeid and their 300 residents are to be spared eviction - for the moment.
Residents in the area allege they have received verbal eviction orders from Israeli troops since May 2012. Willow Heske, media coordinator for Oxfam in the occupied Palestinian territories, says restrictions on freedom of movement and the basic rights of local inhabitants within the zone have dramatically increased since the beginning of the summer.
"There are 148 families in the area that we can no longer reach," says Heske, "The Israeli military has given Oxfam explicit verbal orders not to re-enter the firing zone."
Permanent residents: To be or not to be
Under Israeli military law, non-residents must be evicted from closed military areas such as Firing Zone 918. Herein lies the basis of the Israeli Civil Administration's case. As part of the five-year arbitration process in the early 2000s, the Civil Administration carried out a survey of the area.
However, it was carried out by Civil Administration employees, not third-party experts as recommended by the High Court of Justice. The survey concluded that residents of Masafar Yatta "are not permanent residents of the area".
The communities and NGO workers familiar with its history argue otherwise, asserting Palestinian herders have lived in Masafar Yatta's caves since at least the 1830s.
"How can they return to where they were originally displaced from? Besides a lucky few, the majority no longer have homes in Yatta."
- Willow Heske, Oxfam media coordinator
"Families in this area have owned the land for centuries," says 40-year-old Salman, a father of nine who was born in Masafar Yatta.
But for many Masafar Yatta residents, up until 30 or 40 years ago, their primary homes were in the larger neighbouring village of Yatta, located about 12km away and outside Firing Zone 918.
The herder communities used Masafar Yatta as a grazing area to feed and exercise sheep and goats. However, things changed in the early 1980s with the construction of three Israeli settlements, Carmel (1980), Ma'on (1981) and Susya (1983), all of which were built on land belonging to Yatta. Without any other place to go, families whose homes were annexed and demolished for settlement construction were subsequently forced to move to their grazing lands in Masafar Yatta, where they have been living permanently ever since.
Interestingly, the Civil Administration is now telling the residents of Masafar Yatta that they must return to their original homes in Yatta.
"How can they return to where they were originally displaced from?" asks Heske. "Besides a lucky few, the majority no longer have homes in Yatta. Their homes were demolished. As traditional herders, they don't have skills transferable to modern cities. They literally have no where else to go."
For the last three years, Israeli authorities have put into practice numerous policies clearly designed to make life in Firing Zone 918 unbearable for its residents. Grazing zones change on a daily basis and herders are often prevented from grazing their animals at all. As a result, Masafar Yatta's herders must buy massive amounts of fodder in substitution for the lost access to grazing lands. While grass grows naturally, purchasing fodder for a large herd of animals can be an extreme financial burden.
Water is yet another burden. Many of the once relied upon water wells and cisterns have been completely destroyed by the Israeli army. The few that are left only produce enough water for about two months out of the year, forcing residents to import the majority of their annual water requirements.
Water prices have tripled in the last five years as a result of the global rise in fuel prices, increasing from $50 per 10 cubic meters in 2007 to $150 in 2012.
Oxfam has calculated that an average herder, with about 200 animals, can earn up to $35,000 per year. However, the lack of access to grazing areas and natural water resources require him to spend about $26,000, about 75 per cent of his annual income, on fodder and water alone.
Connections across the Green Line
The number of Israeli firing zones in the West Bank, and the frequency with which they are used, have steadily risen over the last decade. Shooting ranges constitute about 18 per cent of the West Bank - an area equal to the amount land the Palestinian Authority fully controls.
Legal experts debate the necessity and legality of military training zones within an area under occupation, arguing general military preparedness of a state must be distinguished from the necessities of its occupation.
"The requisition of territory in an area under occupation must be essential to the specific needs of the occupation," argues international law expert Michael Bluthe. "However, the stated purpose of Firing Zone 918 is for the general training of the Israeli army. Their confiscation of the territory has nothing to do with the occupation."
"It was war,there were thousands of soldiers crawling through the hills, tanks, planes flying over head dropping paratroops out of the sky. I don't know what they are preparing before but it looked like war."
- Annonymous witness
In July 2012, the Israeli army carried out two large-scale exercises in the West Bank: one in the Jordan Valley and one in the South Hebron Hills.
"There were thousands of soldiers crawling through the hills, tanks, planes flying over head dropping paratroops out of the sky. I don't know what they are preparing before, but it looked like war," says a witness who asked not to be named.
Many believe the impending evacuation of the Masafar Yatta villages, and the subsequent creation of a sizeable civilian-free military training area comes in conjunction with another large-scale Israeli military move taking place just across the Green Line in the Naqab (Negev) Desert.
Israel's planned 5,000 dunum "Intelligence City" in the Naqab is to be comprised of several military bases from central Israel that will be disassembled, moved to south, and built on top of several unrecognised Bedouin villages, currently home to about 2,000 Palestinian citizens.
On a map, Israel's proposed "City" lays directly along side Firing Zone 918. The two are separated by the Green Line, the former in Israeli territory and the latter technically within the West Bank. However, Suhad Bishara, Director of Land and Planning Units for Adalah, argues that nominal border means little in regards to the Israeli authorities' plans.
"It's apparent from Israel's policies that the Green Line doesn't really exist for them," says Bishara. "It's a very small geographical area and Israel wants all of it. They want to wipe out any and all Bedouin villages in the area.
"There is plenty of other land in the Naqab, void of inhabitants, which they could use for military purposes. The clearing of the area for the ‘Intelligence City' in the Naqab and the similar clearing of Firing Zone 918 in the South Hebron Hills are not unrelated. This is not a coincidence," says Bishara.
Israeli authorities contacted declined to comment.