Trapped in a mesh of regulations: life in Firing Zone 918
A tour of Firing Zone 918 offers a glimpse of the harassment by settlers and soldiers, and of locals’ sense of helplessness.
By Chaim Levinson, Ha’aretz
October 05, 2013
Who’s the interloper here?
Uncertainty is the dominant feeling that grips you after spending even just a few days in the southern Hebron Hills. It’s 6 A.M. on an August day. There’s full light outside. An Israel Defense Forces jeep shows up on the road that leads to a cluster of tents, caves, sheep pens, makeshift structures and concrete shapes that together comprise Khirbet Umm al-Heir. The guessing starts at once. Are the soldiers looking for car thieves? Are they here to carry out a routine check of ID cards? Should we try to go out or is it better to wait inside until they’ve left? Does the jeep portend the arrival of inspectors from the IDF’s Civil Administration bearing demolition orders? Are they planning a dazzling military operation to confiscate outhouses? Will they demolish the house built by Hairi Hadalin ahead of his forthcoming marriage to Nura, from nearby Umm Draj?
Finally, 30 minutes later, the jeep leaves. Nothing happened.
Every day brings its tensions. Every attempt to herd sheep can swiftly become a violent clash with residents of the nearby settlement and settler outpost. Every trip to get water can lead to a traffic ticket and a fine of NIS 1,500.
Every journey along a road within Firing Zone 918 can end with the vehicle being confiscated for “illegal entry.”
A woman from the Khirbet al Fakheit gazes from her tent. Her village of nine families is one of the eight Palestinian communities slated for demolition in the area of the South Hebron Hills designated by the Israeli military as “Firing Zone 918″. Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org.
And hovering over everything is the greatest uncertainty of all: Will the High Court of Justice accept the petition of the 1,000 residents of eight communities in the firing zone and allow them to remain there − or will the army arrive, demolish the dwellings, seal the wells and caves, and load the sheep onto trucks bound for the nearby town of Yatta?
Permanent temporary residents
IDF Firing Zone 918 is a microcosm of the war of attrition the state is waging with the aid of the settlers in the southern Hebron Hills. Its aim is to reduce the living space of the local Palestinians. About 1,300 Palestinians (300 of whom are not in danger of eviction) live on the slopes of Mount Hebron, which descend to the Arad rift. Eight of their 12 communities are slated for demolition.
Destroying a whole village these days, in the era of instant communications, isn’t what it used to be. There are too many cameras around, and the presence of human rights organizations and the attention of the European Union is palpable. The ongoing war of attrition is meant to make the Palestinians here look for a better life elsewhere. If not, then at least to diminish their living space.
There is no bureaucratic ploy the state has not resorted to in order to wear down the villagers and cave dwellers. The firing zone is a distinct and separate issue, but also part of the general context of the developments in the area to the south of the city of Hebron. Even amid the chaotic situation in Judea and Samaria, the southern Mount Hebron region stands out as an anomaly. Most of the Palestinians here are in Area C, which is under the full control of the Israeli military regime. They are not organized politically. Neither the Bedouin nor the fellahin have any interest in the politics of nations. They are not cut out for public struggles.
Herding sheep near Jinba. Photo by Oren Ziv / Active Stills
The legal issues surrounding the firing zone are complex. The court proceedings have gone on for nearly 15 years and fill thousands of pages (see box). The gist of the matter is whether the Palestinians invaded the firing zone, or whether the firing zone invaded them. The state argues that if they lived in this area in the past, they did so in temporary structures and therefore can not be categorized as “permanent residents” whose rights take precedence over the army’s right to declare establishment of a firing zone.
The Palestinians, who are represented by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem − The Israeli Information Center in the Occupied Territories, Rabbis for Human Rights and Taayush Arab-Jewish Partnership, maintain that they have dwelt on this soil for generations, over hundreds of years. They dismiss scornfully the allegation that they are newcomers to the area.
Ibrahim Abu Jundiyeh from Khirbet Touba (which lies within the zone but is not one of the eight villages the army wants to demolish), is known as “the Egyptian.” Legend has it that his grandfather arrived from Egypt after murdering two people. Four generations of residence is still considered a short period, as compared with family dynasties extending across centuries. Ali Awad, a shepherd of 45, lives in a cave at the entrance to which he was born. And so it goes: Everyone points out the tree to which his grandfather used to tie his camel and the cave in which his ancestors lived.
