RAMALLAH: Officials from the Israeli armed forces have been making plans to forcibly move about 1,000 Palestinians from villages in Masafer Yatta, near southern Hebron in the southern West Bank, without the Israeli government’s knowledge, according to Israeli sources.
The army’s Central District Command began preparations in November to displace the residents so that the military can conduct regular training exercises in the area, the sources said.
The plan was said to have been presented to the government for the first time only last week, after the new administration took over, and the displacement of residents is due to take place this year. The sources said decision was communicated by officials from the Israeli Civil Administration, which oversees civilian affairs in the Occupied Territories, to the Palestinian Authority during a meeting last week in the West Bank.
The forced displacement of civilians from, or within, the Palestinian Territories is prohibited under international humanitarian law.
Representatives of the Palestinian Authority have told people in Masafer Yatta that the Civil Administration officials informed them of plans to displace residents from 12 villages, an increase over the eight that were included in the most recent, failed, petition on the issue submitted by the residents to the Supreme Court. Officials from the Israeli armed forces propose that the residents of the villages be moved to two new sites in the region and can choose the location of one of them.
Israeli security and political sources reportedly have expressed concern about the behavior of military officials in the case, warning that it is a “warning signal” about future plans affecting Palestinians and the ability of the army to stand up to politicians, the far right and the settlers who “pressure senior officers and expect them to make decisions that are consistent with their ideas according to political and non-professional considerations.”
Nidal Younis, head of the Masafer Yatta Villages Council, told Arab News that attacks on Palestinians by the Israeli army, police and settlers have increased dramatically since a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court in May to displace eight communities, restrict the movement of residents of other villages, prevent non-residents from entering certain villages, and confiscate agricultural machinery and vehicles. Meanwhile settlers have attacked residents of Masafer Yatta, their livestock pastures, and prevented them from plowing their land and cultivating crops used to feed their livestock.
“The goal of escalating attacks against us is to make our lives difficult and impossible, and thus push us and force us to leave our villages and leave our land for them to control,” said Younis.
The villages in Masafer Yatta occupy an area of about 13.5 square miles and include five schools and five medical centers. About 1,150 Palestinians from 215 households live there, including 569 children.
The residents depend on humanitarian aid due to the restrictive and discriminatory planning regime they face. Israeli authorities have issued demolition or “stop work” orders against most of the homes, animal shelters, and community infrastructure in the villages on the grounds that they were constructed without the required building permits, which are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain. This has impeded the development of adequate housing, infrastructure and livelihoods.
In addition to the threat of their homes being demolished, the communities also face violence from settlers at a nearby outpost who have blocked roads in the area, attacked farmers, and set haystacks and grazing areas on fire. This has undermined the physical security of villagers, negatively affected their mental and psycho-social health, lowered their standard of living, and increased their dependence on humanitarian aid.
The rearing of livestock provides the community’s primary source of income but access to grazing land has been reduced by military and settlement activity.
Younis Arar, head of the International Relations Unit at the Settlement and Wall Resistance Commission, told Arab News that there is growing concern for the remaining villagers given that Israeli authorities removed eight of the 12 communities from the villages of Masafer Yatta following the Supreme Court decision last year — and especially since the new far-right Israeli government came to power in late December.
Arar said there has been an increase in demolitions of buildings and the destruction of land in Masafer Yatta carried out by Israeli authorities in the past two weeks, and that Palestinians are planning protests in an attempt to resist the forced displacement of residents.
Palestinian officials have expressed disappointment in the efforts of the international community to prevent Israeli authorities from implementing their forced resettlement plans, in particular the weakness of statements issued by the EU and the UN, which did not go beyond expressing concern and did not include any steps to attempt to force Israeli authorities to back down.
Humanitarian organizations and donors have been providing assistance to help meet the needs of the remaining communities in Masafer Yatta, including water and electricity, and prevent forced displacement. However, Israeli authorities are reportedly impeding such efforts by issuing demolition or “stop work” orders, confiscating vehicles and equipment, restricting access to land, and preventing humanitarian workers from entering the area.
The schools in the area, built with support from international donors, face pending demolition orders, as do the medical centers. Activists warn that forced evictions create many humanitarian needs that must be addressed to ensure people are protected and have access to essential services.