Israeli forces began destroying dozens of structures Tuesday morning in two Palestinian villages south of Hebron, after the buildings were declared illegal by the body that oversees civilian Israeli activities in the territories.

The Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories confirmed the demolitions and said they came after a drawn-out arbitration over the fate of the buildings yielded no results.

“The buildings being demolished in Firing Zone 918 were illegally constructed,” COGAT said in a statement. “During the last two years, the [Defense Ministry] Civil Administration has been conducting a dialogue process with the population in order the legalize the structures. When the building owners showed no willingness to get the situation in order and illegal construction did not stop, measures were taken in accordance with the law.”

Firing Zone 918 encompasses approximately 115 square miles and was declared a restricted military zone in the 1970s.

In 1999 evacuation orders were issued to inhabitants of the villages in the area, sparking a long legal battle.

A map showing Firing Zone 918, provided by B'Tselem.

A map showing Firing Zone 918, provided by B’Tselem.

The NGO B’tselem, which has led a campaign for the Palestinian residents of the area, said that the Civil Administration had begun bulldozing houses in the village of Khirbat Jenba “following the termination of the arbitration process between the residents and the state.”

Approximately 40 buildings have been marked for demolition in the village and neighboring hamlet Khirbat el-Halawa, the group said in a statement.

Veterans group Breaking the Silence, which says it exposes IDF wrongdoing in the territories, called the move the “largest demolition order” in over a decade.

The Defense Ministry has declared that the structures do not have the appropriate permits.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in May that the Civil Administration had the right to demolish Palestinian homes in the area because they had been built without permission.

Residents argue that they had no choice but to build illegally because the Civil Administration rarely grants permits to Palestinians in the West Bank’s Area C, which is under Israeli civil and military control as per the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

In a letter sent to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon Tuesday morning, Knesset Member Dov Khenin of the Joint (Arab) List called for the demolitions to be stopped, saying they would leave people homeless in the middle of the cold winter months.

“The decision came without prior warning, in a sudden and extreme move that will leave many families without a roof over their heads during the winter,” Khenin wrote.

In the latest move in the legal battle, attorney Shlomo Lecker of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court last month in an effort to prevent the demolitions.