Life in West Bank Villages Where the Israeli Military Ruined the Access Roads

About two weeks ago the army dug wide, deep ditches in two of the roads, rendering them impassable, and rolled gigantic rocks onto a third. These are obstacles the inhabitants were unable to remove

Nidal Yunis, head of the council and a native of the West Bank village of Jinba, December 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Like everyone, the people of the Masafer Yatta villages south of Hebron hope for rain. But at the same time they fear the rain and the storm and especially its effect on simple daily activities like going to work, school, buying food, selling lambs and visiting family.

On December 26, huge military earth movers showed up, accompanied by soldiers, and destroyed the dirt roads connecting six villages in this area to each other and to the district town of Yatta. The previous month the army blocked a few of the roads with earth mounds, which the residents managed to dismantle. About two weeks ago the army dug wide, deep ditches in two of the roads, rendering them impassable, and rolled gigantic rocks onto a third. These are obstacles the inhabitants were unable to remove. As a result, the price of donkeys rose, say the inhabitants of the cut-off villages – Jinba, Halawa, Markaz, Majaz, Fakhit and Battan.

The destruction and blockage of the access roads was done by signed order of army Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Roni Numa. The IDF Spokesman’s Office wrote in answer to a query from Haaretz: “All the blockages are situated on roads that were broken through illegally.” By chance or not, in June 2017 the right wing NGO Regavim petitioned the High Court demanding that the authorities act against the roads it called “illegal” in Masafer Yatta. Numa is one of the respondents to the petition, along with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and head of the Civil Administration, Achvat Ben-Hur.

On the afternoon of December 26, Umm Mohammad, a resident of the largest of the villages, Jinba, was on her way home from a doctor’s appointment in Yatta. The taxi driver who took her could not continue down the rocky, unpaved road. Umm Mohammed, 57, got out and walked. Two kilometers. Not bad when it’s dry, or when you’re healthy and your legs and your stomach don’t hurt, or when you’re walking downhill. But it was hard for her. Now she leaves the village as little as possible.

The Jinba elementary school teachers who live in Yatta carpool to school in the math teacher’s car. Last week he parked it alongside the ditch and they got out and walked down, among the huge boulders. It took about half an hour. Walking back up takes 45 minutes. And so their workday gets longer. A temporary injunction issued by the High Court of Justice, which was given following a petition filed in 2012 by attorney Shlomo Lecker, prohibits damaging this road. Lecker has filed his intent to submit a request to have the army’s damage to the road declared contempt of court.

The road from the village of Twaneh eastward to Fakhit has been rent by two deep ditches. On one side is a deep wadi, or valley, and on the other, a mountainside. Four-wheel-drive vehicles make their way on the slope, risking life and limb, because the vehicle can roll into the ditches. In the rain the drive is even more dangerous. The teachers in the three other schools in Masafer Yatta who take this road get out near the ditches and continue about three kilometers on foot. Everyone has families, obligations, lives of their own. The difficulties reaching work might force them to quit.

There are five clinics in the villages. The doctor and nurse who come to each clinic once a week encounter the same obstacles and difficulties. Parents of little children and pregnant women are afraid of the bad road to the doctor’s office and the hospital. A third road, between the villages of Sha’ab al-Butum and Fakhit, has also been cut through by a ditch, but the residents managed to fill it with earth. A lightweight vehicle can cross it but not a heavy one, for example a water truck. Israel prohibits connecting the villages of Masafer Yatta to a water line and the inhabitants rely on rain and tanker trucks for their grazing animals, agriculture and homes. Their water costs 45 shekels ($13) a cubic meter instead of the six shekels paid by people who are connected to a water main. And this is one of the poorest populations in the region.

The Masafer Yatta Council subsidizes the water brought in tankers to Twaneh. But the tanker or tractor drivers risk their lives driving on the mountainside, above the ditches. One solution: donkey transport.

The villages are already feeling a shortage of water. Nidal Yunis, head of the council and a native of Jinba, says he worries every day whether there will be enough water for 1,000 inhabitants and 45,000 head of sheep and goats. Before the roadblocks were removed, some people brought water from ancient cisterns in the destroyed village of Qaryateen on the western side of the pre-1967 border, whose inhabitants were expelled in 1948. The necessity to water the flocks overcame the fear of arrest for entry without a permit.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office wrote in response to a query from Haaretz: “The main roads to all the buildings remain open and there is no obstacle to reaching them.”

That’s true. Everyone has the alternative of driving to the northern, detour road, adding time and gas money, and necessitating a drive on road 317, which might lead to a run-in with the army, settlers or the police.

Firing Zone 918

The army ignores the fact that these are longtime communities and the spokesman’s office writes that in the area stand “illegal structures alongside many illegal roads,” which it says are used by criminals seeking to enter Israel and smuggle people in. The response echoes the Regavim petition, which calls the villages “outposts” and the roads “smuggling routes.”

The Palestinian villages in Masafer Yatta came into being in a process of gradual natural growth since the 19th century, as people emerged from the village of Yatta seeking new water sources and pastures. In 1980, Israel declared some 30,000 dunams (7,500 acres) as a military firing zone, known as Firing Zone 918. Yet people continued to live there. At the height of the Oslo process in late 1999, the IDF forcibly removed some 700 people, destroying their homes and cisterns and confiscating property, claiming they were invaders.

It was then that the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and attorney Lecker began a legal fight to bring back the villagers. A temporary High Court injunction in 2000 allowed them to return temporarily but did not allow construction.

Since then the residents have been waging a legal battle for the right to live where they and their grandparents were born. An injunction issued by the High Court last year prohibits the army from dislocating them and orders the state to find a new military training option with minimal impact on the villagers. The state has not yet submitted a proposal.

According to the IDF, the access roads were used by the terrorists who perpetrated the attack on Tel Aviv’s Sarona shopping center in June 2016. “If the army wants to prevent smuggling into Israel, let it block the entrances to Israel. Blockages between the villages and the West Bank has no purpose except to embitter the lives of the residents,” ACRI attorney Roni Peli told Haaretz.

“The High Court has issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the army from making changes in the area,” Pell added. “The purpose of the injunction is to prevent forced expulsion, that is, to allow people to live their lives, to drink water, to clean their homes, water their flocks and go to work and school. Otherwise, the injunction is meaningless.”

Umm Mohammed, whose home has been ordered demolished, recalled the number of times the army has destroyed buildings in Jinba. “Of course there are people who leave, because the prohibitions and the searches drive them crazy. Would the Jews tolerate such things done to them? No. What have we done that they behave this way toward us?”