As United States President Joe Biden prepares for his late-June visit to Israel — his first since taking office — his administration has made clear that it does not want to see any more Israeli settlements built or demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank.
But weeks before Biden’s plane touches down, the conclusion of a two-decade-long court case that pitted some 1,300 Palestinian villagers against the Israel Defense Forces has resulted in some evictions and the threat of many more, potentially on a scale the region has not seen in decades. It’s throwing a wrench into US-Israel diplomacy, as Congress and the State Department have both weighed in on Israel’s actions.
So what is Masafer Yatta, the West Bank area that has so many activists, Jewish groups, and politicians so worried?
What is Masafer Yatta and why am I hearing about it?
Masafer Yatta is a collection of a dozen rural Palestinian villages spanning thousands of acres in the South Hebron Hills, which is in Area C of the West Bank. In the 1980s, at the suggestion of then-agriculture minister (later prime minister) Ariel Sharon, the IDF asserted that they had the right to use part of the land as a firearms training ground, or Firing Zone, and signaled their intent to evict the Palestinians who lived in the 12 villages.
The military argued that the villagers, mostly shepherds and farmers, had not established permanent residency in what they call Firing Zone 918 because the villagers lived a nomadic lifestyle, wandering the hills with their livestock and only settling in the villages seasonally. Many of the homes in the region are in natural caves, rather than stand-alone construction.
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 major 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.
The villagers took the matter to Israeli court in 2000. Israeli judicial precedent forbids evicting permanent residents from a military firing zone in the West Bank. The decades-long argument in court revolved around whether the villages’ existence predates the army’s decision to expropriate the land and if their presence there was permanent or temporary.
In court, Palestinians sought to prove that their had maintained a continuous, permanent presence in the villages before it was declared a firing zone. They also filed documents arguing that the army’s claim the area was needed for training was disingenuous.
As evidence, they presented a 1981 written recommendation from Sharon that stated the army should declare the area a firing zone in order to curb “the spread of the rural Arabs of the mountain down the side of the mountain facing the desert… and to keep these areas in our hands.”
In return, the IDF presented aerial photographs of the region from the 1980s that appear not to show any freestanding structures that would indicate a permanent Palestinian presence. The military also submitted a four-decades-old ethnographic study by Israeli anthropologist Yaakov Havakook, finding that there were no “permanent dwellings” in the region (Havakook has since said that the military misinterpreted his work).
The resulting legal battle was drawn out for more than 20 years, finally culminating May 4 in a unanimous decision from Israel’s Supreme Court green-lighting the expulsion of the Palestinian residents.
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 early 1980s.
As a result of the ruling, the IDF now has the legal authority to displace the more than 1,000 Palestinians who live in eight of the twelve villages within the Firing Zone.
The military offered to allow the Palestinians to return to the land on weekends and Jewish holidays when it was not conducting exercises, a proposal the Palestinians rejected.
“The Supreme Court fully accepted the State Of Israel’s position, and ruled that the petitioners were not permanent residents of the area,” the IDF said in a statement to the media. “The court also noted that the petitioners rejected any attempted compromise offered to them.”
Local settler leader Yochai Damari, who chairs the Hebron Hills regional council, hailed the decision. He slammed the residents for residing in lands expropriated by the army.
“They’re not meant to be on state land. They’re squatters, and this is why the High Court ordered them to evacuate [the area]. I salute this, as we are fighting for the territory of our country,” Damari said in a video message posted to his Facebook page.
What has happened since the court ruling?
The military has already begun carrying out some demolitions and evictions in the region following the court’s decision. The IDF demolished around 20 structures across three villages in a day, according to media reports.
Left-wing activists say the case could set a precedent for the IDF to later evict the other four villages in Masafer Yatta, should they so choose, a move that would affect another several hundred Palestinians.
“The ruling was devastating, and I think is about as bad as could have been possible,” Maya Rosen, a Jewish anti-occupation activist who organizes with the Israeli collective All That’s Left, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, president of the US-based rabbinic human rights group T’ruah, told JTA that the demolition and removal projects are “in violation of any human rights law, and it also honestly defies logic because it doesn’t help Israel, it doesn’t help Jews. All it’s doing is destroying people’s lives.”
