Why Is the Israeli Military Exercising in These Palestinian Villages, for the First Time in 7 Years?

Despite explicit promises to residents of Masafer Yatta, military vehicles drive onto farmland, damaging vital crops and cisterns, during large-scale drills

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A shepherd walks with his herd as Israeli army vehicles take part in a military exercise in the South Hebron Hills on Wednesday.
A shepherd walks with his herd as Israeli army vehicles take part in a military exercise in the South Hebron Hills on Wednesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The Israeli army held a military exercise in the southern West Bank on Tuesday and Wednesday. Meant to simulate combat in hostile territory, the exercise was conducted in Masafer Yatta, an area in the South Hebron Hills. Originally scheduled to continue through Thursday night, the final day of the exercise was canceled. Some of the exercise was planned for an area east of Bethlehem, to the north.

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Hundreds of soldiers and about 60 vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, mobile artillery units, army vans and a Humvee, took part in the exercise. Contrary to explicit promises the army gave area residents, vehicles left roads, driving onto farmland cultivated by Palestinians and damaging crops.

On Wednesday morning, one convoy of vehicles entered the village of Jinba and remained there for about three hours, maneuvering among the buildings. They came very close to a medical clinic, a school and a mosque, and caused damage to the main street and a stone wall that reenforces the road. Damage was also caused to a cave that is used for storage and to an electricity cable that is connected to the solar energy system in the village. (The Israeli authorities have not allowed the Palestinian villages in the area to hook up to the electricity grid).

At play: Israeli military vehicles maneuver in the South Hebron Hills on Wednesday. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Mount Hebron Regional Council, which governs the area’s Jewish settlements, issued a statement welcoming the exercise and the “hundreds of soldiers from the 215th Artillery Brigade” who took part in it. “The council congratulates the ... brigade for stepping up their activity and restoring training in the firing zone after years that it had not been used,” the statement said.“This is one of the ways to increase governance and to control open space and the imposition of law and order.”

From the beginning, residents of the Masafer Yatta villages feared damage to their fields, crops and water pipes during the exercise, and sent letters to the army warning of the potential for damage. The army promised the Masafer Yatta council – via the Palestinian liaison committee that is in contact with the army – that the convoys would not stray off the roads or disrupt traffic for the villagers.

“A directive has been issued barring the deployment of armored combat vehicles in agricultural fields and places with traffic,” the spokesperson’s unit of the Israel Defense Forces told Haaretz before the exercise. “The deployment has been reviewed to avoid such damage.”

But heavy vehicles did in fact go off the roads and into cultivated, privately owned fields belonging to villagers in Jinba, Markaz, Bir al-Eid, Tawamin and Atariya. They caused damage to crops as well as to cisterns in the area that are vital to the residents, because Israel has not permitted them to hook up to the area’s water system. With the conclusion of the exercise, the villagers are also inspecting whether damage was caused to solar energy panels that they rely on, because Israeli authorities have not allowed them to hook up to the electricity grid in the area.

On midday Wednesday, the army forces were still riding through the fields even though lawyers representing the villages had reported to the army the damage that was caused to the fields – despite the army’s prior assurances.

 A full day after Haaretz requested comment about the incident, the military said in a statement Thursday that it had followed regulations. "The activity in areas that are not firing zones was approved by a military decree as required by regulations," the military said, adding that there had been advance patrols to ensure that there were no civilians present. "A preliminary inspection revealed that during the exercise, a human error occurred and one of the vehicles entered a few meters into a cultivated field. The safety team handled the incident and stopped the deviation immediately."

An Israeli military helicopter flies over the South Hebron Hills during a large-scale military exercise on Wednesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The exercise began Tuesday morning near the town of Arad, south of the West Bank, in Israel proper. From there, a convoy headed northwest. That night, the soldiers stayed at the abandoned Adasha base just within Israel’s 1967 borders. The base is 1.2 kilometers (3/4 of a mile) from Jinba and about 600 meters from Markaz. From 6 P.M. Tuesday to 3 A.M. Wednesday, the artillery cannons deployed for the exercise were fired from the base nonstop.

“The children and my elderly mother were terribly afraid. It sounded like a continuous earthquake,” Jinba resident Issa Younes told Haaretz. “Out of fear, my mother wanted to go into a residential cave,” a reference to caves in the area that people have converted into homes, “but it’s dangerous because the cave could collapse from the shaking. At first, we entered a concrete structure, but there too we didn’t feel safe,” he said, “so we went outside into the cold. No one slept that night in Jinba.”

On Wednesday morning, a convoy of army vehicles entered Jinba itself, apparently due to a navigational error. “The soldiers got out of the [mobile artillery], and we were afraid they wanted to conduct searches of homes, but a soldier told me they had lost their way,” Younes said. After about three hours of maneuvering, they left the village and got onto a poorly maintained road.

Israeli army vehicles take part in a military exercise in the South Hebron Hills on Wednesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israeli Civil Administration doesn’t permit residents of Masafer Yatta to clear the road of rocks and to pave it.

The road leads to the cave village of Bir al-Eid, where the military force parked in sown fields. An Israeli activist who asked one of the soldiers why he was parking in the field was told that it was “on orders of the battalion commander.” From there, the soldiers continued west, through fields belonging to the village of Tawamin and then onto private land belonging to villagers from Atariya.

The army has been demanding that residents of 12 of the Masafer Yatta villages, which were established decades before Israel’s founding in 1948, be removed from the area and resettled in the nearby town of Yatta. This, to allow the army to conduct military exercises in the area declared Military Firing Zone 918 in 1980.

The army has offered the villagers, who support themselves by raising sheep or goats, access to the land on weekends and Israeli holidays. In the coming weeks, the High Court of Justice is due to rule on the villagers’ petitions challenging their eviction and the destruction of the villages. This week’s military exercise was the first there since 2013.

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