The Israeli military wants the homes of Masafer Yatta for target practice. And the country’s Supreme Court says that’s totally kosher.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a collaboration between The Nation, +972 Magazine, and Local Call.
So’ed Od, a 13-year-old girl, is one of around 1,000 Palestinian residents of the eight villages in Masafer Yatta—a small region of rugged hills at the southern edge of the occupied West Bank. So’ed now spends her days helping her mother look after their flock of sheep and make cheese in the small village of Sfay, whose name comes from the Arabic word for “pure.”
So’ed stopped attending class after Israeli bulldozers crushed the village school. That day, So’ed told us, she helped young children, the students of lower grades, to escape through the windows. “We were in English class,” she said. “I saw a Jeep approaching through the window. The teacher stopped the class. Soldiers arrived with two bulldozers. They closed the doors on us. We were stuck in the classrooms. Then we escaped through the windows. And they destroyed the school.”
The destruction of the elementary school took place in November 2022 and was documented on video. Children in the first, second, and third grades can be seen in one of the classrooms, screaming and sobbing. Israeli soldiers surrounded the school, where 23 students were enrolled, and threw stun grenades at villagers who were attempting to block the path of the bulldozers. The sound of the explosions terrified the trapped students even more. In the videos, mothers can be seen pulling children out through the classroom windows. Representatives from the Israeli Civil Administration, the arm of the military that governs the occupied territories, entered the emptied school, removed the tables, chairs, and boards from the classrooms, and loaded them onto a truck, confiscating the items. The Civil Administration did not respond to our request for comment.
In 1980, the army had declared 30,000 dunams (nearly 7,500 acres) of the residents’ land to be a “firing zone”; the stated purpose was to remove Palestinians from the area, which Israel designated for Jewish settlement because of its strategic proximity to the Green Line marking the border. In May of last year, a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court rejected the residents’ appeal against the firing zone, effectively giving the army permission to continue to displace the Palestinians from their land. The judge who wrote the controversial ruling, David Mintz, lives in a West Bank settlement called Dolev, about a 20-minute drive from Ramallah.
The mass expulsion of Masafer Yatta’s residents has not yet been carried out, but the lives of all the people of these villages have changed beyond recognition in the months since the ruling. Soldiers have begun detaining children at impromptu checkpoints they’ve erected in the middle of the desert under the cover of night; families watch as bulldozers raze their homes with increasing frequency; and, right next to the villages designated for expulsion and demolition, soldiers are already training with live fire, racing tanks, and detonating mines.
Army officials have stated that plans to carry out the expulsion order have already been presented to politicians. This year, with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history in power––and with its ministers openly calling for mass population transfers and the erasure of Palestinian villages––it’s very likely that the mass expulsion will actually take place. If it does, it will be the largest single act of population transfer carried out in the West Bank since Israel expelled thousands of Palestinians in 1967, in the early days of the occupation.
Both of us have witnessed the struggle in Masafer Yatta from up close. Basel, a journalist and activist, was born in one of the villages there. His mother started taking him to demonstrations against the expulsion when he was 5. He grew up without electricity in his home because the military ordered a blanket ban on construction and access to infrastructure for Palestinians in the area. Over the past decade, he has been documenting the erasure of his community on video, and his posts have reached millions of people around the world.
Yuval was born in the city of Be’er Sheva, a 30-minute drive from Basel’s house, on the Israeli side of the Green Line. For the past five years, he has been reporting on the expulsion and apartheid in both Hebrew and English. The two of us work as a team, mostly for +972 Magazine and the news site Local Call, and this article is a product of our collaboration.
Since the court’s ruling last May, Israel has made the lives of the families in Masafer Yatta even more unbearable, to the point that it’s unclear whether they will be able to survive there. This process, however, has been going on for more than four decades—in what can best be described as a slow-moving expulsion. The primary tool Israel uses is the systematic denial of building permits. Because Palestinian residents cannot possibly live in a village without houses and other basic infrastructure—and because anything they build is deemed “illegal” and summarily demolished—over time this policy has forced the residents to leave their land.
