The Israeli government should engage in mediation with Palestinians threatened with evacuation from their West Bank homes rather than continue presenting its case in court, Supreme Court President Asher Grunis proposed Monday, in the latest round of a dispute that has been underway for more than a decade.
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Grunis suggested that retired Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Zamir serve as mediator between the state and the Palestinians living in an area in the southern Hebron Hills that the army wants to use as a firing zone. The state said it would respond to the proposal after the Sukkot holiday in late September.
“We’re talking about 1,000 people, 170 families who are living in eight historic villages,” said Tamar Feldman, counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “These families live in caves or beside them, on private land that belonged to their ancestors. The petitioners, who live a lifestyle of livestock grazing and agriculture, are asking the court for a simple thing – to stay in their villages.”
The courtroom was packed with the petitioners themselves, who want the army to drop its plan to evict them and close off the area to civilians, as well as activists on their behalf and reporters and diplomats who are monitoring developments in the case.
The state’s attorneys reiterated their arguments from last month as to why the area is needed for training, saying the decision to demolish the eight villages in the area designated by the army as Firing Zone 918 was made by the defense minister. The state also wanted to make a presentation showing that the petitioners had not lived at the site before it was declared a firing zone in 1980, but Grunis suggested that instead the state go to mediation because this was “a special case.”
Last month, as part of its response to the High Court petitions filed in January, the state wrote that one reason the Israel Defense Forces wants to expel the residents is to save time and money. Leaving the villagers there, the state said, “means doing away with the firing zone. As a result, units that come for training at the Nahal Brigade training base will be forced to train in firing zones far from the base, which will significantly undermine the effectiveness of the exercises, involve extremely high costs and lead to a loss of precious training time.”
The petitions in this case were originally filed in 2000 by residents of the eight villages currently fighting to live in the army-designated firing zone, in addition to residents of four more villages who were recently informed they could stay in their homes. The court said the remaining eight villages had to file their petitions again, which they did in January of this year.
In 2000 the High Court issued an interim injunction that allowed the residents to return to their land until a final ruling.
It was only in July 2012 that the state finally responded to those petitions, saying that then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak supported the army’s position that it needs the firing zone, which would require demolishing eight of the villages. The state said residents of the four villages in the northwestern area of the firing zone could remain. These four villages are in close proximity to the homes of settlers in unauthorized outposts that are also within the firing range.
The injunction is still in place.