Fewer than six months after a court order expelling the inhabitants of Masafer Yatta from their homes, life in the area has changed beyond recognition. Day-to-day existence had always been difficult in the eight small villages scattered through the area in the absence of basic facilities, even before the recent court decision allowing the Israeli army to resume its live-fire training, but in recent months it has grown even worse amid the constant presence of the Israeli army and live-fire training. Roadblocks between the villages make it harder for the inhabitants to get in and out, and roads are closed to non-residents. As a result, many villagers have stopped using their cars. As in the old days, they ride donkeys or they walk.
“You can’t imagine how life has changed here,” says Sleiman Abu Aram, a father of 10 from the village of al-Majaz. One of his children has diabetes, which means the family often has to go to the nearest town, Yatta. “Two weeks ago we walked. I had to take him to the doctor, there’s nothing else we can do,” he says. Abu Aram and his 9-year-old son walked to the village of al-Tuwani, outside of the firing zone, and from there they took a car to Yatta. For 90 minutes they hiked across a desolate, unshaded desert without a water source, he says. At other times, he rode a donkey. “Most of our provisions we buy in Yatta. We used to just take a car and drive. Today we can manage seven or 10 days until we go there. In emergencies I get on the donkey and go bring [what we need]” Abu Aram said.
The only high school in the area has clearly been impacted for the worse. Haitham Abu Sabha, the principal, told Haaretz that recently at least five children had stopped attending because of the difficulty getting there. Every morning, Abu Samha says, the army delays the students who come via special transportation from the surrounding villages, as well as the teachers, most of whom come from Yatta. Sometimes the army doesn’t allow the teachers who are coming by car to enter and they have to go back. In other cases, the teachers walk.
One student who attends the school, located in the village of al-Fakheit, is Bissan Mahamra, 17, from the village of al-Sfai al-Fuqa. She is studying this year for her matriculation exams and hopes to pursue nursing and English at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah. “A week ago the army stopped us for an hour in the sun on our way to school. They took our identity cards and the car keys. There were six students in the car. We asked at least to open the doors because it was hot, and they said that wasn’t allowed,” she says. Last Monday, Mahamra says, soldiers at the roadblock checked the students’ bags. “When something like this happens, we get to school in the end and all we can think about is that we want it to stop,” she adds.
Masafer Yatta has no paved roads. Some of its unpaved roads are in better condition than others, while some have been so abused by the army over the years that they can only be traversed by jeep – and even then the trip is hard and exhausting. Recently, because of the roadblocks and the delays, residents have started using roads that no one had used before. “Because they don’t let us pass, we take a dangerous mountain road,” Mahamra says. After that, the residents opened a school for first through fourth grade in al-Sfai, so the youngest children wouldn’t have to risk a dangerous trip in order to travel there.
The army had not conducted live-fire training in Masafer Yatta for about 20 years, while a lawsuit against the expulsion of residents was pending. But since May, when the court approved the expulsion, the army has held two live-fire training sessions in the area. In the first, a bullet came through the roof of a house in the village of Halat al-Dab’a, and military vehicles were filmed driving through cultivated fields. This month, the army has been conducting additional live-fire exercises.
“Everybody who’s asleep woke up. We heard lots of explosions,” says Isa Hamad, 45, from al-Fakheit. Haitham Abu Sabha, the school principal, says, "We are afraid that explosives will be left behind and that the children will be wounded by them. My children wake up in the middle of the night. This is the first time they have heard such a thing. This is something that happened before the year 2000, but our children didn’t experience it.” Samha adds that at school teachers try to explain what’s happening and tell students it’s a phase that they hope will pass in an effort to help them focus on their studies.
“We live on the mountain and they do the training on the other mountain,” says Mahamra, who has eight brothers and sisters. “There’s firing night and day, things shake. I have a 4-year-old sister who says she’s not afraid, but of course she is, she screams and cries.”
When Haaretz visited the site last Tuesday, soldiers had erected a roadblock on the main road leading from al-Fakheit to a village called Jinba. They placed spikes in the middle of the dirt road and put up a warning sign. The soldiers looked exhausted, saying they had taken part in live-fire exercises all night and into the morning. One of them said the reason they were there was to “bring back governance” and to prevent unauthorized entry by Palestinians into Israel. Most of the time the soldiers sat under a canopy they had stretched out from an armored personnel carrier they had parked on the roadside. A jeep that had brought the kids from the school in al-Fakheit was detained at the roadblock but released after a few minutes. When an elderly man on a donkey came toward the roadblock, three soldiers ran toward him. After a short conversation, the man turned back the way he came.
