Israel Blew Up Their Houses in 1966. Now It Claims Their Village Never Existed

While the courts consider whether to let the state demolish more villages in Masafer Yatta to clear the way for firing zones, the villages continue to submit evidence that they were there before Israel itself

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A home in Al-Mafkara, earlier this year.
A home in Al-Mafkara, earlier this year. Credit: Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

In April and May 1967, about ten people living in the southern West Bank village of Jinba, then part of the Jordanian kingdom, were summoned to the Jordanian police station. They weren’t suspected of doing anything wrong: quite the contrary. They were summoned to receive compensation for their houses, which had been damaged or destroyed in the Israeli assault of November 13, 1966, which was also directed against Khirbet al-Markaz and mainly against the village Samu.

In April 1967, Ziad Makhamra was 10 years old. Too small to go with his father to the police station, but big enough to know that Jordanian police officers came to their village and met with people who reported damage due to the Israeli assault. He was also mature enough to be able to recall today that his father and other fathers went to the nearby police station, Al-Sayfer (that building still stands but is now within the settlement Beit Yatir).

In Masafer Yatta, it’s a given that people may live in caves, tents or stone houses. 'I was born in a cave here' is a remark you hear often

The fathers who received the compensation are gone but their children, including Ziad, still clearly remember what they were told: Israel paid damages to Jordan, in dollars, via the Red Cross. Jordan transferred the money, in Jordanian dinars, to the families: 350 dinars for each stone house that was destroyed; 100 dinars for each camel that was killed; seven dinars per sheep that was killed (in other circumstances, a month or two after the November raid). Ziad’s father received compensation for the destruction of two buildings, a house and a shop, and also for one camel and 10 sheep.

Mahmoud Hamamda, center. Credit: Amira Hass

But for the last 20 years the Israeli army, through the State Prosecutor’s Office, has been arguing before the High Court of Justice that the inhabitants of Jinba and another dozen villages east of the city of Yatta only “invaded” the area after it was declared a firing zone in the 1980s. These are not permanent villages, the army claims. The state is demanding that the villagers, who are shepherds and farmers, relocate to the district capital Yatta and that they only farm their lands on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, all this for the sake of military drills.

The state is essentially asking the High Court to allow these villages to be extinguished. The final ruling is due in a matter of weeks.

Halima Abu Aram was 24 at the time. She was born in a cave in Jinba in 1942. 'They expelled us to there,' she says, pointing north toward a rocky hill

In late February, the Masafer Yatta Council, which was founded in 2016, gave the High Court yet more testimonies, affidavits, documents and historic, geographical, architectural and archaeological analyses that tell the history of the villages that Israel aims to wipe off the map. It all corroborates the residents’ words, that the villages were established long before the State of Israel. But the justices refused to add a new petition on behalf of the council. Thus they refused to allow additional information beyond the villagers’ petitions challenging the legality of the declaration of the area as a firing zone and the expulsion and destruction that will entail. Even so, the additional material was submitted in February as an amicus brief.

Two months have since passed and the court has yet to respond to the brief, which was composed by attorney Netta Amar-Shiff.

The Israeli offensive on November 13, 1966 is one of the axes around which the application to join the case revolves. At the time, UN observers documented 15 stone houses in Jinba that the Israeli army blew up completely, seven more structures that were damaged, a water cistern that was destroyed and a camel that was killed. These things were reported in the minutes of the UN Security Council session on November 16, which addressed Jordan’s complaint about Israeli incursion into its territory.

Ziad Makhamra.Credit: Amira Hass

The attacking force, consisting of 17 tanks and dozens of armored vehicles carrying troops, crossed the ceasefire line at approximately 5:45 A.M., destroyed the Jordanian police station and then split in two. One column turned toward Samu and the other turned east, to Jinba and Markaz. An eyewitness quoted in the minutes said: “Israeli tanks and armored vehicles opened fire and bombarded the villages of Jinba and Markaz and then took up positions next to the villages while the troops entered them and detonated explosives in 14 houses. The Israeli force left the place around 10 in the morning.”

Halima Abu Aram was 24 at the time. She was born in a cave in Jinba in 1942. “They expelled us to there,” she says, pointing north toward a rocky hill. “The artillery shelled and we fled and hid. Then the army invaded our village, with a lot of tanks, and from our hiding place we heard the sounds of the houses being blown up. It was in broad daylight. The Jordanian army was up above, at the top of the mountain. It didn’t come down and there was no confrontation.”

Her husband, from the Makhamra family, was plowing when the bombardment began. He fled westward up the hill, toward Bir al-Eid, a “neighborhood” of Jinba. “It was a village in every way,” Abu Aram says. “Arched stone houses, shops. The only thing still missing was a school. My husband’s family’s shop was in the place where the mosque now stands. Bedouins from the Abu Dahuk clan, from the Jahalin tribe, lived in the area too. They still owed money for what they bought in the shop before it was destroyed.”

In Jinba, as in other villages, residents began to erect stone houses near the cave during the 1940s

But the main assault that day, one day after three Israeli soldiers were killed by a mine next to Arad, was against Samu. There the Israeli forces clashed with the Jordanian army, people were killed and wounded, and the IDF blew up a large number of buildings. According to the UN figures, 125 structures were destroyed and 24 were damaged, including a mosque.

Jinba and Markaz don’t appear in the history books by Avi Shlaim (“King Hussein: A Political Biography”), Tom Segev (“1967”) or Moshe Shemesh (“From the Nakba to the Naksa”), which describe that Israeli assault as a turning point. It led Jordan’s King Hussein and his counselors to conclude that Israel aimed to conquer the West Bank; Palestinians held mass protests against the king; and the sense of Palestinian identity – rather than Jordanian – grew stronger.