As proof of their case, both sides draw on the same book: “Life in the Caves of Mount Hebron,” by Yaakov Habakuk, published in 1985 by the Ministry of Defense. Habakuk, a member of the defense establishment, went to live in the caves after hearing about them in 1977. His book describes the cave dwellers’ way of life, family structure and geographical dispersion. Six of the sites now slated for demolition are mentioned in the book. The state quotes passages about temporary dwellings, the petitioners refer to pages citing the residents’ local history and traditions.
Anyone who spends time here and talks to the inhabitants soon realizes that the dispute is as much cultural as it is factual. The state’s representative, attorney Anar Helman, who lives in Tel Aviv’s upscale Bavli neighborhood, likely defines permanent quarters as an apartment bought from a contractor with a mortgage, and inscribed in the Land Registry. But life in the southern Mount Hebron region is not quite like that. Yatta is the local town. For the Palestinians here, movement between Yatta and their squalid dwellings constitutes a permanent way of life. When they say “I have lived here all my life,” they don’t imagine that any other way of life is possible. In the view of the state, the residents’ summer dwellings disconnects them from the land.
Where the water is
Ali Awad divides his life between two sites in the firing zone. He was born in a cave at Touba, but because of the size of his herd − more than 1,000 head of sheep − part of his family lives at Al-Fakhit, where there are also grazing sites. A lean man, Awad leaves the cave every morning at sunrise to tend to his herd. In the afternoon he goes by tractor to nearby A-Tuwani to bring water. He is fed up with the situation. He protests vehemently when told that he has a good life. “The work is hard and there is no money,” he replies. Although his home in Touba is not in danger of demolition, his family’s homes in Al-Fakhit are on the list.
He is fearful. “This is my life. They tell us to move to Yatta. But I cannot go to Yatta. There is no land there for my sheep. I was born here, I have lived here. My whole life I am in the cave, but I want to live in a house. Because of the army I am not able to build.”
He also suffers from army exercises in the firing zone. “One morning I got up and their helicopters were here outside,” he says. “They did helicopter training. Helicopters land and take off. Land and take off. If a helicopter lands on the wheat field, the wind from the blades destroys the whole field.”
Touba is near the settlement of Havat Maon (Maon Farm). The road leading to nearby A-Tuwani runs close to the settlement. The army closed the road, with the result that every trip to bring water now involves going 15 kilometers instead of two. The army escorts the Palestinian children to school, to protect them from harassment by the settlers. If the soldiers are late, as they often are, the children go with international activists, who live in A-Tuwani. When that happens, youths from the settlement badger them. The same occurs whenever shepherds approach the settlement with their animals.
“My brother was stabbed a year and a half ago,” Awad says. “I see the youths from Havat Maon and I run. The grazing areas have become smaller because of the settlement. There is not much soil but many sheep, and there is nothing to eat.”
Abu Jundiyeh, the neighbor from Touba, lost a grove of olive trees to the settlers. He is dirt poor even by the standards of Firing Zone 918. Unable to afford a car or a tractor, he gets around on a mule. In 2000, the authorities demolished two dwellings and an animal pen that belonged to him. Since then he has lived in a tent − for which a demolition order has also been issued, of course. His fields lie in Umm Zituna, close to Havat Maon. There is no way he can even approach them.
“Life is very hard,” he says. “Things are hard with the army and with the settlers. The army threatens that if we go there [to the fields] one more time they will expel us for three months. Stones are thrown at the children on the way to school. Sometimes the army leaves and stones are thrown. Sometimes the army is late, and the children have to go without the soldiers. It’s a long way, two kilometers, and in every kind of weather.” Still, he will never leave Touba, he says. “I have 150 sheep. What will I do with them? Put them in a house in Yatta?”
Abu Jundiyeh has no expectations of the Palestinian Authority. “Mussa Mahmari, the mayor of Yatta, has never been here,” he says. “They don’t help us.”
