IDF Pauses Training in Masafer Yatta During Biden’s Visit, Week After Bullet Hits Palestinian Home

Training could restart as soon as next week, the Israeli military tells the High Court of Justice

הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
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Activists gesture as they protest against the Israeli military drill, in Masafer Yatta, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, June 22, 2022.
Activists gesture as they protest against the Israeli military drill, in Masafer Yatta, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, June 22, 2022.Credit: Mussa Qawasma / Reuters
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

The Israeli military said on Tuesday that it will cease its live-fire training in Masafer Yatta during U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel this week, one week after an IDF bullet hit a Palestinian home in the area.

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The commitment was submitted to the High Court of Justice in response to a Palestinian request that the court issue an injunction against the drills, which local residents contest is part of a wider effort to pressure them off their land in the wake of a court decision declaring much of the area a military training area belonging to the IDF. The request was prompted by an incident last Wednesday in which a bullet hit the roof of a Palestinian family's home in the village of Halat al-Dab'a.

But the current training exercise is slated to last four weeks, and the military said it would likely resume training there following the two-day break for Biden’s visit on Wednesday and Thursday.

In its brief to the court, the army claimed there was insufficient evidence to prove an IDF bullet hit the house. But the IDF also admitted that its survey of the region’s populated areas – apparently carried out to ensure that bullets wouldn’t hit any homes – had missed the village of Halat al-Dab'a.

Following the incident, village residents handed over pictures of the bullet hole to the IDF, and later soldiers arrived and asked the residents of the house a few questions, but their lawyers said they did not search for the bullet. The next day, the residents found the bullet in the roof of the house, and tried to coordinate handing the bullet over to Military Police investigators, but did not receive a response.

Only after they filed a petition for an interim order from the court did they receive a response from the IDF, which said that after an in-depth investigation it was found that no support exists that the building was struck by fire from the exercise, insisting that the village is “outside the range of the firing” and around three kilometers from the troops conducting the exercise. It also said the village is on a hill while the soldiers were training down below, “so it isn’t possible to determine with certainty that gunfire from this exercise is what hit the building.”

The request for an injunction is part of a broader request that the court rehear a petition against the eviction of Masafer Yatta residents with an expanded panel of justices. The original petition was rejected in May. The Palestinians are being represented in the case by attorneys Roni Pelli and Dan Yakir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

The petitioners argued that during the exercise heavy military vehicles passed through farmed fields, and the army closed roads without informing the residents, and led to serious traffic restrictions in the area.

The IDF said in response that the forces avoid damaging farmed land and avoid entering it, did not enter the villages themselves, and roadblocks are implemented only in the areas of actual firing – and alternate roads remain open for local residents.

In May, the High Court ruled that the residents of eight villages in Masafer Yatta are located in an area declared as Firing Zone 918 and did not live there before the firing zone was officially declared, contrary to local evidence that their families have lived in the area since before Israel was established. As a result, the High Court has greenlighted removing them to conduct military exercises there. A month after the ruling, the IDF announced that it would hold, for the first time in 20 years, a military exercise with live fire in the zone. The lawyers representing the Palestinians submitted a request at the time for an temporary restraining order, which was denied after the court accepted the army’s position that it would not remove the residents from their homes – and would avoid any harm to the residents and their property.

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