Outside the city of Hebron, already an example of encroaching Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, sits what appears to be an unassuming grouping of Palestinian Bedouin homes.
But here, in Masafer Yatta, local families are battling to stop what would be one of the largest single displacements of Palestinians in decades, as Israeli forces attempt to forcibly expel them.
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Muhammed Musa Shahada and his family are among the dozens threatened with expulsion.
“I was born here in the village of Al-Majaz, why should I leave my land against my will? Why should I have to live through another Nakba?” the 61-year-old Shahada told Al Jazeera, referring to the forced displacement and death of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that came as a result of the creation of Israel in 1948.
Al-Majaz, where 350 people live, including 50 children, is only accessible via a dirt road and has no connection to power or water lines because Israeli authorities consider the settlement to be an “illegal” presence.
On May 4, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition from the families of Masafer Yatta to prevent the expulsion of 1,300 Palestinians living in 12 communities in the area, including Al-Majaz.
That decision was criticised by lawyers and legal experts, who said the court’s ruling went against international law that prevents the expulsion of civilians from occupied territory.
The Israeli High Court argued that expulsion can be necessary, and legal, for security reasons.
Along with 60 percent of the occupied West Bank’s territory, Masafer Yatta is part of what is called “Area C”, which is under the total control of the Israeli occupation and is largely reserved for Jewish settlers.
Masafer Yatta is also part of the approximately 18 percent of the occupied West Bank that has been declared a “firing zone” by the Israeli military, to be used as a closed zone for military training.
Despite the presence of Palestinian villages, Masafer Yatta is specifically part of land designated “Firing Zone 918” since the 1980s.
Details from a 1981 Israeli ministerial meeting revealed that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was then agriculture minister, proposed that Firing Zone 918 be created to force out local Palestinians.
Israel says that the Palestinian communities living in Masafer Yatta are unable to prove that they have been permanently resident, despite evidence such as the 1981 meeting’s plan to force them from their land.
Faced with an expulsion order in 1999, local Palestinians were still able to stay in their homes as a result of a High Court interim injunction that allowed them to continue living there until a final decision was made by the court.
For 20 years families in Masafer Yatta, such as the Shahadas, have been battling in Israeli courts to stay on the land, and disprove the suggestion that they have not been permanently resident.
Expulsion and return
“In 1999, the army arrived with trucks to Masafer Yatta,” Shahada said. “They forced us to get in the trucks and to leave our houses and land – but we returned at night, walking and riding on donkeys until we reached our tents and houses.”
Shahada’s testimony was backed up by others in Masafer Yatta.
“At the end of 1999, the residents here had faced abuse from the army, who destroyed the homes and even caves that people lived in, and confiscated goats, and closed the roads between the villages in the area,” said Nidal Yunis, the president of the village council of Masafer Yatta.
“The policy has been to terrorise us on a daily basis, with the aid of [Jewish] settlers.”
Yunis explains that the decision by the High Court to implement the 1999 order will mean the abandonment of all their villages.
This will lead to the expulsion of the local Palestinian Bedouin community, amounting to what Yunis labels “ethnic cleansing” and a destruction of Bedouin society.
“Despite the oppression we have faced, and despite holding papers that prove our ownership of the land, the Israeli court ruled against us, and in favour of the Israeli military,” Yunis said.
The court also ruled that each petitioner family would have to pay 20,000 shekels ($5,900) in court fees.
Attacks on locals
The Israeli military now carries out military exercises, home demolitions, and home seizures on an almost daily basis, forcing many families in Masafer Yatta back to the caves they once lived in decades ago.
It is the use of these caves by past generations of Palestinian Bedouins in the area that led to the Israeli High Court’s rejection of the communities’ permanent residence in the area, despite evidence to the contrary.
“We constantly face Israeli attacks, even when we are shepherding our goats in the hills we are harassed by the army,” Shahada said.
“But despite all the suffering, living on this land is the same as living in Paris to me,” he said.
Israeli settlers attack Masafer Yatta at night and set fire to houses and tents, according to the local Palestinians.
A protest by locals and foreign activists was also attacked by settlers and the Israeli military on Friday, and was witnessed by Al Jazeera.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Israeli authorities have demolished or confiscated 217 structures belonging to Palestinians in Masafer Yatta since 2011, displacing 608 Palestinians.
“Is there a law that allows the army to train in areas where people live? I don’t think so,” Shahada said.
“After the latest court decision to expel us, I am worried every minute that the army will come and kick me out. It’s a hardship that I can’t bear,” he said.
Israel considers all permanent structures built without Israeli permits illegal – and those permits are notoriously hard for Palestinians to obtain.
More home demolitions and seizures are now expected in the coming days, following the court’s ruling.
Shahada’s wife, Aisha Abu Aram, spends her days tending to the family’s goats and chickens, and does not want to imagine the day that she has to leave Masafer Yatta.
“Last year my husband made us two graves, side by side, near our home – we will not leave our land even after we die,” she said.
“I lived for years in the caves here, and when I die I want to return to the land once again.”