In Salem’s jeep
To escape the extreme heat, I hitched a ride in a jeep with Salem, a Yatta resident who is employed by the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. He apologizes for not being fond of Israel. As an adolescent he lived in the firing zone. In 1999, the army raided the area, demolished villages and expelled all the inhabitants. The Palestinians were able to return to the area during the second intifada, because the army did not train there, but the events traumatized all the residents.
“In 1999, soldiers threw out our food and hit my father. I cannot forget that,” Salem says. His family moved to Yatta after the expulsion, and he was sent to study at Abu Dis University, adjacent to Jerusalem. He does not miss the old way of life, but the humiliation continues to seethe in him.
Salem visits the flocks of sheep in the area and provides veterinary services underwritten by the PA. Today he is going to Majaz, to vaccinate the flock belonging to Mohammed Abu Ar’am, 60, the father of eight children. Seventy people live with him in the community. His whole livelihood derives from sheep and wheat. A native-born inhabitant, he remembers the historical events.
“We were told to leave in 1985,” Abu Ar’am says. “We were expelled to Dekeika. We hired a lawyer [Elias Khoury] and were allowed to return. We were also expelled in 1999. I am afraid of the army. They have rifles. How can anyone not be afraid? But I will not leave this place. There is nowhere for me to go. All I want is to live here with my sheep.”
Dreaming of a town plan
A-Sfay, which lies near Majaz, is a cluster of a few structures located at the edge of a hill, along with caves dug by the head of the family, Mussa Abdallah Awad. Now 54, he has worked hard his whole life. Excessive smoking has left him wheezing chronically. He spends his days resting beneath a tree. In his condition he is no longer afraid. “I trust in the good Lord,” he says. His primary concern is to decipher the handwriting of his doctor in Yatta.
Three families, 30 souls, live at Simera, where Ismail Awadi is in charge. The older children attend school in Yatta and sleep there in the homes of the extended family.
Their father sees them only on the weekend. He cannot access part of his pasture land because it is close to the outpost of Mitzpeh Yair. He and the others were unable to plant in the winter, and the sheep now have nothing to eat there, he says: “Once the settlers came here. They told me not to come close. They said there would be a war if I came there. I don’t call the police anymore. Either they don’t answer, or they don’t come or they don’t speak Arabic. There is no reason to call.”
A grand new house for the small religious settlement of Mitzpeh Yair. Close to the settlement of Susya, they have access to swimming pools, libraries and the finer amenities.
The Hadalin family lives in Umm al-Kheir, adjacent to the firing zone boundary. In contrast to the residents of Yatta, they are not Bedouin. After being expelled from the Arad rift in 1953, they bought land from people in Yatta and settled on it. Umm al-Kheir was established next to them in the 1980s.
Eid, who lives there, is a unique phenomenon in the area: He did not attend university, but learned Hebrew and English on his own and became a man of the world. He is the only local resident who has ever been abroad − to London. When he returned, an unforgettable party was held for him. His dream is to be able to move about with an ID card.
“They are always checking the ID,” he says. “They tell you, ‘You don’t live here, go to Yatta.’ They arrest you for a few hours. You leave home and don’t know if you will come back. Last year, I saw a helicopter land in the field and cover everyone’s food with dust. A year ago they destroyed our tomato patch. I have no security. My house cost NIS 30,000. I paid off the debt, but I am afraid they will demolish it. They will not approve municipal plans. I am dying for a master plan to be drawn up, but we are too close to the settlement of Karmel. They will tell us, ‘Take a small bit of land far away from here and leave this place.’”
Arms and antiquities
The war of attrition here takes many forms. Recently, for example, the police started to impound trucks that take water from the main pipeline of Mekorot, the Israeli water company, and transport it to Yatta. The loading place is an official site, located on the main highway. The truck drivers pay the PA NIS 4 per cubic meter of water there. A PA clerk is on hand to oversee the quotas. Last month, Civil Administration officers showed up and declared that Mekorot was now prohibiting water to be pumped before 9 A.M. and after 3 P.M. Afterward, the hours were extended from 7 A.M. until 5 P.M. But the police decided to make life miserable for the truck drivers. If a driver made a left-hand turn illegally, his truck was impounded, the water emptied out and the vehicle taken to Jericho. One driver was caught without papers. He said he would bring them from his home, but the police impounded the truck. As everyone knows, the biggest difficulty in the southern Hebron Hills is the shortage of water. In the absence of a proper infrastructure, each family improvises a solution in the form of cisterns, roof-top tanks and buying water from trucks.