Seven days after the ruling, the military razed the homes of nine families in Masafer Yatta; 45 people were left homeless. “It was one of the worst acts of destruction I have ever seen,” said Eid Hadlin, a local activist who lives in a house that has no running water or electricity and is facing a demolition order.
The bulldozers arrived at Al-Merkaz, one of the villages designated for expulsion. The soldiers let the residents clear out their homes. The women carried their personal belongings outside and gathered them into a pile: mattresses, backpacks, underwear and shirts, shampoo bottles. An inspector in the Civil Administration looked on until the houses were emptied. Then he gave the go-ahead, and the bulldozers wrecked it all.
Najati, a young teenager, sat with his grandmother next to the pile of debris that was once their home. He was furious. “The officer told me, as he was demolishing our house: ‘Why bother building? That’s it, finished—this area is now the army’s for training,’” he said.
One morning, the residents of his village discovered that soldiers had posted warning signs on their houses overnight. “You are in a firing zone,” the signs read, in Arabic that was so riddled with errors that they seemed to have been written with the help of Google Translate. “Entrance is forbidden. Anyone breaking the law can be arrested, fined, lose their vehicle, which will be confiscated, or can face any other punishment deemed fitting.” In the following weeks, soldiers built a checkpoint between the villages and confiscated vehicles that passed through it, under the pretext that driving through a firing zone is prohibited. And so, gradually, most of the residents were deprived of their ability to move freely.
Najati said his family slept outside that night, under the open sky, and the next day they cleared the debris and took out a loan to build another house, in the same spot. “I’ve lived in Masafer Yatta my whole life, herding sheep,” said Safa Al-Najar, Najati’s grandmother, her voice slightly hoarse but her smile that of a young woman. Her home was demolished that same day as well. And so, she said, she’ll sleep in the family’s cave.
“At first, my husband and I lived in this cave,” she said. “This was our bedroom, and living room, and kitchen—everything together. The sheep lived next to us in the second cave. But 20 years ago, when my children were grown, we built a house for them. Everything we built—destroyed.”
According to data from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, since 2016, soldiers have demolished the homes of 121 families in Masafer Yatta and have left around 384 people without shelter, many of them children. And it’s not only houses that are at risk, but all buildings and infrastructure. Pens for the sheep were also destroyed, water pipes cut, trees felled; even the access roads, which connect the villages to one another, were destroyed by a huge bulldozer.
At a time when two separate legal proceedings are being brought against Israel at The Hague—in the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice—Israel seems eager to avoid the harsh international condemnation that would inevitably follow from a brazen population transfer. By expelling the residents of Masafer Yatta house by house, Israel can achieve the same goal at a much smaller cost to its image.
Since the destruction of their school, children in Sfay have been attending class in a crumbling trailer parked on the outskirts of the village. There are holes in the roof through which rainwater leaks, and the bathroom door is a piece of curtain. The army has forbidden any renovation of the trailer—or the building of a new school.
So’ed’s village is fairly typical for Masafer Yatta. Most of its residents are farmers and shepherds who plant wheat, barley, and olive trees, make goat cheese, and wake up early in the morning to bake bread. The area is full of ancient caves, carved out of the soft white rocks in the hilly desert by residents many generations ago. So’ed’s parents lived in the caves, but they eventually built a house for her and her siblings.
Families whose homes are demolished by military bulldozers are forced to live in the caves, which quickly become overcrowded and suffocating. Yet the residents are also forbidden from renovating the caves, some of which are already uninhabitable.
“We want to build regular houses, to live aboveground. Sleeping in a cave is like sleeping in a grave,” said Fares Al-Najar, a resident of Al-Merkaz. Families who don’t have a cave or who refuse to accept such living conditions are forced to either leave their community and lose their land—or build a new house that will inevitably be demolished. “It’s an unending cycle,” Fares said.
Both the scope and the frequency of such demolitions have increased since the Supreme Court’s decision, which made it much easier for Israeli judges to deny the appeals submitted by the families’ lawyers. And while those appeals, too, were often denied in the past, the legal proceedings went on for years, buying the residents time to remain in their villages and organize their community struggle.
