As Palestinian and Israeli negotiators begin their second round of peace talks with a special focus on borders and security, an entirely Israeli set of judges will decide the fate of one Palestinian community south of Hebron.
The area, known to Palestinians as Masafer Yatta, spans over 12,200 cultivated dunums and contains 12 villages with a total population of over 1,300 people. On the other side of the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied territories is the Israeli Nahal Brigade training base in Tel Arad, just inside the 1949 armistice lines.
The Israeli army, by virtue of sheer military power and might, has turned the entire area across the border into a firing zone. Firing Zone 918, as this zone is called, is one of dozens of such zones that cover nearly 18% of the occupied West Bank. Almost all of the Jordan Valley area, which Israel has repeatedly said they will not relinquish in any peace deal, is considered a military firing zone. No Palestinians are allowed to build in or develop such areas.
In November 1999, according to a report by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, 700 Palestinian villagers representing 12 villages were forcefully evacuated to make the area available for Zone 918. B’Tselem accused the Israeli army of sealing caves, destroying wells and outhouses and confiscating tents, produce, clothes and other personal property.
Palestinians petitioned the Israeli courts and were awarded four months later with a temporary injunction giving them permission to return to their land, with the condition that the status quo at the time of the court ruling remain. Sealed caves and destroyed wells were not to be rebuilt until a mutually agreed-to plan could be reached.
The firing zone continued to terrorize the population even after mediation was abandoned in 2005. The firing zones continued to be used and the area was littered with unexploded ordnance. It was not uncommon for school classes to be interrupted by the sudden landing of an Israeli army helicopter participating in an unannounced drill.
In April 2012, the Israeli military unilaterally decided to expand its firing zone, but this time it abandoned its quest for the entire area, especially since a number of Israeli settler outposts had been built on the outskirts without permission. The new push focused instead on an area that included eight Palestinian villages. Palestinian villagers in January 2013 appealed to the Israeli courts, and a decision is due on Sept. 2.
Court documents show what lawyers say is a weak justification for why the Israeli army wants the Palestinian villagers evacuated. The Israeli army claimed that the area is largely abandoned and that the Palestinians are nomads, not permanent residents. In its reply to the court, the Israeli army said it needed the firing zone to save time and money. The military argued to the court that the distance to an alternative site will cost money and reduce army fitness.
The Palestinians have responded that they can document continuous residence in the area since 1830, and that 88% of the current residents were born within the area of Masafer Yatta, where Firing Zone 918 is located. The villagers and their defenders point to a different reason for the attempts to evacuate the villages. A Christian Peace Team infographic shows a strong correlation throughout the West Bank between the more than a hundred outposts that Israeli settlers set up without permission from their own government, and the location of firing zones throughout the occupied territories.
Firing Zone 918 has become an interesting rallying point for Palestinians, supportive Israelis and the international community. Former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad visited the threatened community in August 2012, Israeli intellectuals have spoken out against the firing zone and German government funding was channeled to the community to help create electricity using solar panels after the money earmarked for a road there went unspent due to the Israeli civil administration’s total refusal to perform any work on infrastructure.
International jurists have made a strong argument against the eviction of Palestinians to make room for a firing zone based on international humanitarian law. Various articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention are regularly quoted showing the right of residents to return to their lands and homes after the end of hostilities (Article 134) and the lack of justification of military necessity (Article 147).
It is highly unlikely that Firing Zone 918 or any other firing zone located in the Palestinian occupied territories will come up in the discussions that will take place in Jerusalem and Jericho. It would be interesting, however, for the Israeli negotiators and their US allies to pay attention to some of the areas on the Jerusalem road as they travel down to Jericho and realize that the end of occupation of areas forcibly taken in 1967 should not be decided by the Israelis or their courts.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab