By: Dania Abul Haj
“I do not know what you mean when you ask me about a different life, I am not aware that another life exists, at least not outside of Masafer Yatta. This is the only life and home I know.”
16-year-old child from Masafer Yatta
Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was unaware not only of where Masafer Yatta was located, but that the entire area existed. It came to my attention after a ruling on 4 May 2022 by the Israeli High Court of Justice, and I decided to visit.
The three-hour bumpy, rugged commute from Hebron to Masafer Yatta, allowed me more time to be cut off from everything in this world for longer than I have ever been. My phone did not have service, we were driving without any defined location or map, relying solely on directions provided by the very few people we encountered on our way. After having been lost multiple times, and having lost hope of any sign of human life, we were finally greeted by the kind, beaming face of Fo’ad, a Palestinian from Masafer Yatta, who was waiting to guide us to our final destination.
Masafer Yatta is an area located in the Southern Hebron Hills of the Occupied West Bank and is made up of 20 Palestinian agricultural villages, 12 of which are located inside ‘Firing Zone 918’ (see below): Jinba, Al-Mirkez, Al- Halaweh, Halat a-Dab’a, Al-Fakheit, A-Tabban, Al- Majaz, A-Sfai Megheir, Al-Abeid, Al-Mufaqara, A-Tuba and Sarura. These 12 villages spread over a total area of approximately 33 thousand dunams (33 square kilometres) and are home to approximately 1,300 Palestinians, whose ancestors have been living in the area for as long as they can remember, before Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967.
For the past 40 years, Israeli authorities have relentlessly attempted to appropriate these privately owned agricultural lands in Masafer Yatta, through declaring those areas in the early 1980s as ‘restricted military zones’ designated as ‘Firing Zone 918’. Eight long established Palestinian villages within Firing Zone 918 are under threat of confiscation.
In 1999, the majority of the residents of the 12 villages were served with eviction orders on the basis that their residency was illegal in a restricted military zone and the area being designated as an ‘open fire zone.’ Following the eviction orders, on November 1999, approximately 700 residents were forcibly displaced as Israeli forces destroyed most of their homes and confiscated their lands. In response, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Attorney Shlomo Lecker filed a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice on behalf of 200 families. The Court then issued an interim injunction permitting the villagers to return to their homes and cultivate their land pending a substantive ruling in the case, yet forbade them from any form of construction or development.
For the past 20 years, residents of the eight villages in Masafer Yatta have been fighting a legal battle with the Israeli authorities before the Israeli High Court of Justice against their forcible transfer while also sustaining a life in which they have been barred from any development. They cannot build homes, or proper roads and are prevented from having access to any public transportation network. They cannot connect to power and water networks.
On 4 May 2022, which coincided with Israel’s 74th Independence Day, the two-decade legal battle finally came to an end, as the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected all petitions against the forcible transfer of approximately 1,200 Palestinians now residing in eight villages of Masafer Yatta. In its ruling, Israel’s highest court officially declared that “It is not disputed that when an express provision of law in Israeli law is contrary to the rules of international law, Israeli law is decisive.” The ruling of the court comes despite the prohibition against forcible transfer enshrined in international law including Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949, and Article 7 of the Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court 1998. It was this ruling that inspired my visit.
In the heart of Masafer Yatta lays the endangered village of Al-Fakheit, home to 14 Palestinian agricultural families. The residents of this village, similarly to the other 11 villages, continue to maintain the unique lifestyle of their ancestors, living in simple dwellings established beside caves, and relying primarily on farming and husbandry of sheep and goats for their livelihood.
Upon arrival there, I was taken to listen to a briefing by the communities’ lawyer with regards to the latest ruling of the Israeli High Court of Justice. I watched the men of the endangered communities listen attentively, in an atmosphere of both resilience and fear.
Soon after the briefing ended, I was given the opportunity to introduce myself, meet with the residents of the Al-Fakheit community and listen to their experiences. One thing was crystal clear from the very beginning: Masafer Yatta generally, and Al Fakheit specifically, was all these people had and they cherished their homes.
Mohammad Abu Sabh (55), a long-term resident of Al Fakheit, is father to six children, and guardian to 18 family members who live in his house, including his nieces, elderly mother and wife. Mohammad shares ownership of an area of 200 dunams with his brothers and uncles via inheritance through his grandfather, who according to Mohammad, has lived in Al-Fakheit since way before 1967.
Mohammad told me how Israeli authorities demolished his house and agricultural structures in January 2022. The details of having to empty his house and attend to his crying children, who were terrified at the sight of the tens of Israeli forces with their bulldozers, were horrifying. The conversation with Mohammad ended with the following statement describing the latest demolition:
“It was scary for the kids; they were crying and screaming in horror, but I did not know what to do. I cannot imagine living anywhere but here, I do not know what to say or do, I am devastated and yet I cannot leave my land behind, how does one leave their land, their honour, behind?”
Mohammad’s mother, who was present in the room, watched as I talked to her son only to let out a sigh followed with the statement in Arabic ‘Wallah Shayabuna ya bnti’ meaning “I swear to God they made our hair go grey, my daughter.”
Akram Abu Sabha (51) stood for two minutes beside the rubble of his structures that were demolished by the Israeli authorities three times in 2020 alone. When asked why he kept the rubble instead of removing it, his weary eyes conveyed more answers than his words ever could. He could not bring himself to get rid of the rubble or even come close to removing it, he told me. He said he wanted the rubble to be his constant reminder to stand tall in his land with resilience against Israel’s occupation and constant threats of forcible eviction. It felt as if the memory, though empowering, was cruel, running through his soul slowly killing him.
In 1999, Akram relayed that he was amongst those who were forcibly transferred. He went to live in Al-Bardalah village near the Jordan Valley until he returned to Al-Fakheit in 2008, because he could not stay away from his home any longer. When asked what he meant by ‘home’ he promptly replied, “Home is here, Al-Fakheit, where the land of my ancestors’ is.”
One of Akram’s wives who agreed to talk to me, seemed to have an even stronger and more profound love for her village of Al-Fakheit. When I went inside to talk to her, she was in a room making fresh yogurt from the milk of their goats and sheep and kindly poured me a cup to drink. Before I had the chance to ask anything, she informed me that she did not want me to ask her any questions, rather she only wanted her following words to be conveyed to the world: “I am not scared of Israeli forces, rather I am scared of being driven out of here, this is the only place where I can properly breathe and feel alive.”
Away from Akram’s home, some children were running around smiling, excited to see a stranger in their village. Some of them came to greet me after I smiled back, I gave them some chocolate, and one of the children asked me for more than one piece as he did not know when he would have chocolate again.
The children walked around with me, telling me the details of their day-to-day lives, going to one school, never having left their village, trying to imagine what the places they studied about looked like. They told me of their fear every time Israeli forces show up, knowing that means sleeping outside without a roof over their heads for the night. My heart felt uneasy, looking at those children whose only fault in this world was being born Palestinian.
Even on the rough tracks that serve as roads, as they are unable to improve them, the villagers of Masafer Yatta have to tolerate flying Israeli checkpoints being set up on the spot in the middle of these rough roads, obstructing the movement of people and goods. They have no access to running water or electricity, let alone the internet. The continuous subjugation and dehumanisation of the Palestinian people and their rights is epitomised by the treatment of these people.
On my commute back, I felt so out of it. I sat in the back seat, contemplating the facts I had been faced with throughout the day. These people lived a lifestyle so simple but its complexities are hard to comprehend in our modern day lives. This however, is a lifestyle these people appreciate and love. Yet for the past 40 years, Palestinians in Masafer Yatta have had their lives consumed by the anxiety of living on the brink of their entire communities being uprooted and forcibly displaced, leaving them homeless.
The threats of forcible transfer of those people have been dressed up by Israel under the pretext of ‘military necessity.’ According to a report by Human Rights Watch, close to 1.75 million dunams, almost a third of the area of the occupied West Bank, have been declared as ‘closed military areas’, a pretext that has often been used to justify the confiscation of private property; the demolition of houses; and now the destruction of an entire unique lifestyle, all before the eyes of the international community, which has enabled ongoing impunity for Israel’s crimes to continue and prevail. Those who report on these crimes, such as journalists and human rights activists, run the risk of being killed or serious injury.
With the world’s eyes fixed on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with condemnations and countermeasures progressing with rare global unity, Palestinians’ share the pain of the Ukrainian people and absolutely condemn their suffering. After 55 years of Israel’s occupation and the recent findings by leading human rights organisations of Israel committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against the Palestinian people, one cannot but rage against the seemingly global acceptance that Palestinians lives and rights are worth less than others.
In 1996, Edward Saïd, whilst writing about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards, pointed to the essential nature of their universality: “None of these documents says anything about disqualified or less equal races or peoples. All are entitled to the same freedoms.” There has to come a day where the Israeli authorities are held to account for their crimes, with justice being delivered for the Palestinian people