Israel's High Court Seeks 'Balance' in Turning Palestinian Villages Into Army Training Zone

'We have an ear for music,' justices tells Palestinian residents of Musafer Yatta, urging them to accept a compromise in ongoing legal battle

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Representatives of the West Bank villages of Masafer Yatta, of the army and of the Civil Administration sit in the Supreme Court before a hearing, August 2020.
Representatives of the West Bank villages of Masafer Yatta, of the army and of the Civil Administration sit in the Supreme Court before a hearing, August 2020.Credit: Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

“A compromise is better than a ruling. In the end, as in many cases, the answer is some kind of balance,” the judges said to the parties involved.

This wasn’t said regarding divorce proceedings or a neighbors’ dispute. The hoped-for compromise is supposed to be made between an invader who has taken over about 30,000 dunams (around 7,400 acres) of land, and a civilian population that has lived and earned its livelihood there for generations.

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The court that is seeking a “balance” is not a small claims court, but the Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice. The petitioners are residents of Masafer Yatta, a cluster of Palestinian villages in the southeastern West Bank, against the government’s intention of evacuating them and demolishing eight of their villages in order to allow for military training with live fire (in the area that the army calls Firing Zone 918).

This is a legal saga that has gone on for 20 years and began in October-November 1999, after the Israel Defense Forces loaded about 700 men, women and children onto trucks, evicted them from their simple dwellings and demolished them. The prime minister and defense minister was Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party at the time, and the era was that of the Oslo peace negotiations.

The petitions submitted in early 2000 by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and attorney Shlomo Lecker sent the residents back to their villages by dint of an interim order. There was an attempt at mediation, and the situation was later frozen. In 2012 it came up again and the army announced that it had reduced part of the firing zone. The initial petitions were erased and new ones were submitted – also via attorney Lecker and the ACRI lawyers. There was another failed attempt at mediation, there was all kinds of foot-dragging and now we are approaching the end of the legal proceedings.

Demonstration of support for the petitioners of the villages of Masafer Yatta outside the High Court, Jerusalem, August 2020.Credit: Amira Hass

During the hearing in the High Court last week the justices gave residents of the villages 60 days to decide whether they are willing to compromise. They must determine whether they are willing to “balance” their lives, their welfare and their safety with regular live-fire military exercises on their doorstep. They must decide whether they are willing to compromise on their physical wellbeing, on the safety of their children who will graze the sheep among ammunition duds, and of that of the flocks, and on their livelihood and way of life. On whether they accept the possibility that their fields and their pasture lands could go up in flames every few weeks.

“We have an ear for music,” Justice Hanan Melcer, head of the three-person judiciary panel, to the representatives of the petitioners. “I understood that you have heard offers (during the mediation process), and said no to each of them.”

Attorney Lecker replied, “The government’s offers have gotten worse from one time to the next,” to which Melcer responded: “That’s the proper way to conduct negotiations. It’s known that the first offer will be the best one … I come from the private sector and I know that.”

But this is not a business dispute, it’s about a population that is protected by international law in occupied territory. The justices themselves recognize that. Justice Menachem Mazuz said: “We’re in a regime of a prolonged occupation, this not a short-term stay, and there’s a working assumption that on the one hand the occupation demands military activity, and on the other the military requires training exercises.”

When attorney Yitzhak Bart of the State Prosecutor’s Office referred to the assertion by ACRI attorney Dan Yakir to the effect that “this is a weakened population” – it was Melcer who added: “weakened and protected.” What is the meaning of protected? That it’s illegal to expel the population and to evict it for the purpose of military exercises, as was determined already back in 1967 in an opinion of then-Military Advocate General Col. Meir Shamgar.

Therefore, the laymen in the courtroom expected the respected justices to seriously address the smoking gun discovered by the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, which was presented to the bench by the petitioners’ representatives: In July 1981, the document shows, Ariel Sharon, then agriculture minister in the government of Menachem Begin, suggested to the IDF brass that they establish a training zone in the region in order to prevent “the spread of the Arab mountain villagers on the ridge, in the direction of the desert.”

About a year later, when Sharon was already defense minister, it was declared that the area had been seized for the purpose of training exercises. In other words, the firing zone was originally declared with the objective of emptying the area of Palestinians. Mazuz was not upset by that revelation and said: “There is a combination of interests here. That doesn’t mean that the decision would not serve a military purpose involving firing zones.”

A Palestinian family sits next to the remains of their home near the village of Jenbah, which is in Firing Zone 918 in the West Bank, February 2, 2016.Credit: AFP

“The spread” referred to at the time by Sharon is the natural reciprocal relationship between a village of origin – which has grown and become an urban center – and seasonal offshoots that it created in the vicinity over a period of decades and that later became permanent villages.

For his part, attorney Bart claimed that the petitioners and their families are not permanent residents of their villages, but rather of the city of Yatta, and that if they settled in the area – it was as “invaders,” after it had been declared a firing zone. Therefore, it is permitted to expel them from their homes for the purpose of military exercises and to enable them to return in the periods between those exercises.

Here the justices clearly disagreed with him. The determination of permanent residency “is changing in many places in the world,” Melcer commented. “We don’t share your self-conviction, sir.”

And yet in spite of that, the justices expect the Palestinian residents to compromise regarding the demand for training exercises among and inside their homes, on their private and public lands. Or as Mazuz summed up: “In every model [that will be proposed to the parties] nobody will get what he wants.”

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