Supreme Court President Asher Grunis urged state representatives and Palestinians from the South Hebron Hills military firing zone to turn to mediation in order to resolve a legal battle surrounding the Defense Ministry’s bid to move villages from a military firing zone.
According to the ministry plan, some 1,000 Palestinian villagers from eight villages within the disputed area — known as Firing Zone 918 — may be evicted from their homes.
Grunis suggested that the two sides appoint former Supreme Court judge Yitzhak Zamir as their mediator. The suggestion came during a special hearing on the matter that took place on Monday, following the filing of a petition by the Palestinian villagers.
According to Israel Radio, the Palestinian petitioners agreed to approach Zamir, and the state has yet to respond.
The Firing Zone 918 court case has been ongoing for almost 15 years. The area is currently home to a relatively poor Palestinian population — some of whom live in tents and caves — although it was declared a firing zone by the Israel Defense Forces 1980.
The land’s Palestinian inhabitants claim that they had been living in the area long before the IDF designation of the area as training grounds. Over the years, the Palestinians have erected a number of permanent buildings on the site and have established eight small villages — Majaz, Tabban, Sfai, Fakheit, Halaweh, Mirkez, Jinba, and Kharuba.
The villagers claim that they worked the land for many years before 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordanian forces. The state contends that the area was uninhabited prior to the 1980 declaration.
“The state conducted a thorough examination of the area before declaring it a firing zone,” read a response issued to the Supreme Court earlier this year. “The examination showed no permanent residence in the area; this conclusion is clear from several documents found in the Civil Administration archives.”
In 1999, the IDF issued evacuation orders for 700 of the area’s residents and, in the middle of the night, loaded them onto trucks and let them off at the outskirts of the nearby Palestinian city of Yatta. The soldiers also destroyed buildings and wells used by Palestinians in the area.
In response, the Palestinian villagers, in collaboration with ACRI — the Association for Civil Rights in Israel — filed a petition in 2000, demanding the termination of evacuation at the site.
In January, the Supreme Court issued an injunction preventing the state from taking any further action against Palestinians dwelling in the area.
In July, the Defense Ministry petitioned the High Court to remove a number of Palestinian structures in the area. The IDF claimed the structures defy orders banning civilians from the area while exercises are in progress.
“The [Palestinian] petitioners are illegally located in the area, and have for years been engaged in large-scale illegal building violations,” read a statement issued by the ministry. “They are taking advantage of the pending legal proceedings in relation to the firing zone.”
Firing Zone 918 is located entirely within Area C, under full Israeli control, and covers about 7,500 acres of land, The New York Times reported in July.
The Hebrew daily Haaretz claimed that three collaborators informed Israeli authorities that most of the residents under threat of eviction have permanent homes in the nearby village of Yatta.
According to The New York Times report in late July, Palestinian advocates claim the demolitions are part of a government drive to tighten Israel’s grip on Area C, which is home to 350,000 Israelis and about 50,000 Palestinians and comprises 61% of the West Bank.
Ilan Ben Zion and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.