Life in Israel's Firing Zone 918: A Palestinian community under constant threat
Just moments before, an Israeli settler on horseback was chasing Abu Younis' livestock off the family's privately-owned fields and shouting at his son, "This is not your land, this is our land. You don't have the right to be here."
This interaction is normal - mild, even - for Palestinians living inside the Israeli-designated military training area in Masafer Yatta known as Firing Zone 918.
Abu Younis explained that settlers routinely close the road leading to his home, let their livestock graze in his private fields, and destroy pipes providing water to Abu Younis' home.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declared this area made up of 12 Palestinian villages a firing zone in the 1980s. By 1999, the Israeli army had rounded up more than 700 Palestinian residents into trucks and expelled them to other villages.
Abu Younis was one of the people forced off his land for "illegally living in a firing zone." The 64-year-old pointed to his right, sun-worn cheek where a soldier shot him while trying to push him out of his home in 1986. The bullet went through the back of his head.
"I had to eat through a pipe for a whole year. I wasn't even able to talk," Abu Younis told The New Arab.
|Palestinian life inside Firing Zone 918 is plagued by harassment and intimidation from both Israeli settlers and the army|
Decades-long legal process
In response to the forcible transfer, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and attorney Shlomo Lecker filed petitions in 2000 to Israel's High Court of Justice against the evacuation orders. A year later, the court granted an interim injunction so the residents could temporarily return to their homes.
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In 2012, the State Attorney submitted a response to the Supreme Court based on a decision from the Minister of Defence.
The defence minister "approved the position of the IDF" to allow the villages of Sirat 'Awad Ibrahim, Tuba, Sarura, and Mufaqara to remain and the rest of the area to be designated as a closed military zone whereby "permanent residence shall be prohibited." Currently, about 1,300-1,400 people live in the area under threat of expulsion. Abu Younis is one of the residents.
Following the State Attorney's announcement, the High Court dismissed the petitions and new petitions were filed on behalf of the Palestinian residents against the Ministry of Defence's position.
Ever since the IDF declared the area a firing zone more than 20 years ago, the court has failed to deliver a ruling - until now. Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz retired two weeks ago so he's required to give a verdict within three months of his retirement on whether the eight villages slated for removal can stay.
|Doubly impacted by living in Area C and a firing zone, villagers are not granted building permits and face constant demolitions|
The state argues Palestinians living in Firing Zone 918 are not permanent inhabitants because they live there seasonally. Yet, according to a 2012 study conducted by ACRI and Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, 18 per cent of the villagers are seasonal nomads. These seasonal residents also live in the area for as long as six months at a time.
Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli Ministry of Defence unit overseeing the West Bank and Gaza, did not respond to requests for comment.
Military training is suspended in the area until a verdict is reached, but the army's presence persists. Temporary checkpoints are randomly installed throughout Masafer Yatta. Soldiers donning combat helmets and machine guns are often seen patrolling the fields.
In February, the IDF mowed down cultivated fields in Masafer Yatta with artillery vehicles during a large-scale military exercise nearby. Abu Younis watched as large tankers drove up to his home. Army equipment was left scattered throughout the locality. Days later a boy lost his hand when he encountered a bomb left by the IDF.
|A Palestinian woman stands outside her home in Tuba. [TNA/Jessica Buxbaum]|
Life in Firing Zone 918
Palestinian life inside Firing Zone 918 is plagued by harassment and intimidation from both Israeli settlers and the army. While the military isn't permitted to train at the moment, they do conduct night raids on people's homes. Roughly, six months ago, soldiers stormed Abu Younis' house at 2am "just for checking," he said.
Firing Zone 918 is located in the Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank. Doubly impacted by living in Area C and a firing zone, villagers here are not granted building permits and face constant demolitions.
According to the head of the Masafer Yatta community council, Nidal Younis, building demolitions have increased from 32 in 2012 to 260 this year. Meanwhile the eight settlements encircling the area continue to expand. One such settlement increased to 16,000 dunams (nearly 4,000 acres). "All of the settlements have doubled," Younis said.
|Whatever is the decision, I don't care. The army will have to throw me out. Until I die, I'm going to stay here|
Settlement expansion translates to greater settler violence for the villagers. Settlers regularly throw stones, topple water tanks, and harm villagers' livestock. Some instances of settler attacks are more severe, though. In 2011, Mahmoud Awad, who lives in the village of Tuba, was on his way to Hebron for a medical appointment when a settler from a nearby outpost stabbed him in the shoulder near his lung.
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"Everyone is just staying here because of the connection to the identity of the land, staying here because of the livelihood of his family," Ali Awad, Mahmoud Awad's nephew, said.
"But people are deprived from everything here, and it's all because of the practices of the occupation. People are facing a life of suffering and under the threat of one day losing one of your family members because of a settler attack."
For decades, Abu Younis and the rest of the villagers' living situations have been in limbo. Now as the community awaits the court's decision, Abu Younis remains resilient.
"Whatever is the decision, I don't care. [The army] will have to throw me out," Abu Younis said, his head wrapped in a black and white keffiyeh - an iconic symbol of Palestinian steadfastness and resistance. "Until I die, I'm going to stay here."