The High Court of Justice approved Wednesday the eviction of some 1,000 Palestinians from eight villages in the southern West Bank, after a two-decade legal dispute over land that has been repurposed by the Israeli army as a firing zone, and where Palestinians have lived for generations.
Justices David Mintz, Ofer Grosskopf and Isaac Amit rejected claims by the Palestinian petitioners that they had been living in the Masafer Yatta area near Hebron before it was declared a military firing zone in 1981. Each of the petitioners was ordered to pay 20,000 shekels ($5,900) in expenses.
The petitioners, represented by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, presented aerial footage in an attempt to show that the villages had existed in the area for 45 years. The state, however, argued that Palestinian residents began squatting in the area after it was declared Firing Zone 918 in the 1980s, and that until then it was only used as seasonal pasture land for their livestock.
Justice Mintz wrote in the verdict, published Wednesday, that the question of whether the area was a place of permanent residence is "not complicated at all" as aerial footage from the area prior to 1980 shows no indication of a residential presence there. Mintz also cited that the fact that the area was used by the air force to conduct simulated airstrikes in the 1990s, as well as on reports issued over the years by supervisory units.
The court rejected the claim that turning the area into a closed militrary zone was contrary to international law, and said that when international law contradicts Israeli law, the latter prevails.
The Palestinian petitioners argued that they and their families have been living in these villages, whose homes are built within natural caves, since before the establishment of the country in 1948, and are part of a unique mix of communities. The residents make their living through herding livestock and agriculture, and the nearby city of Yatta offers them medical and education services, commerce and residence in the summer. With time, they said, the population in the area increased and so did its needs.
The land was first designated as a firing zone in 1981, but residents in the area remained relatively undisturbed until the late 1990s. In 1999, the military and the Civil Administration evicted more than 700 residents. The first petition against the evictions was submitted in 2000, after which a temporary injunction was issued, which allowed residents to return to the area until the case was settled.
In April 2012, the state told the court that the military had modified its plan for the firing zone and requested that eight villages would be demolished, instead of 12, after which the High Court suggested that the petitioners withdraw their suits. Two other petitions were submitted in 2013.
The court accepted the state's request that the petitions be rejected outright due to the fact that the first petition was submitted in 1997, even though the area was already declared a firing zone in the 1980s. The justices also said that the locals did not provide any proof of ownership of these lands, and continued building on it despite being served eviction notices.
Justice Mintz said that the petitioners’ assertion that they had to build on the land in question to sustain themselves was "outrageous" and that the temporary order issued in 2000 permitted them to stay there, but did not grant them permission to build on the land.
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The court also rejected a request by the Masafer Yatta group of villages' local council to join the proceedings as a "friend of the court." Justice Mintz wrote that the claim of discrimination against Masafer Yatta as opposed to the nearby Jewish settlement of Susya was unfounded.
Mintz also rejected the petitioners' claims that the designation of the area as a firing zone was based on outside considerations and instead accepted the military's position that the land was necessary for its needs.
Lastly, Mintz stated that the state had made an offer to the petitioners that would have them evacuate the area during training, but would allow them to return for agricultural purposes on weekends and holidays. This, the judges said, was proof of the state's consideration of the residents' agricultural needs.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the ruling was "unusual and would carry severe consequences." The organization accused the court of approving a move that would "leave families, children and elderly without a roof over their heads."
Masafer Yatta council chairman Nadal Younes said in response that the ruling was ideological and was not based on justice, adding that "there were those who said from the beginning that there was no hope with the Israeli court – they were right."