17 Years On, High Court Tells Israel to Produce Plan for Disputed Firing Zone

Palestinian villagers fighting proposal to evict them permanently from southern Hebron Hills area.

Livestock in a demolished Palestinian village in the southern Hebron Hills.
Alex Levac

The High Court of Justice last week ordered the state to prepare a proposal for military training in a firing zone that would cause minimal damage to Palestinian residents in the southern Hebron Hills area.

The court order, giving the state 45 days to submit its proposal, came 17 years after the villagers’ petitions were first submitted.

The order was issued at the request of eight villages whose residents petitioned against the state’s intention to evict them permanently so the Israel Defense Force could hold military drills in the area.

Justices Elyakim Rubinstein, Hanan Melcer and Yoram Danziger urged the sides to reach a compromise, despite the court order.

The petitions were first filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel at the beginning of 2000 on behalf of the residents of 12 villages southeast of Yatta.

The IDF had evicted the residents at the end of 1999, claiming they were residing in a military firing zone illegally.

The High Court ordered the state to enable the villagers to return to their land until a final decision was made, but it didn’t allow them to build structures or dig water holes to replace those destroyed in the eviction.

The villagers were also forbidden from building homes and water holes to accommodate for their natural growth and changing needs.

Twelve years passed until, in July 2012, the state responded to the original petitions. The state said that then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak supported the IDF’s position that the firing zone should be used again in full. In order to do so, it was necessary to destroy eight rural communities and evict more than 1,000 residents, it claimed.

The state suggested allowing the residents to cultivate their land and graze their herds on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Four of the villages, two of which were no longer inhabited, were allowed to remain on their land.

Following the change, the petitions were deleted and the villagers’ lawyers were asked to submit new ones. They did this in January 2013.

The state responded to these new petitions seven months later, saying the training in the firing zone saved the IDF time and resources.

The villagers insisted on remaining in their homes. At the court’s suggestion, the parties agreed to an arbitration process with Justice (ret.) Yitzhak Zamir. But the process broke down at the beginning of last year and the petitions were returned to the High Court.

The state said that when the area was declared a firing zone in 1980, it had not been inhabited. The residents of Jinba, Mirkez, Halaweh, Halat a-Dab’a, Fakheit, Tabban, Majez and Sfai provided evidence proving the opposite. Many of these hamlet and cave dwellers were born and raised there, in families who had lived there for many decades – long before the West Bank’s occupation in 1967.

Their existence is documented, among other places, in a study by Yaacov Havakook entitled “Life in the Mount Hebron Caves,” which was published by the Defense Ministry in 1985.

Lawyers Dan Yakir (for ACRI) and Shlomo Lecker said in the court hearing last Wednesday that a Nahal Brigade camp in Tel Arad – which is adjacent to the southern Hebron Hills firing zone – is due to close in 2019 and would no longer be required for infantry training.

Yitzhak Bart, from the State Prosecutor’s Office, said this did not change the IDF’s need for firing zones, and that in the 1990s the air force also held drills in the area.

The court urged the lawyers to give an alternative to the state’s proposal at the last session, for an arrangement dividing the area and time between the residents and the IDF.

Rubinstein said repeatedly that he wanted a compromise to be reached. “What’s the minimum the IDF needs to uphold a program?” he asked.

Bart said the state had already proposed a plan for reduced training, which would require evicting some of the residents for a few hours.

Yakir said the residents were likely to object to any arrangement that requires their eviction.

“If the state says it wants to have a reduced training plan, eviction for a few hours, anyone can understand that,” Rubinstein said.

Yakir replied: “We’re dealing with entire families, old people, children, and their possessions. People having to move is uncomfortable, inconvenient.”

The lawyers said that during the arbitration and after it, every proposal the state made was worse than the one before it.

Bart confirmed that the state had proposed expanding the training areas and the duration in which the residents had to be evicted from their homes.

The court made it clear that it expected the state to submit a “minimal training program.”

Justice Melcer said the IDF’s plan to move the Nahal Brigade camp must also be published.