Another method used by Israeli authorities to wear down the locals is to confiscate cars traveling in Firing Zone 918. In fact, the access road to the outpost of Mitzpeh Avigail also passes through the zone, but the Civil Administration doesn’t show up there. Sometimes the car is confiscated, sometimes not. Last month the settlers also joined the effort: They blocked the access road to Jinba with rocks, claiming a car had been stolen from the adjacent settler outpost. Police came to the site and ordered them to disperse. When they refused, the police photographed them with their cellphones and left. Subsequently, soldiers arrived and removed the rocks. When the soldiers left the settlers returned. The cycle continues.
Jinba is the “capital” of the firing zone. With a population of 300, it’s the largest community in the area. It has no access road for private vehicles, but does have a small school with two classrooms. One thing is not in dispute: Jinba is an ancient site of habitation. So ancient that the state, among its other arguments, says the inhabitants there must leave because they are intruding on an antiquities site. The residents’ homes abut the border with Israel. Smugglers crisscross the area. The community lives close to the Nahal Brigade’s training base at Tel Arad, and echoes of shooting from the firing ranges are a constant background noise. The old stone buildings are a favorite training site for the army.
The village head is Khaled Jibrin, aged 40 and the father of eight children. He started working in Israel when he was very young, as an electrician for a Holon developer. Afterward he returned to Jinba and settled down. He frequently encounters army exercises. Jibrin says he was born in Jinba, like his father and grandfather before him. He shows me a tree to which his father tied the camel he rode when he served in the Ottoman army in World War I.
“In the past two weeks there were four helicopters with soldiers here, and also military vehicles,” he says. “It looked like they were invading a country. The soldiers who came out of the helicopters entered the houses. My house is in the center of the village, and my children were sleeping. The soldiers started to throw flares. They removed the women from the house and did a search and made a mess. They spilled things on the floor. When they found nothing they grabbed the boy and started to hit him. I asked them, ‘Why are you hitting him?’ They wouldn’t let me speak. They hit me three times. They brought two more guys from the village and hit them. The next day they came back to get the casings of the flares and the stun grenades. I told them I would not give them back. I want to take them with me to court, so the world will know what is happening here.”
Jibrin is one of the petitioners to the High Court of Justice. He believes that increased military training is part of an attempt by the army to create pressure ahead of the coming court hearing: “The concentrated presence of the military here is not just a matter of training but also of pressure. You know, they have enough room to train closer to Israeli territory. They are only doing it so we will leave. The whole story is to expel us. They did not tell us directly that we are leaving here, but the army shows up for every little thing. They confiscate cars, close the road, and it all means one thing: the whole idea here comes down to expulsion. All the pressure is in order to expel us. Life here is hard. But we received a donation of cement and windows from an American organization. Life here is not easy in any event, but they should let us live here.”
Jibrin says he will not leave − at any price. “They are wrong if they think that that is what will happen in the end. We would rather die here, to the bitter and sweet end. We have taken a lot of abuse. Since 1985, we have been under pressure − from the time they declared this a firing zone.”
Jibrin still recalls a scene from a court hearing in 1999: “There was an officer who spoke; I don’t remember his name. He said, ‘These people are like mice. We expel them and they come back.’ If an Arab likened Jews to mice, he would get life imprisonment.”
Jinba’s main confrontations involve the outpost of Havat Lucifer (Lucifer Farm, also known as Nof Nesher). “Someone from South Africa came and said, ‘This is my territory.’ Why is it yours? It’s enough for one of them to file a complaint against you with the police and you are barred from entering Israel. I went to complain against a settler who took two sheep from me. I found myself being charged. If I took one sheep from a settler, I would be in jail. The PA does not help us. Our nation is screwed from all directions and we do not have the strength to defend ourselves.”
