In Masafer Yatta, Palestinians Brace for a Second Expulsion

In 1999, Palestinians living in Masafer Yatta were evicted from their homes, allowed only to return as they waited for a final court ruling. Now, Israel has decided once again to expel the residents, reviving old traumas

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Residents of al-Fakheit on Tuesday. “We decided to move things up by ten days and prepare the sheep for shearing, so that if they came to expel us, at least will would have managed to have already done that,” said Mohammed Abu Sabha, a 45-year-old father of six.
Residents of al-Fakheit on Tuesday. “We decided to move things up by ten days and prepare the sheep for shearing" in case they are expelled, Mohammed Abu Sabha said.
הגר שיזף
הגר שיזף

In a simple brick structure in the village of Jinba, part of the wider Masafer Yatta region of the southern West Bank, two women in their 60s were standing and looking at a picture.

“It’s a picture from our expulsion in 1999. Here are all our things that the army put on a truck, and here I am, sitting in the middle. I was pregnant and had small children,” said Hadara Ali Jabarin.

“What did I think when I heard about the decision?” asked Jafar Ali Jabarin, 25 and a father of four. “What would you have thought if they had told you that they were expelling you from Tel Aviv?”

The residents of the village, who live in an area which was declared a military firing zone by Israel back in the 1980s, woke up that morning to discover that the army and the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank were removing their belongings from their homes and confiscating them. The residents themselves were forced to leave on that same rainy day and some of them hid in the hills. “That same day, we came back here and slept that way, outside, without anything,” she recalled.

Last Wednesday, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the government could again expel the residents. The court accepted the government’s position that there hadn’t been permanent residents living there prior to its being declared a firing zone. The court also rejected the residents’ arguments that the expulsion was contrary to international law and that they had been living there since before Israel was established.

A shepherd walks with his herd as Israeli army vehicles take part in a military exercise in the South Hebron Hills last year.

In the villages of Masafer Yatta, the memory of the earlier expulsion is still alive, and the news of a possible second expulsion revives old traumas. “What do they think? That we’re not like you? Didn’t God create us too? Let them burn! Who do they think they are?” Hadara said on Friday.

Jinba, which according to its residents has a population of about 300, is one of eight villages in the Masafer Yatta area that Israel declared an army firing zone in the 1980s. All told, the villages are thought to be home to between 1,000 and 1,800 residents. Even by standards in the wider South Hebron Hills region, which is itself remote, Masafer Yatta is distant and poor. Reaching many of the area's villages requires traversing unpaved dirt roads full of bumps and dips that throw passengers in every direction.

Some of the residents live in homes made of stone or exposed concrete block. Others live in large tents with plastic sheeting. There are also those who still live in the caves in the area.

Solar panels installed in recent years provide electricity. Residents fetch water from wells or water tanks. Prior efforts by the villages to pipe in water were opposed by Israeli authorities, who disconnected them. None of the buildings or infrastructure in the villages are legal and everything is subject to demolition orders. And in fact, the villagers have experienced frequent demolitions. And for the past 20 years, they have been living on borrowed time.

A home in al-Fakheit, Tuesday. Some of the residents live in homes made of stone or exposed concrete block. Others live in large tents or in traditional cave dwellings.

Following the eviction in 1999, the residents were only allowed to return based on a court order permitting them to remain until a ruling was made on a court petition on the matter. Since then, many years have passed, and new generations of children have been born there. It was only this past week that the court’s decision came.

A day after the residents of one of the other area villages, the tiny village of al-Fakheit, heard that the court was permitting their expulsion, they began preparing for what was to come. “We decided to move things up by ten days and prepare the sheep for shearing, so that if they came to expel us, at least will would have managed to have already done that,” said Mohammed Abu Sabha, a 45-year-old father of six.

So that morning, the men were busy bathing the sheep and preparing them. Abu Sabha was born in al-Fakheit and said that his grandmother and grandfather were too. He learned of the court decision on Thursday morning. “All day long, we tried to think about what we would do if they expel us. We have no plan or place to go.”

Photographs memorialize the last time residents of Masafer Yatta were evicted by Israel in 1999.

Sadil and Fatma, two of Abu Sabha’s daughters, were born following the 1999 expulsion. They are now 14 and 15-years-old, respectively. They said that prior to the court’s decision, they hadn’t thought it possible that it would actually repeat itself. “When we heard about it, the first thing that I thought of was that it would affect my schoolwork,” Sadil said.

Over the past decade, the small village has had a school with students from first grade through high school. Residents said that the school represented the most significant difference between the generations. Whereas Sadil and Fatma’s parents had to go to the nearby city of Yatta for school – and did so on foot or on a donkey – the girls were attending school an easy walk from their home.

The residents make a living by selling the milk and meat from the sheep or goats that they raise. They grow wheat and barley, and some of the men also work in Israel in construction.

Fatma’s day begins and ends with milking the family’s sheep – and in between she attends school. They only head into Yatta to shop or if they are sick, the girls noted.

Eiman, 36, said she is astonished at people’s lack of understanding of the future that awaits her community if they are expelled. “Most of the people here don’t have land or a home in Yatta and also don’t have money to buy them,” she said. “Our source of income is the sheep, and the sheep need space. It’s impossible to move to the city with sheep.”

“We’re angry that we don’t know where we can go. What will we do with our children? Where will we take our families?” asked Tasnim, 25. “The court’s decision surprised all of us. People will stay here until the last moment.”

On the road leading to Jinba, soldiers recently installed a stone checkpoint. The soldiers who were there said it was to prevent smuggling. The villagers said it was something else that made their lives difficult. The road to the village ultimately extends over the Green Line into Israel.

Following the outbreak of the recent wave of terrorist attacks and criticism of breaches in the border fence, the army has also begun digging a trench there. Above Jinba is the illegal Talia farm settler outpost, beyond which one can also see the outpost of Mitzpeh Ya’ir.

Israeli lawyers Shlomo Lecker, Roni Pelli and Dan Yakir represented the villagers in their court petition. Lecker said that Supreme Court Justice David Mintz had “offhandedly” rejected the claim that the villagers’ eviction would be in the realm of a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans the forced transfer of an occupied population.

“What’s the purpose of declaring tens of thousands of dunams, most of which are owned by the petitioners and other Palestinians, if not to achieve a political aim, which is taking control of the land and transferring it to Jewish hands?” he remarked to Haaretz.

“What did I think when I heard about the decision?” asked Jafar Ali Jabarin, 25 and a father of four. “What would you have thought if they had told you that they were expelling you from Tel Aviv?”

Jabarin, who was born and grew up in Jinba, described the tough routine of life in the area. “I’m afraid for my son to go around here because of the settlers and the army. A few years ago, my brother slept here outside and all of a sudden, a soldier threw a concussion grenade at him,” he said.

Issa and Jafar Ali Jabarin, Tuesday. "There’s a lot of pressure on us and in recent years, it’s only gotten worse," said Jafar.

“A year ago, they came here and conducted searches. Six years ago, they demolished our house and we slept outside, and yesterday, the army confiscated my uncle’s car. To get it back he had to pay 5,000 shekels [$1,500],” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us and in recent years, it’s only gotten worse.”

Sixty-year-old Khaled Jabarin expressed hope that global public opinion would prevent Israel from evicting them yet again. “Then they took everything from us – destroying even the wheat that we had planted. Now they want to do it again, but they won’t be able to. The world will be with us,” he said.

“Then they took everything from us – destroying even the wheat that we had planted. Now they want to do it again, but they won’t be able to. The world will be with us,” said Khaled Jabarin.

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