The Israeli Civil Administration razed 19 structures in the Masafer Yatta region of the southern West Bank on Wednesday, the first such demolition since last week's High Court of Justice ruling that the government could expel residents from the area, which was declared an army firing zone.
According to the Villages' Council, nine of the structures were family homes, and the rest were used for storage and for housing sheep.
Masafer Yatta, near Hebron, was declared a military firing zone in 1981. Until the High Court's ruling, a court order was in effect that gave the residents permission to remain there, but prohibited them from building additional structures. All construction in this area is therefore considered illegal, and the Israeli authorities periodically demolish structures there. Most of the structures that were razed on Wednesday, in the villages of Fahit and Markaz in Masafer Yatta, were built during the past year.
The area, made up of eight villages, is at the center of a two-decade legal dispute that began after Israel expelled residents from there in 1999. It is home to an estimated 1,000 to 1,800 people. A week ago, the High Court of Justice ruled that the state could expel the residents so that the military can hold training exercises there.
The justices rejected claims by the Palestinian petitioners that they had been living in the Masafer Yatta area before it was declared a military firing zone in 1981. 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. The court also rejected the argument that an evacuation of the residents would be a violation of the international law banning the expulsion of a population.
Residents said the latest demolitions were the largest such action since 2016, when the state razed 26 structures after negotiations between the Israeli government and lawyers representing the Palestinians in the petition fell through.
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“There is serious concern that we are witnessing an attempted expulsion,” Attorney Roni Pelli of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said. The lawyers are preparing to file a request for another hearing on the petition soon.