Masafer Yatta is part of Area C, a designation under the Oslo Accords, which covers 61 percent of the West Bank and is under full Israeli military and civil control. Out of the hundreds of requests for building permits the army received between 2000 and 2020, it has denied over 99 percent of requests in Area C, according to data provided by the Israeli NGO Bimkom—Planners for Planning Rights.
In the 15 months since the Supreme Court ruling, the army has imposed a curfew on Jinba, the village where Nidal was born. Soldiers built two checkpoints next to the village: At one, there is a black tent; at the other, a tank. Both are used to detain residents, to confiscate their vehicles, and to block visitors from entering the village.
The court’s ruling in May “cut us off from the other villages,” Nidal said. “Every time we want to leave, to visit our family members, to go shopping, the soldiers detain us for at least two hours. That’s the best case-scenario. One time, they held me up for seven hours.”
People are afraid to drive to the villages for fear of losing their vehicles. In recent months, residents testify, soldiers have confiscated the cars of humanitarian workers, schoolteachers, and lawyers providing legal assistance to the residents. This policy also has a chilling effect on journalists, who are less able to come and report on the region. Cutting Masafer Yatta off from other communities is expected to make it easier for the army to carry out the population transfer with as few witnesses as possible.
The day before the start of school last year, soldiers refused to let the teachers of Jinba’s elementary school enter the village to prepare the classrooms. The soldiers at the checkpoint confiscated their car, explaining that they were in a firing zone. These decisions are made arbitrarily: The following day, the soldiers let the teachers through.
Royda Abu Aram, from the village of Al-Halawah, is a student in 12th grade, the year students take the tawjihi exams—the Palestinian equivalent of the SATs. “Yesterday I missed all my classes because there was no way for me to get there without a car or transportation,” she said. “My friend Bisan, who tried to get to school by car, was delayed by the soldiers for an hour and a half, in the sun.”
In a video recording of the checkpoint from August, a soldier, his hand resting on his gun and a large tank behind him, explains to a group of several adults and school-age children, backpacks slung across their shoulders, that “this area is designated as a firing zone, the army closed this area, and we are conducting searches here.”
Every school in Masafer Yatta has received a demolition order. “I really want to work in education. I’m interested in studying at university and becoming a language and English teacher,” Bisan, also a 12th grader, said. “But I’m worried I won’t do well on the tawjihi exam in these circumstances. It’s hard to learn when you know that you may wake up tomorrow and bulldozers will come to demolish your school.”
The Supreme Court ruling also granted permission to the Israeli military to start training with live fire in the area. Tanks have been roaring through the area between the villages while soldiers fire live rounds and detonate explosives; helicopters have been practicing landing and taking off. All these loud noises join the buzzing of the drones that the soldiers, and sometimes the nearby settlers, use to monitor whether residents are building new houses after their homes have been destroyed.
“Our entire village went outside to look at them,” said Jinba resident Issa Younis, after a day of tank training that took place next to the village last June. “The noise of the tanks was deafening. The mine detonations started before sunrise, right by our houses. All the walls shook, like we were in an earthquake.”
During one of these training sessions, in the village of Al-Majaz, soldiers placed targets on the windows of the houses, on a tractor, and on a car. Jabar, a 15-year-old boy, left his house to see what was going on. A sand cloud swirled around him—the result of a tank driving through the desert region. “The soldiers hung targets on the window of our house and on the haystacks,” Jabar said. “They wrote that they would be returning soon to shoot, but I took the targets down.”
The military promised the court that it would take precautionary measures when conducting any exercises with live fire, and that the soldiers would not endanger the lives of the residents. The reality has been different. In July 2022, Leila Dababsa was sitting in her home when she heard an explosion above her. The ceiling began to crumble. “The living room was filled with the sound of gunfire, and my daughter screamed,” she said, pointing to the holes in the tin roof. Most of the houses are built from cheap materials, out of fear that they will be destroyed. Leila and her daughter escaped and hid in a nearby cave.
“A second before they shot our house, I was picking tomatoes in the garden,” said Sa’ud Dababsa, whose house was targeted. “This is the first time that a bullet entered our home, into the living room. Before, we were in danger of being expelled. Now my family and I are in danger of being killed.”
