A few days after the High Court of Justice green-lighted the expulsion of residents of eight villages in the South Hebron Hills, Israeli forces started to demolish their homes: They razed 20 dwellings in three villages, leaving families homeless
Three tattered parkas are lying in the ruins on the ground, each in a different village. There’s a chest of drawers filled with tools and another one crammed with notebooks and textbooks, scales used to weigh sheep, a sink, remains of a mattress, scraps of a carpet, ripped-up pipes – and ripped-up lives. Overshadowing everything is helplessness and the dread of what lies ahead.
From village to village, ruin to ruin, we drove this week in the wake of the forces that had pulverized these communities the previous Wednesday, under the auspices of the High Court of Justice – validator of all the wrongs and crimes of the occupation. In each place the agents of the military government’s Civil Administration and the troops of the Border Police told the helpless people: “The High Court decided.”
The High Court decided to eradicate one of the oldest and most fascinating fabrics of life between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea: the pastoral communities and cave dwellers of the South Hebron Hills, residents of genuine heritage sites. A first mass expulsion came in 1999, with “man of peace” Ehud Barak as prime minister – 700 new refugees, 14 devastated villages and shepherds’ communities. Now it’s 23 years later and the turn of the “government of change,” endorsed by the High Court, beacon of Israel’s extinguished justice. Same place, same evil.
The Masafer Yatta region is the end of the world: 56,000 desolate dunams (13,840 acres) between Hebron in the West Bank and Arad in Israel, a few villages, most of them more like hamlets, in the middle of nowhere far from anyone’s eyes, most of them also far from the settlements and outposts that never stop springing up. The residents of these communities cling astoundingly to the arid, rock-strewn earth, without electricity or running water, without access roads or minimum human conditions. Instead of being offered generous aid, destruction is heaped upon them.
In all these communities you’ll see a few ornamental trees desperately planted in the parched soil, olive groves and plots of barley that are a model of ancient agriculture amid meager means – but fruitful all the same. Every tiny bit of land here needs to be cleared of stones for something to grow in it. The sight of the budding saplings can only tug at your heartstrings.
But not Israel’s heartstrings. Israel has coveted this area for decades and is working tirelessly to empty it of its inhabitants in order to annex it, just like it is doing in the northern Jordan Valley.
Here in the South Hebron Hills, in what the Israel Defense Forces calls Area 918, the pretext is firing zones. Here as elsewhere, the Israeli authorities have always but always and amazingly laid waste only to Palestinian communities, never to a single settler cabin, illegal and far newer. People whose parents’ parents were born here, shepherds who were born and raised here in caves, have been declared by Israel’s High Court of Justice – so it’s called – “invaders.” Oh, and that’s not apartheid.
During the process of destruction undertaken last week, first came Al-Fukheit, a few kilometers south of al-Tuwani, the district village, the only locale in Masafer Yatta with a master plan. Two roads lead to Fukheit, rough and rocky, each harder to navigate than the other. Whenever the local people try to repair the road a little, the Civil Administration rips up their work.
A decorative sapling protected by a tire greets visitors to the now-razed residential compound of Mohammed Abu Sabha, a shepherd of 46 and father of six. Some 200 people live in Fukheit, which has a modest school, including high-school classes, for all the children in the area. Two compounds were demolished last week.
Abu Sabha was born here. In the 1980s the Israelis destroyed his family’s cave and an animal pen, in 2002 they demolished a well of his and last December, four residential structures belonging to him, along with a structure for guests, a chicken coop, a dovecote and a storeroom for grain. He rebuilt it all. Last Wednesday the Israeli forces returned and wrecked it all again.
Wearing an Emporio Armani cap, he tells us in a matter-of-fact tone how he has put up a few tents so that if the wreckers come again, the family will have somewhere to live. Tents too were torn apart that Wednesday. In the morning Abu Sabha heard that bulldozers were lurking in the area and was worried they would target him, too. The protocol is that for those who rebuild ruins, the Civil Administration doesn’t need a new demolition order to level the site again.
They arrived at 10:30 that morning, Border Police and Civil Administration forces, along with workers. They didn’t say a word, ordered Abu Sabha’s family to move away, wrought their destruction and left. The workers wore masks.