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At the same time that the decision on Masafer Yatta was handed down, a crackdown in the West Bank called Operation Breakwater was underway following a wave of terror attacks in Israel earlier this year. As part of the army’s efforts to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel without a permit, trenches were dug, a patrol road was paved and soil embankments were built in Masafer Yatta. The area, which is open desert near the southern Israeli city of Arad, is one of the routes by which laborers are transported into Israel.
Palestinian residents petitioned against the building of the western part of the obstacle, which required the issuance of a confiscation order. In the lawsuit, which was filed by Kamer Mashraqi of Haqel-Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights, the Palestinians argued that the obstacle cut them off from their lands, blocked a road needed by the residents and, because it runs through an ecological corridor, harmed the environment. A ruling is expected in the next few days.
During Haaretz's Tuesday visit, a small group of men from the village were sitting outside the school building in al-Fakheit, watching armored personnel carriers coming up a dirt road nearby. Issa Hamad recounted how, when he tried to reach the village, soldiers stopped him from entering because his identity card said he was from Yatta. “They held us for five hours at the roadblock, which is 100 meters away from our house. I could wave to my kids from the roadblock,” he says. “They took my car parked beside my house,” says Nasser Abeed from the village of al-Tabban. To get it back, he had to pay 2,800 shekels ($810). The seizure order the army issued said the car had entered Firing Zone 918. But that’s where Abeed lives.
Activists say that since the court ruling, there have been a growing number of vehicle confiscations due to their presence in the firing zone, including cars used by the activists themselves, teachers coming to classes at local schools and organizations providing humanitarian aid to the villagers. At the end of July, a car used by the NGO Comet-ME, which provides renewable-energy services and clean water to the villages of Masafer Yatta, was seized. The vehicle was only released after the organization signed a statement promising not to enter the area again and paid a fine. Comet-ME says the blanket ban on entering the area has had a major impact on its humanitarian work. For example, several weeks ago activists say they were forced to tell a family who had requested a water pump that they couldn’t deliver it. As a result, the family had to use jerry cans to bring hundreds of liters of water to their herd.
The large presence of soldiers in the area has led to a sizable increase in the number of vehicles ordered off roads or barred from use altogether, a practice known as “mashtubot.” But a ban on infrastructure construction, and the fact that the area can only be reached by dangerous dirt roads – together with particularly poor economic conditions in Masafer Yatta – means that people are increasingly using such cars. Driving a mushtuba car has always involved the risk of confiscation, but the large number of soldiers in the area have led to more confiscations than ever. Machi Abu Sabha, a 55-year-old al-Fakheit resident, says the confiscation of his car means that even visits to the doctor have to be done on foot. “I walked for an hour and a quarter from here to the clinic in Al-Majaz instead of taking a car,” he says.
Today, the residents of Masafer Yatta are awaiting a decision by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut on their appeal for a new hearing on the expulsion order, which has been filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “The army has told the High Court that use of the firing zone for training doesn’t harm the fabric of residents’ lives. But the situation on the ground is light years away from what they claim,” says Roni Pelli, the ACRI attorney who has filed the appeal together with the organization’s chief legal counsel, Dan Yakir. Lawyers who have appealed to the Israel Defense Forces about restrictions on the movement of residents, among them Netta Amar-Shiff, who has dealt with the case of a family delayed on their way to the hospital in Yatta with a child suffering from paralysis, have so far been met with no response.
“Army operations in the area have made life insufferable for their residents,” says Pelli. “We need to be reminded again that under international law, it is prohibited to force people to leave their homes. This is a blanket prohibition under customary international law – you can not expel someone by force and also can’t do it by making their life difficult. More than that, forced expulsion is a crime. It’s enough to know that the army’s actions will lead to deportation to prove it – there’s no need to show intention or an organized policy.”
In response the IDF said: “Firing Zone 918 is a closed military zone, and all entry into it without permissions by IDF officials is prohibited and constitutes a criminal offense, and endangers human lives. IDF forces have been stationed at the entrances to the firing zone in order to prevent unauthorized entry to the area and when needed vehicles that have entered without clearance have been seized. Nevertheless, the IDF is working to enable the residents to maintain an ordinary daily life and accordingly residents who reside in the area today, including students, are permitted to leave from there. Recently, the instructions in this regard were clarified.
“In July 2022, during a military training exercise in Firing Zone 918, it was reported that a bullet hit the roof of a building in a live-fire zone. Immediately upon receiving the report, training was halted and an in-depth investigation was undertaken. In the end, insufficient evidence was found that the structure was hit by fire during training due to the nature and distance involved. However, it was decided to take additional safety measures during the remainder of the training exercise.”