IDF razes homes, water tanks in disputed West Bank ‘firing zone’

Armored vehicles escort construction equipment to demolitions in villages of Ma’in and Shaab al-Butum, with around 1,000 residents slated for expulsion after Supreme Court ruling

A view of the West Bank village of Masafer Yatta on June 26, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)
A view of the West Bank village of Masafer Yatta on June 26, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The IDF has demolished homes, water tanks and olive orchards in two Palestinian villages in the southern West Bank where some residents are at risk of imminent expulsion, residents and activists said Wednesday.

One of the villages whose structures were demolished on Tuesday is part of an arid area of the West Bank known as Masafer Yatta, which the Israeli military has designated as a live-fire training zone. Some 1,000 residents of the eight hamlets that make up Masafer Yatta are slated for expulsion, an order Israel’s Supreme Court upheld in May after a two-decade legal battle.

According to images shared by local residents and activists, armored vehicles escorted construction equipment to the demolitions in the villages of Ma’in and Shaab al-Butum, which are part of Masafer Yatta.

Guy Butavia, an activist with the Israeli rights group Taayush, said the army razed five homes, animal pens and cisterns.

“They come and demolish your house. It’s winter. It’s cold. What’s next? Where are they going to sleep that night?” he said.

Most residents of the area have remained in place since the ruling, even as Israeli security forces periodically roll in to demolish structures. But they could be forced out at any time.

Local officials and rights group said Israeli defense officials have informed them that they would soon forcibly remove more than 1,000 residents from the area.

“There is a genuine concern that a grave war crime will be committed,” said Roni Pelli, a lawyer working with ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

COGAT, the Israeli defense body that deals with Palestinian civilian affairs, declined to comment.

Both villages are in the 60% of the West Bank known as Area C, where the IDF exercises full control under interim peace agreements reached with the Palestinians in the 1990s. Palestinian structures built without military permits — which residents say are nearly impossible to obtain — are at risk of demolition.

Palestinians stand on the remains of a school after it was demolished by the IDF in the West Bank area known as Masafer Yatta, on November 23, 2022. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

In 1979, the army expropriated some 30 square kilometers (11.5 square miles) of land and declared it Firing Zone 918. Since then, the Israeli military has sought to evict Palestinians living in eight villages that lie inside the firing zone, most of them collections of low-slung homes with makeshift roofs.

Local Palestinians argued that their presence predates the firing zone, meaning that they cannot be expelled under Israeli law. Israeli authorities contested the Palestinians’ argument and government attorneys presented satellite photos that they claim show no residential structures on the hilltops before the 1990s.

In November 1999, security forces expelled some 700 villagers and destroyed homes and cisterns.

A 20-year legal battle began the following year that ended in 2022 with the Israeli Supreme Court in October denying an additional hearing over the expulsion.

While previous Israeli governments have for decades demolished homes in the area, the new government sworn in last week is expected to step up demolitions.

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