Close to Jinba is Halaweh; its land is partly in Israel proper and partly in the West Bank. The local headman is Khalil Abu Ar’am. “Conditions here are especially hard,” he explains. “The closest school is three kilometers away, and the children go there on mules.” As the site abuts the (unmarked) border, military vehicles sometimes appear and take the residents into detention for an hour or an hour and a half. “Where will we go?” he asks − like everyone else.
Without the occupation
Most informed observers think that the High Court will change nothing. The Palestinian residents of the area will be subjected to greater restrictions, their freedom of movement will be further reduced, their grazing land will be expropriated, more demolition orders will be issued, and only those who truly have nowhere else to go will remain.
The photographer Eduardo Soteras Jalil, who came to Israel and fell in love with the area, lives in Hamaida, which is also on the boundary of the firing zone. He formerly lived in a cave in Touba. He has now upgraded his home to a basement room with a desert view and a narrow wooden bed. His photographs are of the Palestinian residents exclusively, apart from one picture in which soldiers can be seen. As an observer from the side, he thinks that it’s precisely the army’s behavior that is inducing people to stay.
“There is something unique here,” he says. “Maybe it’s because of the occupation. The occupation has created a situation of status quo. If there were no occupation, this way of life would have disappeared within another generation. Most of the people would have gone to Yatta.
There are people here who went to university. They don’t have sheep. They work in other places. But they stay in the zone all the time, because they are afraid their land will be taken. The urbanization process was halted by force.”
The Israel Police did not provide a response to this article.
The IDF Spokesman’s Unit stated: “Firing Zone 918 was declared a closed military area, and has been a training area since the 1980s. Over the years, and against the law, Palestinians entered the area and built illegal structures.
“On July 30, 2013, the state submitted its response to petitions filed in the Supreme Court. As arises from the response, there is no legal or factual basis for the petitioners’ argument that the IDF is not authorized to evacuate them from the firing zone. More particularly, the response makes it clear that the petitioners were never permanent residents in the firing zone and that their presence there is illegal.
“The training exercises in the zone are part of the IDF’s regular activity, which is carried out within the framework of the requisite operational routine. The activity is carried out within the necessary safety limits, given the presence of a population and clusters of constructed areas there. The IDF reduces the space in which training takes place to prevent casualties, and damage to property and to the fabric of life of the local residents.”
An example of Israeli authorities’ attitude toward the Palestinian residents of the southern Hebron Hills is their reaction to Comet, an organization that in recent years has established solar electricity infrastructures in the area. The organization was founded by two Israeli physicists, Elad Orian and Noam Dotan. Their office is located close to the main highway, in a stone house rented to them by a local resident. A cave underneath serves as a storeroom and control center. There is nothing formal here: Meetings are held outside, with Orian, the general manager, serving food to guests. Inside is a shared office and a kitchen. Orian has a geeky look about him which is misleading. He used to be active in Anarchists Against the Fence and other groups. A few years ago, he decided that the time had come to do something concrete on behalf of the people here.
The arrival of electric power brought significant social changes to this area. There are now washing machines, refrigerators and equipment for making cheese. The women have more leisure time. Electricity also brought television, via satellite dishes. Before the advent of electric power, mobile phones were charged with the use of tractor batteries, and people thought twice before using them. Now the phones can be charged at any time and there is access to the Internet, even in the most remote areas.
Comet-ME, which works to provide “sustainable rural electrification,” as its website says, was founded in 2009 as a company for the public good. Its primary funder is the government of Germany. After trial and error at Sussiya, Comet launched a project to establish 25 electric-power infrastructures in 25 communities across the entire southern Hebron Hills, including in the firing zone. Some 1,600 people enjoy the service. The Palestinians, in contrast to the nearby illegal settler outposts, are not connected to the Israel Electric Corporation grid and lack access to central infrastructures. Accordingly, they decided to use energy generated by wind turbines and solar panels. The organization worked intensively in the first years. Their model includes an examination of the community’s needs, on which basis the infrastructures are built. The latter are supplied for free, but locals pay for the electricity they use at a rate of 60 agorot per kilowatt hour − the same rate the Palestinian electric company charges. The money collected is deposited in a separate account, which is intended for the maintenance of the system. This is one of the lessons learned from similar expensive projects which became white elephants because when devices broke down there was no way to repair them.
