Israel’s High Court ruled late Wednesday night that the Israeli army could evict around 1,300 Palestinians living in eight villages in the South Hebron Hills, after a legal battle lasting more than 20 years.
In a unanimous decision, Justice David Mintz wrote that the Palestinian petitioners had not successfully proved they had lived in the villages as permanent residents before the army declared the area a training zone in the area in the early 1980s.
The Palestinians have maintained that their presence in the villages goes back decades. The Israeli army, by contrast, argued that they had occasionally entered the area during seasonal migration — meaning they had no rights to the land.
Palestinians living in the firing zone’s eight villages — who can now be legally expelled — slammed the decision.
“This is the final proof for us that there is no justice to be sought for Palestinians in Israeli courts. There’s only justice for Jews,” said Nidal Younes, 64, who directs an unofficial local council of the Palestinian villages.
The Israeli military has said it is willing to permit the local Palestinians to return to cultivate the land and herd livestock there on the weekends and on Jewish holidays, when the army does not conduct drills.
The court also dismissed the Palestinians’ argument that mass eviction would violate a widely held prohibition against population transfer in international law. Mintz ruled the ban sought to prevent atrocities such as genocide and thus had “nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the issue before us.”
The B’Tselem rights group said the court’s decision was meant to “transfer the land on which they live to Jews.”
“That this is legal proves yet again that the occupied cannot expect justice from the occupier’s court,” B’Tselem said.
The group called on the international community to “prevent Israel from carrying out the eviction and make sure that if it does, those responsible — including ministers, army commanders and justices — will be prosecuted.”
For more than two decades, the Israeli military, Palestinians and rights groups have wrangled over the legality of expelling the Palestinians living within the firing zone, known as Zone 918.
Palestinians in Zone 918 have lived precarious lives in the meantime. With almost all construction illegal, Israeli authorities regularly tore up houses, electrical cables and pipes intended to bring water to the hilltop villages.
The area stretches over 33,000 dunams — around 8,150 acres — amid the hillsides near the Palestinian city of Yatta, near Hebron. Several Israeli settlements and illegal outposts dot the hilltops nearby.
Eight hamlets, mostly collections of low-slung homes with makeshift roofs, lie in the area the government aims to clear for military training. Local Palestinians work as herders and farmers, raising goats and sheep alongside the hillsides.
After years of petitions, the High Court’s ruling arrived late on Wednesday night, on Israeli Independence Day. Younes said the timing was meant to cover up the decision.
“After 20 years, you issue your decision at midnight?” said Younes.
The Israeli military first declared the area a firing zone in the early 1980s. In 1999, the army’s West Bank administration issued eviction notices to the Palestinian residents. After a wide-ranging demolition operation, the residents appealed to the High Court, where the two sides have fought it out ever since.
Israeli judicial precedent forbids evicting permanent residents from a military firing zone in the West Bank. The decades-long argument in court revolves around whether the villages’ existence predates the army’s decision to expropriate the land and if their presence there was permanent or temporary.
The Israeli army argues the firing zone is essential for military training due to its “distinctive geographic features.” In February 2021, Israeli tanks rolled through several of the villages as part of a military exercise.
“The vital importance of this firing zone to the Israel Defense Forces stems from the unique topographical character of the area, which allows for training methods specific to both small and large frameworks, from a squad to a battalion,” the Israeli military said in court filings.
But archival documents from the early years of Israeli rule in the West Bank suggest that the motivation for declaring local firing zones may have been political rather than technical.
In a 1981 meeting of the government’s Settlement Committee, future prime minister Ariel Sharon said firing zones in the South Hebron Hills were necessary to ensure the area remained in Israeli hands.
“We have the idea that we must close off more training zones on the border, at the Hebron foothills towards the Judean desert. [This is] in light of the phenomenon I discussed earlier — that of rural hill Arabs spreading out on the hill towards the desert,” said Sharon, who chaired the committee at the time.