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US lawmakers urge Blinken to press Israel on Masafer Yatta evictions

The lawmakers called for the administration to pressure Israel on the evictions before President Joe Biden travels to Israel this summer.
Masafer Yatta

As President Joe Biden gears up for an expected trip to Israel next month, a group of US lawmakers are calling on his administration to pressure the Israeli government to halt the looming evictions of more than 1,000 Palestinians from their homes in the West Bank. 

Demolitions and evictions in Masafer Yatta, a rural part of the southern West Bank known to Israelis as the South Hebron Hills, are reportedly underway. Earlier this month, Israel’s highest court upheld an expulsion order affecting some 1,200 Palestinians, including some 500 children. 

The court ruled the Palestinians were not permanent residents of the land when it was designated a military firing and training zone by Israel in 1981. Rights groups, however, argue some Palestinian families have lived in Masafer Yatta since before Israel captured the West Bank in 1967.

In their letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, more than 80 Democrats and independents from both chambers of Congress wrote that the evictions could undermine efforts to reach a two-state solution.

“As supporters of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, we believe such evictions undermine our shared democratic values, imperil Israel's security, and disregard Palestinian human and civil rights,” read the letter led by Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) and Sen Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). 

"We respectfully request that you immediately engage with the Israeli government to prevent these evictions and further military training exercises in the area," the letter said.  

They also called on Blinken to encourage Israel to approve master plans for Masafer Yatta villages that would allow Palestinians to build and maintain homes. 

The lawmakers' letter comes as the administration makes preparations for Biden’s first presidential visit to Israel. He’s also expected to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. 

“With President Biden visiting Israel in late June, it is critical that the administration respond quickly to ensure that this momentous trip can deliver concrete steps toward peace,” they said.  

Asked about the Masafer Yatta evictions on May 9, State Department spokesperson Ned Price called for both sides to avoid taking steps that exacerbate tensions. “This certainly includes evictions,” he said. 

Biden came into office promising a more even-handed approach to the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The administration has previously expressed concern over planned evictions from Sheikh Jarrah, the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem that was a flashpoint during the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in May 2021.

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