Bn the bottom of the dusty plateau, home to the village of Khribet al-Fakhiet on the southern edge of the occupied West Bank, sheep, goats and camels belonging to Palestinian Bedouins roam the hills. The Israeli city of Arad glistens in the distance, and across the valley to the east the mountains of neighboring Jordan rise to meet the sky. Much closer to home, the illegal Israeli settlement of Mitzpe Yair stands on the next ridge.
Bone-breaking unpaved roads crisscross this hilly, impoverished semi-desert, part of the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control. The Palestinians call it Masafer Yatta, a collection of villages with around 1,000 inhabitants. For the Israeli state, however, it is Firing Zone 918, a military training area in which civilians are prohibited. The struggle for control of these 3,000 hectares (7,410 acres) is one of the fiercest battles of the Israeli occupation.
Earlier this month, Israel’s Supreme Court finally ruled in a two-decade-old court case over the region’s fate: land can be repurposed for military use, upholding the Israel Defense Forces’ argument (IDF) that Palestinians living here could not prove they were residing before the firing zone was established in 1981. The decision – one of the most significant on evictions since the occupation began in 1967 – paved the way for the eviction of all the inhabitants.
The dreaded demolitions, which UN experts say could constitute war crimes, have already begun. Last week, 11 houses and workshops in Fakhiet were demolished. Nine other structures in the nearby town of al-Majaz were demolished with bulldozers by an Israeli company, which the state contracts out for demolition work. IDF soldiers and police, tasked with securing the perimeter, watched.
Mohammed Ayoub, a farmer, and 17 members of his extended family in Fakhiet were left homeless within 30 minutes, and all are now living in a single tent.
“It’s too hot for young children and too crowded for so many people,” he said. “We will rebuild because this is our home. They can come back and destroy it again… The house is supposed to be a safe place.
The IDF did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the demolitions.
About 18 percent of Area C, the West Bank under full Israeli control, has since the 1970s been converted into “firing zones” for IDF use. According to the minutes of a 1981 ministerial meeting, then Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, who later became Prime Minister, proposed to create the 918 Firing Zone with the explicit intention of forcing local Palestinians to leave their homes.
In 1999, 700 residents of Masafer Yatta were evicted, forcibly pushed into trucks by soldiers, but after a legal appeal the community was allowed to return until a final decision was made.
Since then, Palestinians living within the parameters of Area 918 have been repeatedly threatened with the demolition of their homes and the confiscation of agricultural land because they lack building permits, which are issued by Israeli authorities. . According to the Israeli Civil Administration, only 75 building permits have been granted to Palestinians living in Area C since 2006, while 20,500 have been approved for illegal Israeli settlements, considered by the international community to be a major obstacle to a lasting peace.
During Donald Trump’s pro-Israel US administration, there was a 150% growth in settlement construction. And despite the fact that the new Israeli government is a diverse coalition of left and right parties, it seems likely that it will continue to endorse planning demands in the West Bank.
“It’s not really about destroying houses,” said Hamdan Mohammed al-Huraini, a local activist. “It’s about destroying life.”
Nadav Weiman, deputy director of Breaking the Silence, an NGO that collects testimonies from former Israeli soldiers about what they witnessed during the occupation, said: “When I was doing my military service, I was training here. We were told we were looking for smugglers. We were supposed to make people’s lives miserable. That was the point.
In Jinba, a community that has lived in the cool hillside caves since the days of the Ottoman Empire, the Bakar family is regularly harassed by Israeli settlers and the military. Zakaria, 18, was attacked by settlers a few weeks ago, leaving him with burns to his face and arm, and last weekend another family member was detained on the side of the road overnight after his car broke down near an IDF base.
When there is military activity in the area, artillery fire in the middle of the night frightens children, said Zakaria’s mother, Nadja Mohammed Bakar, 52.
“One of the excuses the Israelis use is that they are worried about us and our way of life, which is why they want to deport us and move us to the city,” she said. “First of all, the way I live my life is none of their business. Second, if they’re so worried, why don’t they let us build?
At a school in Fakhiet on Wednesday, 15 people, including teenage girls and elderly men, were familiarizing themselves with new cameras during a workshop organized by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights NGO. The group would learn the principles of evidence collection, filming techniques and how to protect themselves, making sure to stay clear of soldiers and bulldozers when recording.
“I’m afraid of losing my house,” said Bira Mohammed Mazra, 21, from a nearby village. “It’s a way for me to help. We’re under attack and we have to show the world…I’m not afraid to do that.