Historically, the expulsion process in Masafer Yatta can largely be traced back to two men: Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, both of whom were senior military figures who later became Israeli prime ministers. They represent competing camps in Israeli politics: Sharon headed the Likud party, which is identified with the Zionist right, and Barak led the Labor Party, which is affiliated with the Zionist left. But on issues related to Masafer Yatta, the two worked together in harmony.
After leading the conquest of the West Bank in 1967, Sharon, then a military official, began the process of declaring various areas as military firing zones, first in the Jordan Valley and later in Masafer Yatta. “As one of the people who initiated the firing zones in 1967, everyone was aware of one goal: to enable Jewish settlement in the area,” Sharon testified in 1979. “Back then, I sketched out these firing zones, reserving our land for settlement.”
The locations of the firing zones weren’t chosen randomly. They perfectly matched the Allon Plan, which was submitted to the Israeli government a month after the occupation began by Yigal Allon, another future prime minister, and which determined that the areas should be permanently kept under full Israeli control. With their relatively arid climate, these areas had few Palestinian villages compared to the crowded northern West Bank, which made them appealing for Jewish settlement.
A map commissioned by the state in 1977 designates part of the Masafer Yatta region for such settlement. Three years later, in 1980, firing zones were declared in the same area.
In a secret meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Settlement Affairs held in July 1981, Sharon offered the army the firing zone that was declared in Masafer Yatta and reaffirmed that his goal was to remove Palestinians from the area, according to the official transcript. “We have a great interest in being there, given the phenomenon of Arabs from the villages spreading toward the desert [in the south],” he explained to the army chief of staff.
During the same period, the Israeli government worked to establish Jewish settlements in the region. Settlements like Susya, Ma’on, and Carmel were part of the state’s policy of cutting off the Palestinian population in the Negev, which is inside Israel, from the Palestinian population in the southern West Bank, like the residents of Masafer Yatta.
“For many years, there was a physical connection between the Arab population of the Negev with the Arab population in the Hebron hills. A situation was created in which the border extends inside our territory,” Sharon told the settlement committee. “We must quickly create a buffer strip of [Jewish] settlement, which will distinguish and separate the Hebron hills from Jewish settlement in the Negev. To drive a wedge between the bedouins in the Negev and the Arabs in Hebron.”
Sharon’s words are particularly relevant today, as not only the residents of Masafer Yatta but also the Bedouins in the Negev are being dispossessed of their land through the systematic denial of building permits and the declaration of military firing zones.
In 1999, Ehud Barak was elected prime minister. These were the days of the Oslo Accords, four years after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination—when there was still hope among Israelis and Palestinians that a peace deal might come. But Barak’s government decided to permanently remove the residents of Masafer Yatta. Under his watch, in November 1999, soldiers moved through all the villages, loaded 700 people into trucks, and expelled them. They became refugees in nearby villages.
“I remember that day vividly,” said Safa Al-Najar, now 70. “Soldiers came inside, while outside there were two big trucks waiting. They lifted us onto them by force, with all of our belongings. The sheep escaped on foot. They threw us into another village.”
Barak’s ethnic cleansing, carried out by a government that included the left-wing Meretz party, inspired protests in Israel led by intellectuals, among them famous authors like David Grossman. The protesters met with the general of the Central Command to express opposition to the operation, but they were told that it had to be carried out because, in preparation for further negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel had a major interest in keeping the region part of its sovereign territory.
The talks between Israel and the PLO for a final peace resolution, which took place in 2000 at Camp David, apparently led Barak to accelerate the dispossession efforts in Masafer Yatta. The thinking was that if there were no Palestinians living there, it would be more likely that the region would ultimately remain under Israeli control.
This is one reason why the “peace process” in the 1990s was in fact deeply destructive for many Palestinians: It galvanized rather than tamed Israeli colonialism. In those years, the number of Palestinian home demolitions grew significantly, while Jewish settlements were quickly populated and roads leading to them were rapidly paved.
