Israeli authors come to aid of embattled Palestinian villagers

High Court to rule in 15-year battle over land the IDF is trying to depopulate and requisition as military zone; army says residents illegally created facts on the ground

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Teens outside the schoolhouse in the Palestinian village of Jinba, south of Hebron, on Tuesday (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Teens outside the schoolhouse in the Palestinian village of Jinba, south of Hebron, on Tuesday (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

JINBA, West Bank — Twenty-five Israeli writers on Tuesday published a petition urging the High Court of Justice to rule against evicting some 1,000 Palestinian villagers from their homes in the hills south of Hebron.

Among the signatories are literary heavyweights David Grossman, Sayed Kashua, Etgar Keret, Amos Oz, Meir Shalev, A.B. Yehoshua and the late Yoram Kaniuk.

The petition, authored by Grossman, comes three weeks before the court is due to make a final ruling on a nearly 15-year legal battle surrounding the Defense Ministry’s attempt to designate 30 square kilometers of West Bank land a closed military training zone, and permanently evict residents of eight Palestinian villages located therein.

“For the past 20 years, Israel has been actively expelling and displacing the inhabitants of the south Hebron hills villages,” the petition read. “These villagers have always practiced a unique lifestyle: Most of them are cave dwellers and find their livelihood in sheep and goat herding and small crop farming.

“They live in constant fear, helplessly facing a ruthless power that does everything to displace them from the home they have inhabited for centuries,” the open letter said. Appealing to the court and readers, they wrote that “each and every one of us bears the moral obligation to try and relieve the suffering, do something to bend back the occupation’s giant, cruel hand.”

Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli author and writer of the popular TV show “Avoda Aravit” (“Arab Labor”), told The Times of Israel that he joined the effort “because, of late, I’ve been politically frustrated … and out of concern for the future of the state of Israel, to shake up the establishment and tell them, ‘Look at what you’re doing to [these] people. It’s only going to damage you.'”

Kashua noted that he covered the first chapter in the protracted legal battle over Firing Zone 918 as a reporter with Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’Ir in 1999, when the IDF issued evacuation orders for the area’s 700 residents and, in the middle of the night, loaded them onto trucks and dumped them on the outskirts of the nearby Palestinian city of Yatta.

(Interactive map courtesy of B’Tselem)

Kashua and a handful of the other petition-signers gathered with the villagers, their legal counsel, Israeli and foreign peace activists, and journalists in Jinba, a raucous assembly of tarpaulin tents and low concrete buildings on a dusty, sun-baked hilltop 76 kilometers south of Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. It is one of the 12 villages situated on the plot of land designated as Firing Zone 918, and one of the eight that the IDF seeks to demolish as allegedly illegally construction. 

“It looks about the same,” Kashua said, “only now it’s much harder to reach and there are more settlements around. That’s the only difference.” He added that the case of Firing Zone 918 was not particularly exceptional, but rather was typical of “the clear and brutal policy” of Israeli rule over Area C, which, he said, aims “to reduce the number of Palestinians as much as possible and control as much territory.”

“Unfortunately,” Kashua, ever the pessi-optimist, said of the direction of Israeli-Palestinian relations, “it looks like we’re going to a very clear apartheid.”

Attorney Shlomo Lecker, who represents the residents of Firing Zone 918 in their petition to the High Court, noted that a similar letter by leading Israeli authors in 2000 “made some difference in letting [the Palestinians] return to where they are now.”

Khalil, father of 13 and resident of Jinba, related that despite the temporary injunction to halt the eviction of area inhabitants, IDF soldiers and residents of the neighboring illegal outpost of Mitzpe Yair nonetheless harass the Palestinians. 

“It’s a balagan every day,” he said, using the Hebrew word for a chaotic mess. He and other villagers complained that the IDF runs training exercises (without live ammunition) in the area and enters the villages in violation of the court order, and that they build their houses knowing they may only last three or four years before being demolished. 

The IDF’s Civil Administration regularly demolishes buildings, severs electricity and water lines, according to residents and activists. (Mitzpe Yair, however, has running water and electricity, and a cluster of permanent houses and caravans despite the fact that it, too, is illegally constructed.) The Civil Administration also bulldozed a rudimentary attempt to pave the bone-rattling rocky path leading down the southernmost stages of the Judean Hills to Jinba.

“Everything here, including this room, has a demolition order,” Lecker explained to the press, activists and villagers packed into Jinba’s solitary classroom, and condemned what he called the unjustified, daily “severe harassment of the people here.”

Lecker dismissed as erroneous the state’s claims that the inhabitants of the firing zone aren’t permanent residents, noting that they have lived in the rock-hewn caves just north of the Green Line for over 200 years. He also rejected the validity of the Defense Ministry’s claim — that it needs the area for training soldiers in conditions similar to those in southern Lebanon — as nothing short of absurd.

“The army can train in Israel; it’s 500 meters from here,” he said. Village leader Othman Jibril joined in, saying that “if a boy looks like a boy, do you have the right to take him?”

IDF Spokesperson Captain Eytan Buchman said in response to contentions about the issue that “Training Ground 918 was declared a closed military zone in the 1980s and continues to be used as a training ground for forces. Over the course of time, Palestinians illegally established structures in the areas.”

The army contended in its statement that “the illegal residents took advantage of the legal process and continued efforts to establish additional illegal structures, creating facts on the ground” and that illegal construction has continued in the months since the High Court put a temporary hold on evicting the residents from the area.

“The temporary order does not prohibit enforcement measures against illegal building nor prevent ongoing training activities in the area,” Buchman wrote, adding that “training in the area takes place with safety restrictions demanded by the presence of a local population.”

Attorney Shlomo Lecker, center, legal counsel for villagers in Firing Zone 918, flanked by village leader Othman Jibril (left) and writer Alona Kimchi. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Attorney Shlomo Lecker, center, legal counsel for villagers in Firing Zone 918, flanked by village leader Othman Jibril (right) and writer Alona Kimchi. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Jibril said he and his fellow villagers “won’t be willing to leave under any conditions,” even should their appeal to the High Court fail. In the event the court rules against the villagers of Firing Zone 918 — which Lecker indicated was likely because of what he called the increasing politicization of West Bank issues in the High Court — the villagers are determined to return to their demolished homes and rebuild in an act of “civil resistance.”

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