‘Why should I leave?’: Palestinian Bedouin reject eviction | Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Outside the city of Hebron, already an example of the intrusion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory, lies what appears to be a modest group of Palestinian Bedouin homes.

But here, in Masafer Yatta, local families are vying to end what would be one of the largest single displacements of Palestinians in decades as Israeli forces attempt to evict them by force.

Muhammed Musa Shahada and his family are among the dozen threatened with deportation.

“I was born here in the village of Al-Majaz, why should I leave my country against my will? Why should I live by another Nakba?” Shahada, 61, told Al Jazeera, referring to the forced displacement and death of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as a result of Israel’s establishment in 1948.

Al-Majaz, which is home to 350 people, including 50 children, is accessible only by a dirt road and has no power or water connections as Israeli authorities consider the settlement an “illegal” presence.

On May 4, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition from the families of Masafer Yatta to prevent the expulsion of 1,300 Palestinians living in 12 communities in the area, including Al-Majaz.

Al-Majaz, which is home to 350 people, including 50 children, is accessible only by a dirt road and has no power or water connections, as the Israeli authorities consider the settlement to be a
Local families in Masafer Yatta vie to end what would be one of the largest single displacements of Palestinians in decades [Louy Alsaeed/Al Jazeera]

That decision was criticized by lawyers and legal experts, who said the court’s ruling violated international law that prevents the expulsion of civilians from occupied territory.

Israel’s Supreme Court argued that deportation for security reasons may be necessary and legal.

Along with 60 percent of the occupied territory of the West Bank, Masafer Yatta is part of what is called “Area C”, which is under the total control of the Israeli occupation and largely reserved for Jewish settlers.

Masafer Yatta is also part of the approximately 18 percent of the occupied West Bank that has been declared a “fire zone” by the Israeli military and will be used as a closed zone for military training.

Despite the presence of Palestinian villages, Masafer Yatta has been specifically part of the land designated as “Firing Zone 918” since the 1980s.

Details from an Israeli ministerial meeting in 1981 revealed that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then agriculture minister, proposed creating fire zone 918 to evict local Palestinians.

Israel says Palestinian communities living in Masafer Yatta cannot prove that they have lived there permanently, despite evidence such as the 1981 meeting’s plan to evict them from their land.

Faced with an eviction order in 1999, local Palestinians were still able to stay in their homes as a result of an interim Supreme Court order that allowed them to continue living there until a final decision was made by the court.

For 20 years, families in Masafer Yatta, such as the Shahadas, have been fighting in Israeli courts to remain on the land, disproving the suggestion that they do not live in the country permanently.

Eviction and return

“In 1999, the army arrived in Masafer Yatta with trucks,” Shahada said. “They forced us to get into the trucks and leave our homes and our land – but we returned at night, walking and riding donkeys until we reached our tents and homes.”

Shahada’s testimony was supported by others in Masafer Yatta.

Israeli expulsion of residents of Masafer Yatta
Israel says Palestinian communities living in Masafer Yatta cannot prove they have lived there permanently [Louy Alsaeed/Al Jazeera]

“In late 1999, residents here faced ill-treatment by the military, which destroyed houses and even caves where people lived, confiscated goats and closed roads between the villages in the area,” said Nidal Yunis, the president of the village council of Masafer Yatta.

“The policy has been to terrorize us on a daily basis, using [Jewish] settlers.”

Yunis explains that the Supreme Court’s decision to carry out the 1999 order will mean that all their villages will be abandoned.

This will lead to the expulsion of the local Palestinian Bedouin community, amounting to what Yunis calls “ethnic cleansing” and a destruction of Bedouin society.

“Despite the oppression we have faced, and despite having papers proving we own the land, the Israeli court ruled against us and in favor of the Israeli military,” Yunis said.

The court also ruled that each petitioner’s family would have to pay 20,000 shekels ($5,900) in court costs.

Attacks on the locals

The Israeli military now conducts military exercises, house demolitions and seizures on an almost daily basis, forcing many families in Masafer Yatta to return to the caves where they lived decades ago.

It is the use of these caves by past generations of Palestinian Bedouins in the area that led the Israeli Supreme Court to reject the permanent residence of the communities in the area, despite evidence to the contrary.

“We are constantly faced with Israeli attacks, even if we herd our goats in the hills, we are harassed by the military,” Shahada said.

“But for all the suffering, living on this land is like living in Paris for me,” he said.

Israeli expulsion of residents of Masafer Yatta [Louy Alsaeed/Al Jazeera]
Masafer Yatta residents Muhammed Musa Shahada and his wife Aisha Abu Aram [Louy Alsaeed/Al Jazeera]

According to local Palestinians, Israeli settlers attack Masafer Yatta at night, setting houses and tents on fire.

A protest by locals and foreign activists was also attacked by settlers and the Israeli military on Friday, attended by Al Jazeera.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Israeli authorities have demolished or seized 217 Palestinian buildings in Masafer Yatta since 2011, displacing 608 Palestinians.

“Is there a law that allows the military to train in areas where people live? I don’t think so,” Shahada said.

“After the final court decision to evict us, I worry every minute that the military will come and kick me out. It is a hardship that I cannot bear,” he said.

Israel considers any permanent structures built without Israeli permits illegal — and those permits are notoriously difficult for Palestinians to obtain.

Following the court’s ruling, more house destruction and seizures are expected in the coming days.

Shahada’s wife, Aisha Abu Aram, spends her days tending the family’s goats and chickens, and can’t imagine the day she will have to leave Masafer Yatta.

“Last year my husband made us two graves, side by side, near our house – we will not leave our country even after we die,” she said.

“I’ve lived in the caves here for years and when I die I want to return to the country.”

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