When It Comes to Palestinians, Israel's Defense Minister Doubles as a Pedantic Linguist

Moshe Ya'alon and his chief of staff have redefined Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley as non-residents to justify their temporary evacuation.

Aref Daraghmeh / B'Tzelem

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is not only our defense minister, but also occasionally a pedantic linguist. Or perhaps the description should go to Haim Blumenblat, the defense minister’s chief of staff. Blumenblat signed a letter in response to Knesset member Dov Khenin, who had sought to put an end to the repeated practice of evacuating Palestinian West Bank residents of the Jordan Valley in order to conduct military exercises.

“The fabric of the lives of the area’s residents should not be harmed beyond recognition for training that can be carried out in another manner and location,” Khenin wrote Ya’alon on July 8. “The ease with which the dignity and liberty of human beings are being trampled is unacceptable and requires a thorough examination,” stated the Hadash party legislator, who had received a detailed account from representatives of grass roots group Machsom Watch on the latest evacuation/torture incident on June 23 and the burnt grazing land the residents found upon their return.

In his July 12 response on behalf of Ya’alon, Blumenblat sought to “set things straight,” saying that for his part the hundreds of men, women and children who were required during the Ramadan fast and in blazing heat to pack up their belongings and their flocks and move several kilometers away due to Israel Defense Force training are not “residents.”

“There is no basis for use of the terms ‘residents’ and ‘harm to their liberty,’ Blumenblat, a reserve colonel, responded to Khenin. “[Their case] involves the illegal invasion by Palestinians into a firing range site in use by the IDF.”

This “correction” says nothing, of course, about the hundreds of Palestinians in several communities whom, since the end of April, the IDF has forced to evacuate for several hours or even days at a time. Last year they and others were also forced to evacuate several times due to training exercises. They lead a traditional way of life making a living shepherding and dryland farming, which requires only limited access to the market in the nearby towns, where they have relatives and where they avail themselves of services such as schooling and medical care. They live in a region their ancestors knew for centuries. Their meager tent encampments could have developed into permanent villages well-suited to its residents long ago had it not been for the plethora of Israeli prohibitions on construction and development.

The absurd correction on the part of Blumenblat/Ya’alon reflects the essence of their worldview. Saying that these Palestinians are not “residents” means that these two officials don’t recognize the non-Hebrew human history of the area from the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the 2nd century C.E. until the IDF captured the West Bank in 1967. Refusing to consider Palestinians as residents makes them illegal wherever they are, so long as we don’t deem them otherwise; it implies that a Palestinian is properly deemed a resident only in the pale of settlement that we have allocated to him.

Ya’alon only sees Palestinians in Areas A and B of the West Bank, the areas where the Palestinian Authority exerts civil control. He would prefer that they not be visible in most of the West Bank, the closest thing to having them disappear.

Ya’alon and Blumenblat have the backing of a professional opinion from the legal adviser for the West Bank from May stating that the evacuations of the Bedouin and their tribulations are both legal and humane. It’s legal because the firing zone is the norm while the Palestinian community is the exception. It’s legal because in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were declared firing zones, these areas had no residents according to the maps produced at the time.

It’s not even worth quibbling over such an argument since it is based on the assumption, as Ya’alon holds, that the Palestinians don’t have the natural right to live in their own country, anywhere they please. The legal adviser’s opinion is that any Palestinian who later moved to the Jordan Valley is an “invader” (other than Jewish settlers, of course). The evacuations and tribulations are humane because we are not killing the invaders but rather only asking of them to evacuate for a few hours in favor of the supreme and sacred right of holding military exercises.

This legal opinion, which is entitled “IDF Training in the Jordan Valley, May 2015, Legal Aspects,” was published on the Military Advocate General’s website and does not deprive the evacuees of the definition “residents.” The legal adviser must take into consideration the International Criminal Court in The Hague and start preparing the army's defense (also by mentioning that the Israeli High Court of Justice approved the firing range practice).

If the International Criminal Court ever considers the Israeli track record of mass expulsions, the self-righteous opinion of the legal adviser and the Israeli High Court of Justice rulings will face Col. Einav Shalev’s frank remarks, which last year leaked out of a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s subcommittee on settlements regarding the removal of Palestinians from Area C, the area of the West Bank under full Israeli civil and military control. He advocated returning firing ranges to places where he felt they should be but still are not.

“When the military regiments are marching, people move aside,” he told settlement representatives at the Knesset.

In other words, firing ranges are a means to expel Palestinians. And in practice, as noted in a report by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem in May about the removal of Jordan Valley communities due to military exercises, increasing the frequency of training in the valley has been official army policy for the past three years.