On February 13, the Israel Defense Forces’ Civil Administration demolished a network of water lines that provided water to 12 Palestinian villages in the area of Masafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills. As a result of the demolition, the residents are once again dependent on water delivered in tanks. This costs seven times what the running water cost and risks the lives of the drivers of the tractors and trucks because of the poor state of the roads.
Seemingly the Civil Administration had all the bureaucratic reasons to dismantle the pipeline: It is Area C, in which the Civil Administration has full responsibility to approve or ban connections to infrastructure. The network of pipes was laid last year by the local Palestinian council with European funding, without Israeli approval. Moreover, this is an area that was declared a military firing zone back in the 1970s. While the demolition may be formally legal, preventing the regular supply of water while discriminating against Palestinians as compared to Israeli settlers, is an inhumane and illegal policy.
Despite the military exercises and the destruction of structures and water cisterns carried out by Israel from time to time, the residents of the small cave villages, which have existed since before 1948, continued to live in them. They made a living raising sheep and practicing non-irrigated agriculture while preserving their family, institutional and economic connection to the town they came from, Yatta.
Near the end of 1999, during the Oslo peace negotiations, the residents received eviction orders from their homes “because of illegal residences in a firing zone” and were evacuated in November of that year. As a result of a petition to the High Court of Justice, an interim order was issued that allowed the residents to return, but did not order the state to allow them to rebuild the structures and water cisterns that were demolished during the time of the evacuation – or to connect to the water and electricity infrastructure used by the settlements and the unauthorized outposts built nearby.
The authorities designate for demolition any new construction in these villages – including restored water cisterns, clinics and toilets. Two attempts for mediation between the sides have failed. The residents reject the government’s requirement that they leave their homes and graze and work their land only on certain days of the year.
Given that the area is settled and is a source of income for hundreds of families, its choice as a firing range at the outset was improper. Since 2005, the rare exercises in the area do not use live fire and the two military bases in the zone have been dismantled.
The Israeli intention behind preventing a regular supply of water is transparent: To cause the residents to abandon their homes and, in doing so, to clear the area to expand the settlements and allow de facto annexation. This is an invalid motive, which the Palestinian residents are challenging by stubbornly remaining in their homes despite the difficult living conditions. Israel must abide by international law, respect the principles of justice and equality and connect the villages in the Masafer Yatta area to the water infrastructure.
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