A few months after Barak ordered their displacement, the residents of Masafer Yatta petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court against the firing zone. Palestinians living in the West Bank are subject to military law––they don’t have the right to vote and so are unable to influence the legal system that rules over them—and the Supreme Court has expanded its jurisdiction to encompass the occupied territories.
Their petition remained before the court for more than 22 years. Instead of making a decision, the judges issued an interim order allowing the displaced Palestinians to temporarily return to their homes. In 2012, while Barak was defense minister, the state declared in court that its demand for forced transfer was still active, and that the army was prepared to allow residents access to work their land only during Israeli holidays and on the weekends, when no military exercises took place.
Even this temporary reprieve came to an end last May, when the judges finally rejected the residents’ petition. In the ruling by Justice David Mintz, the court accepted the state’s claims that when the firing zone was declared over 40 years ago, the people of Masafer Yatta were not “permanent residents” of the area, but rather “seasonal residents.” That is, they used to move between two places, depending on the shepherding season: They had one house in a village in Masafer Yatta and another in the city. According to the letter of the military law, the declaration of a firing zone does not apply to permanent residents in the territory, but since, as the state claimed, the residents of Masafer Yatta were only “seasonal,” their expulsion should be permitted. The Supreme Court agreed.
Such legal arguments don’t impress halima, who was born in a cave in Al-Merkaz in 1948 and has lived there her whole life. “That’s their court, not ours,” she said, “and they use the law in order to expel us.”
The names of the Masafer Yatta villages are all over old maps that predate the Israeli state, including one by British surveyors from 1879. Another can be found in a 1931 book by a geographer named Nathan Shalem, who visited homes in Jinba and noted that human settlement there “had never ceased.” Aerial photographs from 1945 testify to the existence of the villages. Even the official documentation of the State of Israel shows that in 1966, the Israeli military blew up 15 stone structures in Jinba, then under the control of Jordan, later compensating the residents through the International Red Cross.
The Supreme Court rejected this historical evidence, which was attached to the residents’ petition. “The existence of the stone houses in the ruins of Jinba, in 1966, has nothing to teach us about the situation of things in 1980,” Mintz explained in his ruling. He gave evidentiary weight only to the area’s status in the year in which the military’s firing zone was declared.
In their decision, the judges relied on the work of an Israeli anthropologist, Ya’akov Habakkuk, who lived in the region in the 1980s, for their claim of “seasonality.” Habakkuk wrote that during the grazing season, in winter and spring, the families lived in Masafer Yatta, but in the dry months of summer, they lived in the adjacent city of Yatta. This describes the lifestyle of many families living in the region in the past, though not all of them.
Habakkuk himself is adamantly opposed to the court’s interpretation of his work. He told us he had no idea his research was being used to justify the expulsion. “It was obvious to everyone around that this is their village,” he said. “The families came there consistently, always to the same cave, and when they weren’t here, no one else would enter.”
International law explicitly forbids population transfers in occupied territory, with almost no exceptions. But in their ruling, the judges claimed that if there is a conflict between international law and Israeli law, “Israeli law decides.” In the decision, they wrote that the section of the Geneva Conventions forbidding population transfers is intended “only to prevent acts of mass expulsion of a population in occupied territory in order to destroy it, to perform forced labor, or to achieve other policy goals,” and therefore there is no connection with the Masafer Yatta displacement, which was only ordered so that the military could train there.
The ban on population transfers is found in the Fourth Geneva Convention, in Section 49: “Deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive” (emphasis ours).
The story of Masafer Yatta thus represents the cornerstone of Israeli settler colonialism throughout Israel-Palestine. On both sides of the Green Line, Palestinian displacement is largely achieved by way of the law: the systematic denial of building permits, the denial of Palestinian ownership rights to the land in question, the declaration of expansive firing zones, the designation of national parks, and the establishment of new Jewish settlements to “drive a wedge” and cut villages off from one another.
“Everything that lies behind the process is the theft of our land and the expulsion of our communities,” said Nidal Abu Younis, the head of the Masafer Yatta village council. “Destroying our homes, confiscating our vehicles, destroying our roads and schools––it’s all one massive crime. They can expel us at any moment. Now more than ever, we are in need of international solidarity.”