They didn’t get all the belongings out before the wrecking crew went to work – Abu Sabha’s mother, Wadha, who’s in her 60s, mentions the wardrobe that was crushed. When she tried to save it, she was shoved by a Border Police officer and fell. They demolished the kitchen, three rooms, a dovecote, a pen and two tents. An hour’s work. The lambs scattered in the valley and had to be rounded up. They too were left without a roof over their heads.
Since then the Abu Sabha family has slept in two large tents that they received on the day of the demolition from the Palestinian Authority’s Committee of Popular Resistance Against the Wall and Settlements. This time the Israeli authorities didn’t demolish the solar panels, supplied by a magnificent Israeli-Palestinian nongovernment organization, Comet-ME. They only sundered their cables.
Now Abu Sabha expects that one of the NGOs will help him rebuild. He has spent his savings on the legal battles that preceded the demolitions, like other shepherds in the area. Hope? He has none, but still he’ll never leave here.
Vans to transport sheep cruise the dirt road that traverses the Fukheit, carrying dozens of young Palestinians instead of farm animals. They’re workers trying to sneak into Israel and they’re fleeing IDF jeeps, which we saw pursuing them a little earlier.
The new way to haze the locals is to accuse them of transporting illegal workers or of giving them shelter. A few people have already been arrested in an area where any excuse is good for abuse. The Civil Administration has also blocked with rocks the entrance to a cave used in the winter. Until next winter, God is great.
We proceeded with 25-year-old Basil al-Adraa of Al-Tawani, an activist and reporter for +972 Magazine, to the next heaps of rubble: the remains of the dwellings belonging to the extended Amar family, located to the east but still within Fukheit’s boundaries. These were the homes of 25 souls – the families of Nafaz Amar and his brother Raed, and their mother.
Nafaz’s place was first demolished six years ago. Of all the people we met, he’s the only one who wasn’t born here; he moved here from Yatta, a town next to Hebron, six years ago, after other members of his family made the move 12 years ago. Invaders.
Last Wednesday two structures belonging to him were demolished, as well as two others plus a tent belonging to his brother. Everything is now strewn across the pale earth. Nafaz tells us that a stay-of-demolition order had been issued for Raed’s compound, but to no avail. The wreckers got here around noon, after finishing with the neighbors. They removed the refrigerator, and everything else was crushed including the washing machine.
Two air force helicopters pass directly overhead. On the distant hill across the way is Talia Farm, aka Lucifer’s Farm and Hof Hanesher Farm. Yaakov Talia, from South Africa, was a convert to Judaism whose original last name was Johannes; he was killed in a tractor accident in 2015. It’s said in these parts that he often praised South Africa’s apartheid. Well, how could it be otherwise?
To the south, the next site of devastation is Al-Mirkez, 20 minutes from Arad across the Green Line, abutting the separation barrier. In Masafer Yatta 32,000 dunams have been declared military firing zones since the late 1970s. There are further piles of rubble in Mirkez, accompanied by the baying of poor dogs that have been chained down. Only one small structure, used for a storeroom, remains intact.
Safa Najar, a 68-year-old widow, mother of nine and grandmother of multitudes, lives here. Seven families live in the village, two of which saw their dwellings and sheep pen demolished last Wednesday. Here too there was a demolition operation last December, so no new order was needed for the latest destruction.
Najar now sleeps beneath the open sky, but also has a cave for the winter. The grove of young olive trees in the valley nearby belongs to her and her sons. A convoy of jeeps crosses the valley now – a visit by diplomats that was organized by the United Nations, to see the wreckage. Some of them might even write up an angry report.
The widow’s neighbor, 66-year-old Mahmoud Najajari, wearing a black galabia, lost four rooms and a pen of 200 square meters (2,150 square feet) last week. His compound is particularly well cultivated, with ornamental trees and concrete stairs. For Najajari, who was born here in the cave below, it’s the third demolition. The first was in 2017, the second last December, then last week. He says he will continue to cultivate his home.
The last home we see is in Al-Tawani. It belongs to Mohammed Rabai, who was arrested a year ago with his brother and remains behind bars. They have yet to be put on trial for charges of assault, during clashes involving settlers and police.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories did not respond to a query from Haaretz by press time.