The Palestinian community of Um al Heir, South Hebron Hills, West Bank. Photo by Mairav Zonszein
State responds to two High Court petitions to stop planned evacuation of eight villages in south Hebron hills.
The state wants to evict 1,300 Palestinians from their homes in an army firing zone in the West Bank in part because training there saves the Israel Defense Forces time and money, according to the state’s response to two petitions against the mass eviction.
The petitions to the High Court of Justice were filed in January by residents of eight Palestinian villages located in Firing Zone 918, in the south Hebron hills. The state’s response was submitted on Wednesday following several postponements.
In it, the state said the development of a new generation of weapons with longer ranges necessitates larger training areas than were needed in the past. It also said that using Firing Zone 918 in particular saved time and money, because it is located very close to the Nahal Brigade’s training base in Tel Arad. In fact, the base was built there in 1993 precisely because it was close to two firing zones, 918 and 522.
“The proximity of the firing zone to the training base enables savings of the most precious resource of all in the field of IDF training – the resource of time,” the brief said. “This proximity also enables significant savings of money, in light of the high costs entailed in transporting hundreds of combatants, equipment and vehicles for training to a distant firing zone. To this is added the aspect of security for the force and equipment in a distant area. The greater the distance between the training base and the firing zone, the more the soldiers’ training time is reduced, and as a result, their fitness is reduced. This is especially true with regard to the training of new recruits, whose training the IDF views as particularly important.”
Therefore, the brief continued, “The IDF decided in recent years to gradually transfer regular units to training bases located near firing zones. … Abolishing Firing Zone 918 would mean that the units that come to train at the Nahal Brigade’s training base would be compelled to train in firing zones distant from the base, which would significantly undermine the effectiveness of the training, entail very high financial costs and also result in the loss of precious training time.”
The brief also reiterated the state’s claim that the villagers have never been permanent residents of the area, and maintain permanent houses in the town of Yatta. This claim is based in part on an affidavit by Moshe Sharon, a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University, who in the past served as head of the IDF General Staff’s division for Arab affairs, with the rank of colonel.
State: Villagers living in closed military zone since 1980
The brief said the villagers have been violating the order declaring this area a closed military zone since 1980. It said the state would permit them to continue grazing their herds there on weekends and Jewish holidays, but not at other times, and that they would have to work their lands in the area in two short, concentrated seasons.
The petitioners’ lawyers – Tamar Feldman and Maskit Bendel, both of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Shlomo Lecker – dispute the state’s claim that the villagers aren’t permanent residents of the area. They say the villagers have maintained a traditional lifestyle there for generations, tending their herds and working the land, while also maintaining social, familial and economic ties with their mother town of Yatta.
The petitioners also submitted a legal opinion by senior Israeli jurists who argue that evicting the villagers would violate international law and could constitute grounds for indictment in the International Criminal Court.
The original petitions against Firing Zone 918 were filed back in 2000, when the IDF evicted the residents of 12 Palestinian villages in the area on the grounds that they were in the firing zone illegally. At that time, the court issued an interim injunction ordering that the residents be allowed to return until it made a final decision on the case.
Only 12 years later, in July 2012, did the state finally submit its response to those petitions. That response said then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreed with the IDF that the firing zone was essential, and therefore, residents of eight villages should be evicted. But it said the other four villages, located in the northwestern part of the zone, would be allowed to remain in place.
Those four villages, it should be noted, are located very near several illegal settlement outposts that are also inside the firing zone.
After receiving that response, the court ordered the petitioners’ attorneys to submit new, revised petitions, since the state’s revised decision affected only eight villages rather than 12. However, it left the injunction against the villagers’ eviction in place.