The descriptions given by eyewitnesses of the attack allegedly carried out by Jewish Israeli citizens on Tuesday’s Simhat Torah holiday against the residents of the Palestinian village of Khirbat al-Mufkara are horrifying.
Basel Adraa, an activist from the nearby village of al-Tuwani, wrote that dozens of masked men “went from house to house, and broke windows, smashed cars with knives and hammers. A large stone they threw hit a 3-year-old boy, Mohammed, in the head, who is now in the hospital. The soldiers supported them with tear gas. The residents fled. I can’t forget how the villagers left their houses, terrified, the children screaming, the women crying, while the settlers entered their living rooms, like they were possessed with violence and wrath.”
Al-Mufkara is one of the cave villages on the outskirts of the city of Yatta in the southern Hebron Hills, where for decades Israel has tried to uproot the residents and demolish the villages. The residents, in turn, have shown supreme stamina and endurance, and have remained. They refuse to leave their homes in spite of the difficult living conditions that the Israeli prohibitions force on them: They are forbidden to connect to the water infrastructure, forbidden to connect to the electricity infrastructure, forbidden to build – including clinics and schools and playgrounds. It is forbidden to pave or repair access roads between them. Nonetheless, there are many, mostly young people, who leave exactly because of these draconian prohibitions and the way they limit their possibilities to develop.
The official, governmental process of uprooting a rural population from their houses takes lots of time and paperwork: There are petitions to the High Court of Justice, appeals, legal opinions, a little bit of international oversight and rather weak European condemnations. But a direct threat to the lives of the residents, which was represented by this attack, is a means of direct expulsion. This and hundreds of other attacks initiated by the Jewish Israelis interested in the West Bank real estate are meant to expedite the process of making Palestinian life intolerable. In Masafer Yatta, as in the rest of the territory of the West Bank, the seemingly privatized violence of the settlers serves the official policy.
Israel denies the fact that the cave villages of Masafer Yatta existed even before the founding of the state, and certainly before it conquered the West Bank in 1967. It is interested in erasing the history of those helmets’ development from caves to above-ground structures. It also seeks to erase the lifestyle that exists there. The sheep herding and modest, unirrigated farming for household needs are an inseparable part of the Palestinian history and geography in the region. The villages and their extensions are an organic social fabric and they practice longstanding mutual family, economic, social and cultural interactions between themselves and the city of Yatta.
The legal justification for the Israeli demand to uproot the residents is that they are located in Firing Range 918, which is intended for military exercises. The residents of some dozen villages in the region were already evicted from their homes at the end of 1999 by the military, based on the claim that they were trespassing on a firing zone. Military forces confiscated tents, demolished the structures, confiscated movable goods, put people on trucks and dropped them off in Yatta. Ehud Barak was prime minister and defense minister at the time.
In response to the urgent petition filed at the time by the Association of Civil rights in Israel and attorney Shlomo Lecker, the High Court allowed the return of the people in an interim order, but did not allow them to rebuild the structures, connect to infrastructure and build according to the natural growth and development of the needs and requirements of the 21st century. As a result, these Palestinian communities have been suffering from waves of demolitions for years that the Civil Administration carries out on the simple structures that they build.
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The second incarnation of these petitions – from 2013 – is still waiting for the justices’ ruling. Recently, the justices agreed to the request from the Masafer Yatta council, represented by attorney Netta Amar-Shiff, to join the legal proceeding as a friend of the court. A decisive hearing on the case against the uprooting of the residents from their villages and against the demolition of the villages is supposed to be held in November.
About a year ago, the Akevot Institute found a document that proves that the government’s declaration of the area as a firing range was intended to block natural Palestinian development in the region. In the meeting of the joint committee for settlement of the government and the World Zionist Organization on July 12, 1981, then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon said: “We want to propose to you additional training areas … on the border between the slopes of the Hebron Hills and the Judean Desert.” Sharon explained that the government showed interest in a military presence in these areas because of the “expansion of the rural Arabs of the hills on the mountain ridge toward the desert.” As a result of the meeting, an area of about 33,000 dunams (8,250 acres) – the public and agricultural space of the communities of Masafer Yatta – was declared a military zone.
There are more documents that testify to the age of the cave villages, which Amar-Shiff submitted for the information of the High Court justices. The Jewish geographer and geologist Natan Shalem, who was born in Salonika, visited the region back in 1931 and wrote in his book “The Judean Desert” on the extensions (khirab) that Yatta has in the area and the effectiveness of the cave dwellings. Aerial photographs from 1945, a British survey from 1879 and a physical map from 1933 that are mentioned in various professional opinions submitted to the court also testify to the existence of these communities back at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Mahmoud Hamamda was born in 1965 in a cave in the village of al-Mufkara, which serves to this day as a residence. In February he told Haaretz: “It was my father’s cave and his father’s before that. There were 22 ancient caves here. My brother and I studied in the school in Yatta because my grandmother lived there, near the school. We would leave in the morning on foot and return in the evening. When it rained, we slept at her house.”
During the eviction in 1999, he was 34. In Tuesday’s attack, he and one of his grandchildren were injured. As the journalist from the online magazine Siha Mekomit, Yuval Abraham, wrote in real time: “One stone hit the head of a three year old child, Mohammed, who was taken to the hospital, and he is there now. He has a fracture of his skull, internal bleeding, and tomorrow he will undergo an operation. On the floor of his house, a bloodstain remains. He was at home when the masked men attacked with stones. His grandfather is with us here, dying of worry, also injured.”
There are Israelis who are wondering why the law enforcing authorities, such as the military and the police, and the Civil Administration – another governmental body that operates in the West Bank – are not blocking violent settlers and are not preventing violent attacks against Palestinian villagers, even in broad daylight and in front of cameras. One of the answers is that such institutions are implementing the Israeli government’s policy of evicting the Palestinian residents of what is called Area C and expanding the settlements.
On Tuesday, the soldiers who fired on the Palestinian residents who wanted to defend themselves from their attackers, and the soldiers who attacked the activists of Combatants for Peace almost two weeks ago just because they wanted to bring water to a family in al-Mufkara, internalize during their service the official, governmental message. That is, that the land belongs to no one and that the Palestinian residents there are a redundant surplus which must be uprooted – a possible and profitable act. Even though this is an outright violation of international law.