‘Every day is worse than the one before’: a Palestinian community fights for survival

One of the biggest expulsion decisions since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories began in 1967 has left an entire community at risk

The new school year has started and harvest season is just around the corner, but some of the men and boys of Masafer Yatta are busy working on a different project – moving into a cave.

In Khribet al-Fakhiet, a remote village deep in the occupied West Bank, residents were using an improvised winch mounted on a pickup truck to help clear out a cavern housing sheep and goats. Buckets lowered through the entrance and a hole in the ceiling came back out filled with straw and dung; the dusty, hot interior was lit by lamps powered by a generator. Faced with the demolition of their home, livestock pens and other structures, one family is preparing to relocate into the cave before winter comes.

“We have no choice,” said Mohammed Ayoub, the head of an extended family of 17. “We have been sleeping in the village clinic since our home was destroyed, but we have to find an alternative.”

The Guardian met the family in May, just after the Israeli supreme court decision that has turned life upside down for the 1,000 or so Palestinians living in Masafer Yatta’s collection of hamlets. The Ayoub house was demolished by bulldozers in an operation supervised by the Israel Defence Forces a few weeks after the ruling, leaving them living in a tent all summer.

Israel designated this 3,000ha (7,410 acre) area of the barren south Hebron hills as a military training zone – Firing Zone 918 – in the 1980s. After decades of legal battles, however, four months ago the supreme court finally agreed with the IDF’s argument that the people living in Masafer Yatta could not prove they were residents before the firing zone was established.

The ruling, which contravenes international law, was one of the single biggest expulsion decisions since the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories began in 1967. Now, the homes and livelihoods of the entire community are at risk, and the army, together with illegal Israeli settlers, is increasing the pressure to try to get the Palestinians to leave.

Life in Masafer Yatta was already difficult: the region is located in Area C, the sparsely populated 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control and under threat of annexation. Palestinian water cisterns, solar panels, roads and buildings here are frequently demolished on the grounds that they do not have building permits, which are nearly impossible to obtain, while surrounding illegal Israeli settlements flourish. The community are mostly herders, raising goats and sheep throughout scorching summers and freezing winters.

Since the legal limbo ended in May, the situation has changed quickly for the worse. Demolitions have accelerated, with all 80 people living in Khallet Athaba’ expected to lose their homes when bulldozers arrive on Thursday. The army is also carrying out more live fire training, sometimes damaging Palestinian buildings or leaving behind casings and debris residents fear could be unexploded ordnance.

Shepherds say they are regularly told to leave grazing land, which is then taken over by settlers. Water and animal feed deliveries, as well as visitors from charities and activists who used to help deter settler violence, have been stopped at the firing zone’s perimeter and turned around for lack of travel permits.

New checkpoints have completely isolated villages such as Jimba, making it difficult for residents to leave: the Palestinians are held up and questioned by soldiers sometimes for hours at a time, and around 60 unlicensed cars have been confiscated.

To avoid the IDF, residents now call ahead to other villages to try to figure out the movement of the armoured personnel carriers, before travelling on circuitous unpaved roads.

Many families have gone back to using donkeys, rather than cars, to get around. The Guardian travelled in one of the few Palestinian-owned vehicles now allowed to traverse the area – and even then, no one dared to use roads with army checkpoints.

The IDF said in response to a request for comment: “Firing Zone 918 is a closed military area. Every entrance to the area without permission from the IDF is a criminal offence and endangers human lives. Accordingly, IDF soldiers are stationed at the entrances to the firing zone in order to prevent unapproved entry to the area. In addition, the IDF operates in order to allow for routine daily life to all civilians of the area.”

The feeling, as the Abu Aram family put it, is a sense of being pursued at all times. Outside their home in Mirkez, a hamlet on a windy plateau, Mina and Mohammed Abu Aram described the last time they tried to take their three-year-old son, Ammar, for a hospital appointment in the city of Hebron.

“Ammar was born with a heart condition. He needs medicine every day, and has to go to the hospital a lot. Last week we were stopped by soldiers, and they took the car, and took [Mohammed] to the base, and left me and Ammar on the side of the road,” Mina said.

“We told them Ammar had a medical appointment, but they did not care. It took two hours for my husband to walk back to us.”

The Masafer Yatta community is not just dealing with the army, but with an increase in the number of Israeli settlers around them – some of whom are notoriously violent.

“The soldiers push from the west, and the settlers from the east, squeezing us in all directions,” said Nidal Younes, the head of the Masafer Yatta village council.

Under this campaign of attrition, some people have been forced to leave for nearby Yatta town. The effect is perhaps most noticeable at the area’s only secondary school: students are now on average an hour late every morning after navigating the new checkpoints, the headteacher said, and staff coming from Yatta town have been turned back, detained or had cars confiscated.

The IDF said that during a “singular, specific instance in which students were delayed, the guidelines were clarified on the issue in order to prevent any future delays to students”, but residents say it happens almost every day. The parents of around 20 children have already decided to move them to a school in Yatta, where they stay with relatives during the week.

“Every day is worse than the one before,” said Bisan, a 17-year-old student. “It is a dangerous situation and I have thought about leaving school, but I won’t. That is what they want.”

While human rights lawyers are filing interim injunctions to try to stop the live fire exercises and halt evacuation orders, legal avenues in Israel for saving Masafer Yatta appear to be all but exhausted.

The EU has taken a strong stance against the supreme court decision: the bloc’s envoy to the Palestinians, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, accused the judges of disregarding international law and making a “political decision, not a legal one at all”. He has also called on the international community to pressure Israel into upholding its responsibilities towards the Palestinian people as an occupying power.

“Things were bad before the court ruling,” said Mohammed Ayoub, the displaced farmer. “I have been a shepherd all my life. I have never been to Israel, but maybe I will have to sell my goats and apply for a work permit there.”

On the site where the Ayoubs’ garden used to be, an old oil drum protects an olive tree sapling from the threat of bulldozers.

“This is our land, this is my home. Whatever happens, we will not leave,” he said.