If all the evictions were to be carried out, activists say it would constitute the largest single mass displacement of Palestinians by Israelis since the 1967 war that saw Israel capture the West Bank. But the IDF has not yet indicated whether it intends to displace everyone.
What does the Biden administration think of this?
The Biden administration has made clear in its public statements that it discourages further Israeli action in the West Bank, including both new settlement construction and mass demolitions of Palestinian homes.
When recently asked about Masafer Yatta, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the administration was “watching this case very closely,” adding, “We believe it is critical for all sides to refrain from steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. This certainly includes evictions.”
Congress is getting involved, too. Last week, a coalition of 20 Senate and 63 House Democrats submitted a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the Biden administration to “engage with the Israeli government to prevent these evictions and seek a solution that will keep people in their homes and prevent further conflict.” J Street, the left-leaning Israel advocacy group, also supported the letter, which was authored by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and New Mexico Rep. Melanie Stansbury.
Some centrist pro-Israel Democrats are notably among the letter’s signatories, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Reps. Seth Moulton and Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts.
In addition to the Masafer Yatta evictions, the State Department said it “strongly opposes” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s administration’s recent approval of more than 4,000 new Israeli homes in the West Bank, although thus far the United States has been reluctant to take any concrete effort to deter such developments.
Biden has hopes that a bipartisan US relationship with Bennett will be easier to maintain than that of his predecessor, hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu, despite new signs that Bennett’s uneasy coalition in the Knesset may be fracturing. But a number of progressive Democrats are increasingly emboldened to go after Israel in the wake of last year’s deadly conflict with Hamas, as a months-long Congressional fight over Iron Dome funding demonstrated.
There have also been reports that Biden’s first visit to Israel might include a stop at a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem. That, along with the president’s verbal (but still unfulfilled) promise to reopen a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem, points to Biden’s intent to forge warmer relations with both Israelis and Palestinians, and to the likelihood that settlements and evictions will be a topic of conversation between him and Bennett.
Both the United Nations and the European Union have also directly criticized the Masafer Yatta demolitions, saying they are illegal under international law and urging Israel to not go forward with more.
How does this relate to Sheikh Jarrah, the last Palestinian neighborhood I heard about?
Last summer, Israeli authorities threatened to evict several Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, a small neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Violent clashes erupted between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police, leading to international outrage, from politicians to rabbis to celebrities. Hamas used the dispute as a pretext to fire rockets into Israel, leading to last year’s violent conflict, in which Israeli forces killed hundreds of Palestinians and Hamas killed more than a dozen Israelis.
The two cases are similar in some ways — both have inflamed already existing tensions on the ground and galvanized public opinion.
But the heart of Sheikh Jarrah was a dispute over private ownership of land between longtime Palestinian residents and Jewish-Israelis seeking to move in. The Masafer Yatta dispute, by contrast, gets at which lands the military is allowed to assert control over — though this is a distinction without a difference to many left-wing activists, who say the end result in both cases (removal of Palestinians from their homes) is the same.
Eventually, Israel backed off from its Sheikh Jarrah eviction plan; the case went instead to the Supreme Court, which ruled earlier this year that four Palestinian families could stay in their homes without threat of eviction, while the Israeli government settled their ownership claims. Still, clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in and around Sheikh Jarrah have continued throughout the past year.
Israeli authorities classified Sheikh Jarrah as a “real estate dispute” because Jewish Israelis seeking to evict Palestinian residents had filed legal claims of historic ownership to the homes. There is also a difference in legal status: Sheikh Jarrah is in Jerusalem territory annexed by Israel, while Masafer Yatta is part of the West Bank’s Area C, where Israel maintains civilian and security control under the Oslo Accords.
Despite the differences, activists opposing the Masafer Yatta demolitions have taken inspiration from the fight over Sheikh Jarrah. Left-wing Jewish Israeli groups helped launch the Save Masafer Yatta Campaign online and with flyers in 2020, a move representatives said was inspired by how Palestinian activists elevated Sheikh Jarrah to an international issue.