“We are half an electric-power company and half an activist organization,” Orian says. “It’s not a gift. It’s a service. People need a feeling of ownership. One of the best ways to achieve that is to charge for power consumption. It might sound cynical at first, but the fact that people pay an electricity bill creates a sense of ownership of the system.
We are the only organization in the southern Hebron Hills, and maybe in all of Area C, which is succeeding continuously and effectively in collecting money from the population. That shows that the service we are providing is important to these people. They are the poorest population in the West Bank, but we have higher collection rates than the PA. They trust us, because we are here all the time. When we say that something will happen, in the end it happens.”
Comet did not seek permits to operate from the Civil Administration. There are several reasons for this, Orian says: “In principle, I don’t believe we have to ask for permits from an occupying force to supply basic services. And practically speaking, it is perfectly clear that if we ask for them, that will set in motion a complex, energy-draining process that will drag on for years and ultimately elicit a negative answer.”
The Civil Administration has issued demolition orders for 15 of Comet’s 25 installations. Germany, which could put pressure on the Israeli government to revoke the orders, has for the time being put a hold on new installations. Israeli authorities have informed the Germans that they have no objection in principle to what Comet is doing, but as in every law-abiding state, permits are needed. The bureaucratic snafu has existed since 2012, and no permits are looming on the horizon. According to Orian, the master plan, which allows solar installations in the territories, is not relevant in the case of the Palestinians in the southern Hebron Hills.
“It was drawn up in such a way that the Palestinians will not be able to get permits,” he says. “The most basic level, the technical level, is that there is no power grid. The plan is relevant for places where electricity is sold to the electric company. Here there is no electricity at all.”
Comet and the Civil Administration have held meetings to regularize the situation. “The Germans were promised by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories that the installations would not be destroyed. We have hired the services of attorney Michael Sfard and we have started to go through the whole grinder of committees. A year and a half ago I knew nothing about all this. One of the things we have learned is how abysmally unserious this body is,” adds Orian. “They issue you a stop-work order. If you’re quick enough, you manage to request permission before it becomes a demolition order. If not, it’s already a demolition order.
“It’s clear to everyone involved in the process that it is empty of content,” he continues. “It’s clear to everyone in the room, whether they are from the Civil Administration, Dangot’s people [i.e., Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the Coordinator of Government Activities] and to those submitting the request. There is no chance of getting a positive reply. The interesting thing in this process is that the system works like an assembly line. The Civil Administration issues hundreds of orders a year … We were given reasons for the rejection of our requests. For example, because some pole is too high and needs a permit from the Airports Authority. We contacted the Airports Authority and were told that installations less than 60 meters high are of no interest. In one village, construction less than 100 meters from the road is not allowed. It then turned out that the nearby settlement of Beit Yatir is 10 meters from the road. And of course, the principal argument is that [Palestinian] ownership of the land has not been proved. Ownership of land constitutes a clash between cultures. People are told to bring confirmation from all the inheritors of a property. There are 300 descendants of a man from the 1950s, and half of them are in a refugee camp in Jordan.
“As long as there is no political willingness to allow the installations, it won’t happen. The legal and planning instruments are geared to that. This population does not vote. It does not set the rules and regulations. It is not represented on the committees. This [situation] is totally unrelated to any planning process we are familiar with from democracies.”
The office of the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories stated in response: “Engaging in the realm of electricity, including the establishment of electrical installations to generate renewable energy, is subject to regulation and to permits, as stipulated in the law and in security-related legislation. This is partly due to an effort to ensure an appropriate safety level, as called for in this sphere of activity. Comet-ME launched a renewable energy project in the southern Hebron Hills area without receiving permits from the administration as required by law. In a meeting between representatives [of the two sides] it was emphasized that, exceptionally and above and beyond the letter of the law, we will assist them to establish an electricity project in regularized places, and even in places currently in the process of being regularized. It was also emphasized that, as was said in the past, renewable energy projects cannot be authorized in places that have not been regularized.”