Mahmoud Hamamda, center. He was also born in a cave, in 1965, in the village of Al-Mafkara.Credit: Amira Hass

But the Hebrew language newspaper Ha’Olam Hazeh, in its November 16, 1966 edition, does mention Jinba and Markaz, as the targets of that assault. It mistakenly refers to the villages as Bedouin encampments and writes that tents there were destroyed “in a display of force.” But the report of Natan Shalem, a geographer and geologist who visited the area in 1931, makes it clear that these people were not Bedouins.

Shalem, who was born in Thessaloniki and emigrated to Palestine\Eretz Yisrael in 1914, writes in his book “Midbar Yehuda” (“Judean Desert”) about eight villages, extensions of Yatta. He writes about power struggles over the area that occurred between the Bedouins (the Jahalin tribe) and the people of Yatta in the Ottoman period, and then the power struggles with the villages of Dura and Samu that ended with Yatta’s victory. He predicted then that, when things calmed down, the extensions “would go back to standing on their own and become stable villages.”

'It was my father’s cave and his father’s before that. There were 22 ancient caves here'

Shalem also wrote about the usefulness and convenience of the quarried caves that were used for living quarters and about the numerous water cisterns – between five and 10 for each khirbe (extension). “From Yuta (Yatta) I descended via Araqub-Jinba on a descent that was not difficult,” he wrote. “The lower stratum is planted by the Makhamras with vetch (a type of legume), wheat and barley… The entire area of Jinba is strewn with flint tools from every era, and clay vessels from different clays, which faithfully attest that settlement here never ceased, starting in early prehistoric times.”

Shalem’s book is quoted in one of the expert opinions submitted to the court, by the architect Alon Cohen Lipshitz from Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights. He analyzed aerial photographs from 1945 to the present, of 14 villages that are offshoots of Yatta, which developed in a process of natural expansion and settlement over decades, long before the establishment of the State of Israel.

Halima Abu Aram.Credit: Amira Hass

Despite the poor quality of the old photographs, one can see the roads that connected the offshoots, the stone walls around the animal pens, the terraces, the cultivated lands, the cave entrances and the shadows cast by the structures.

These are the names of the sub-villages: Jinba, Markaz, Al-Mafkara, Fakhit, Thaban, Al-Majaz, Sarura, Simra, Mughayer Al-Abid, Halawa, Sfei, Rakiz, Tuba, and Khalet a-Daba. These names and other appear in geographical and demographic surveys done in the region from the end of the 19th century and later. They are also mentioned in the opinion submitted by Amar-Shiff to the court and written by American historian Dr. Michael Fischbach, an expert in land use during the Jordanian period.

It could be that because of the small size of some of these communities, Fischbach wrote, not all are mentioned in all surveys or appear on all maps. But that doesn’t preclude their existence. As Amar-Shiff writes, the residential areas in the villages of Masafer-Yatta developed organically, and contrary to the claims by the state prosecution, are not a political and contrarian phenomenon against Israel created after the state declared the area a firing zone.

Born in a cave

In Masafer Yatta, it’s a given that people may live in caves, tents or stone houses. “I was born in a cave here” is a remark you hear often. Fischbach explains that there was no legal or administrative distinction between people living in above-ground structures or in tents or caves.

In Jinba, as in other villages, residents began to erect stone houses near the cave during the 1940s. The Israeli survey of 1967, says Fischbach, also cites the cave as one of the typical natural residences of the area. In other words, at the time of the occupation, Israel didn’t deny as it does today that the caves attested to continual Palestinian residency in the area.

Hamamda was 34 when IDF forces raided his village and other villages in Masafer Yatta in October and November 1999, confiscated tents, demolished buildings, seized goods, and put people on trucks and took them to Yatta

The Israeli occupation that year didn’t allow the residents of Jinba to fully utilize the compensation they had received, because of military regulations that went into effect and barred them from rebuilding on the ruins. Moreover, on two occasions in 1985, the army carried out additional demolitions in the village and removed the large stone bricks: the silent witnesses to the permanency of the village that had been.

Mahmoud Hamamda was also born in a cave, in 1965, in the village of Al-Mafkara. “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 at 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.” He led us to the cave of his birth, which is still used for housing. It is 158 square meters. The heavy wooden door and the specially designed keys also testify to its age.

Hamamda was 34 when IDF forces raided his village and other villages in Masafer Yatta in October and November 1999, confiscated tents, demolished buildings, seized goods, and put people on trucks and took them to Yatta. And it was during a time of peace negotiations. The Israeli prime minister was Ehud Barak and the government coalition included the One Israel party (an alliance with Labor), Meretz, Shas, the National Religious Party, and Shinui. In response to urgent petitions from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and attorney Shlomo Lecker, the High Court of Justice issued an interim order allowing the people to return, but did not allow then to rebuild their homes, hook up to power or water or build new homes based on natural population growth, their developing needs, or the demands of the 21st century.

It is the second reincarnation of these petitions, from 2013, that now awaits the justices’ ruling.

At the beginning of the year, attorney Netta Amar-Shiff went around all the villages threatened with extinction, collecting material proof of their long existence over the years. She photographed ancient tabuns, decades-old wooden pitchforks, silt and clay jugs for storing food set permanently into the caves, lanterns, sickles and traditional kitchen utensils.

In the village of al-Rakiz, Ashraf Amor also heard her request for “proof.” He’s the man living in a cave, where his father had lived before him, from whom soldiers wanted to confiscate a generator in late 2020. A soldier shot his friend Harun Abu Aram, because he clung to the generator, in the neck. Abu Aram was paralyzed. The disaster haunts the people of al-Rakiz and Amor personally. When Amar-Shiff asked for material proof, he answered with obvious impatience: “I don’t understand. The people who live here aren’t proof?”

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