Rosen said the campaign also takes inspiration from other Palestinian villages that saw their demolition cases widely publicized, like Khirbet Susya and Khan al-Ahmar.
Sheikh Jarrah led to a military conflict. Could this?
It’s hard to say, but tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are definitely rising once again. The Masafer Yatta ruling came shortly after clashes broke out between Palestinians and Israeli forces at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which Muslims refer to as the Haram al-Sharif (noble sanctuary), during Ramadan last month.
Palestinian terrorists have also committed several bloody attacks in recent weeks, part of a wave of violence that left 19 dead in Israeli cities. Two Palestinian shooting attacks in Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv left four and three dead, respectively in late March and early April.
An attack on the West Bank settlement of Ariel killed one Israeli guard. Additionally, two Palestinians killed three Israelis and wounded several others in an ax attack in the central Israeli city of Elad on Israel’s Independence Day. IDF operations in the West Bank have killed over 30 Palestinians since the terror spree began, many but not all of them gunmen who died in clashes with the IDF.
All of that came before the shooting death of a longtime Palestinian-American journalist who was covering an Israeli raid in the West Bank. Witnesses and some international press said Al Jazeera journalist Shereen Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli gunfire; the Palestinian Authority accused Israel of deliberately targeting her. Israel flatly rejected that allegation, and says its investigation thus far shows she was killed either by errant IDF or Palestinian fire but that it cannot definitively say who shot her without a ballistic examination of the bullet. The PA has refused to grant Israel access to the bullet and rejected an Israeli offer to jointly investigate Abu Akleh’s death.
Abu Akleh’s death prompted international outrage, including from press freedom advocates and the US government.
So Masafer Yatta by itself may not prompt large-scale violence, but together with all of the other developments in the region, it is another large stick on the kindling.
What else is there to know about the South Hebron Hills?
Over the two decades of the Masafer Yatta court case, the South Hebron Hills have become ground zero for both activism and friction between Israelis and Palestinians.
Although the area is mostly rural and mountainous, which does not make it an easy place to live, it is still a regular destination for some extremist settlers, who have been known to attack Palestinians. Activists also say the region is attractive to Israeli military and hard-liners because it is home to relatively few Palestinians across a relatively large stretch of land, so it’s easier for Israel to assert control over the area and pressure the Palestinians there to relocate to denser cities.
Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the South Hebron Hills have also played host to large collectives of Jewish anti-occupation activists over the years. Israeli and international groups alike have developed relationships with the Palestinians in the region dating back to the early 2000s, and drop by to aid local farmers in olive harvests, which are frequent targets of Jewish extremist violence.
Several groups formed after the 2014 Israel-Gaza war have roots there, including the All That’s Left collective and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, which launched a fellowship program called Hineinu last year to send Jews to live in the area for three-month stints, learning Arabic and building activist networks.
“The South Hebron Hills is a region that has had a solidarity presence, particularly Jewish solidarity activism, for a long time,” Oriel Eisner, a staffer for the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, told JTA, noting that groups like Rabbis for Human Rights can also trace their origins to the region.
The Jewish groups behind the Save Masafer Yatta Campaign say they all have varying beliefs on issues like Zionism and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, but that they are all united against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Jacobs told JTA that such groups have made a positive impact on Jewish-Palestinian relations, because it is the first time many residents of the South Hebron Hills encounter Jews who are not either settlers or in the military. “There are Palestinians who, the major encounters they have with Jews are [with] people who are carrying out violent acts against them,” she said.
The left-wing activists told JTA they intend to keep up their Masafer Yatta campaign in the hopes of dissuading the IDF from following through on its evictions.
“We really have another stage of our campaign now, where our goal is to make it clear to the army that it’s not worth it,” Rosen said. “If they show up with trucks and try to forcibly remove people from their homes, that’s not something that they’re going to be able to do under the cover of darkness, with nobody watching and nobody caring… The world will be watching.”
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