Palestinian villages abandoned due to settler violence declared closed military zones

IDF says villages closed off to prevent friction between Palestinians and settlers, but lawyer for residents says only Israelis should have been barred

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Demolished buildings in the Palestinian village of Zanuta. The demolition of the structures occurred following threats by local extremists settlers warning former residents of the village not to return, December 4, 2023. (Courtesy Southern Mount Hebron Activists group)
Demolished buildings in the Palestinian village of Zanuta. The demolition of the structures occurred following threats by local extremists settlers warning former residents of the village not to return, December 4, 2023. (Courtesy Southern Mount Hebron Activists group)

Two Palestinian villages that have been abandoned since October, following harassment of residents by extremist settlers, were declared closed military zones by the Israel Defense Forces, meaning that entry to the sites without IDF permission is banned.

The village of Zanuta and the adjacent hamlet of A’Nizan in the South Hebron Hills have been slapped with the designation, which bars both Israeli citizens and Palestinians from the area. Neither the Palestinian residents of the dwellings nor their legal representatives were informed of the orders by the military.

At the same time, Israeli activists who assist rural Palestinian communities have reported the presence of settlers who arrived at the sites to inform them and journalists of the military designation for the area.

The residents of Zanuta and A’Nizan abandoned their homes at the end of October due to repeated harassment by radical settlers in the area.

Most structures in Zanuta are illegal since they were built without permits. A building master plan was never approved for the village by the Civil Administration, which is in charge of planning and construction in Area C of the West Bank where the villages are located.

During the course of October, residents of Zanuta were beaten, solar panels powering the village were destroyed, water storage tanks drained, and residents were harassed, according to activists and reports by the B’tselem human rights group.

The abandoned Palestinian village of Zanutah in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank, November 9, 2023. Zanuta was abandoned by its residents following a series of alleged attacks and incidents of harassment by extremist setters from the region. (Jeremy Sharon / Times of Israel)

On November 25, residents of Zanuta returned to the village and its surroundings to try to harvest olives, but were told to leave by IDF soldiers and settlers who were present, said Quamar Mishiriq-Assad, a lawyer and co-founder of the Haqel human rights organization, which represents the village’s residents in court.

When residents visited again on November 29 to evaluate whether returning to their village permanently would be feasible, settlers, allegedly from the nearby illegal outpost of Meitarim Farm, arrived and threatened them against coming back.

Some time between that date and December 4, ten buildings in Zanuta were demolished and an EU-built school in the village was destroyed, with Stars of David spray-painted on the remains of the school in an apparent settler attack.

Police have said that an investigation into the incident is ongoing.

Following that incident, activists who went to A’Nizan to inspect the site on December 14 were met by IDF soldiers, who informed them that the the area was under a closed military zone order.

The order for A’Nizan was issued on December 3 and is valid for 30 days, but can be renewed.

Asked by The Times of Israel why the closed military zone orders were issued, the IDF said, “During the course of October, residents of Khirbet Zanuta evacuated of their own volition from the illegal construction in the region. Recently, and in accordance with the evaluation of the operational situation, the area was declared a closed military zone and entry to the site was banned for Israeli citizens and Palestinian residents to prevent friction in the district.”

The army did not answer a question as to whether the Palestinian residents of Zanuta are permitted to return; nor did it say what the duration is for the order covering Zanuta.

Mishirqi-Assad said that the IDF response indicated that Zanuta was closed to all civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian, instead of just Israelis.

She also noted that video footage taken by activists shows that, whenever activists and journalists arrive, settlers come to the site to tell them that it is a closed military zone and to “enforce” the order, despite not being military personnel.

“This raises doubts regarding the state’s intention to return residents to the site,” said Mishirqi-Assad, noting that in other areas of the West Bank where extremist settlers have perpetrated acts of violence against Palestinians, the IDF has closed the site to Israelis only.

“The response also indicates that the military commander is shirking his responsibility to protect [Palestinian] residents, since according to his contention they left of their own free will, despite the numerous incidents that we have detailed in our petition, and that prove that the residents were forcibly expelled by local settlers, backed up by soldiers,” said Mishirqi-Assad.

Haqel has a petition pending before the High Court of Justice requesting that it order the IDF, the Israel Police, and other state agencies to protect Palestinian residents of five local villages from harassment and displacement as a result of violence perpetrated by extremist settlers and renegade reserve soldiers.

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