Firing Area 918: This is good news, but will it make a difference?
On May 4, the day before Israel’s 74th Independence Day (Yom Haatzma’ut), the Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case that has long been awaited: the legality or illegality of the closure of land in the South Hebron Hills referred to as Firing Area 918, and the expulsion of the population that has supposedly, according to the petitioners, resided there continuously for decades. The court rejected the petitioners’ claims and instructed them to pay court costs (see here for the complete document in Hebrew).
As of this writing, the only tweets in support of the decision were posted by Regavim, the NGO that has been tirelessly spearheading the fight against Palestinian stealing of land in Judea-Samaria. Regavim argues that illegal construction, such as that in the South Hebron Hills, is part of the Fayyad Plan, whereby Palestinians establish illegal hamlets and roads in order to develop a contiguity of Arab settlement and put a stranglehold around Jewish communities in Judea-Samaria. These efforts are supported by European funds, as are the many international and Israeli NGOs that promote them in various ways.
Firing Area 918 witnessed intense violence and anti-Israeli propaganda-producing events on the part of Palestinian Arabs and their leftwing Israeli activist partners in the months leading up to 15 March 2022, the date of the final court session at which evidence was presented by both petitioners and responders.
As expected, the NGOs B’tselem, Breaking the Silence and Ta’ayush immediately tweeted their horror at the decision, with B’tselem saying that the occupied cannot expect justice in the courts of the occupier. MK Aida Touma-Sliman’s tweet claims that the Supreme Court capitulated to the policies of the occupation government and is allowing the ethnic cleansing of 2800 Palestinians (nowhere else is the number higher than 1000) in what constitutes a war crime.
ACRI (Association for Civil Rights in Israel), one of the petitioners in the case, naturally posted their dissatisfaction with the decision (note:Masafer Yatta is the region south of the city of Yatta):
This follows 22 years of local residents waging a legal battle in the High Court against the evacuation orders issued by the army. In the early 1980s, the army declared the homes and private lands of these civilians as a fire training zone.
— ACRI (@acri_online) May 5, 2022
It is interesting that those opposing the decision imply judiciary bias by naming Judge Mintz, who lives in Dolev, a community in the Binyamin region of Judea-Samaria. They ignore, however, the fact that all three judges on the case were in complete agreement with one another; Judge Grosskopf, who lives in Kfar Saba, and Judge Amit, who lives in Tel Aviv, did not raise any points countering those raised by Judge Mintz. It is important to note this when engaging with those who claim a biased court.
The case was quite simple, in fact, and what is surprising is that it took 20 years to reach a final decision. That time is critical to the expected outcome, as will be discussed below the following list of issues that determined the judgement.
First, the petitioners claimed continual habitation of the land in question, habitation, they say, that pre-dated the declaration of the region as a closed military zone in 1980. This fact, if true, would mean that the population could not be relocated under UN statutes except if the land in question was required for essential purposes and to further their case, the petitioners argued that the land was declared a military zone as a cover for their true intention to build Jewish settlements.
However, the book that they used to support their claim of continual habitation actually proves the opposite. The petitioners quoted passages from the (Hebrew) book, Life in the Caves of Mount Hebron, by Yaakov Habakuk (1985) that discuss continuous residence in a number of places in the South Hebron Hills. However, the petitioners neglected to mention the fact that Habakuk distinguished between permanent settlements in the region and seasonal abodes serving farmers and shepherds. In fact, the respondents showed that Habakuk was clear about the fact that a number of illegal hamlets, among them el-Mufaqara, that was much in the news last autumn, were for seasonal shelter alone and that all of the families that resided there over the grazing season had permanent homes in what Habakuk referred to as their “mother towns.” The respondents presented other proof that those claiming permanent residency in the illegal hamlets did have permanent homes elsewhere.
This means that so-called eviction from the illegal hamlets means sending them back to their permanent homes in legal villages or towns, with the running water, electricity and transportation infrastructure they claim they are denied by the Israeli “occupation” regime. Therefore, there is no ethnic cleansing and no putting families with children and the elderly out of their homes with nowhere to go. They can just go back home.
Other than trying to use this book to prove their continual habitation in the illegal hamlets, they offered no proof of land ownership. Furthermore, the air photos they showed indicating residence there were from later dates while the photos presented by the respondents proved that there was no habitation before the mid 1990s at least. An army survey of the land in 1999 found nobody living within the bounds of Firing Area 918.
Secondly, the petitioners showed bad faith. When they challenged the original demolition orders in court, they were instructed not to add anything to what was already constructed until a solution will have been found.
The court documents notes how throughout the entire period, beginning in 1980 when the land was classified as a military zone, the IDF allowed them to use the land on Fridays and Saturdays and all Israeli/Jewish holidays during which time there would be no danger to anyone from army training exercises. This amounted to about 120 days of the year. In addition, in coordination with the army, they were given permission to use the land outside these specific times allotted to them. The one condition was that no permanent construction would be erected. They flagrantly violated that condition and construction grew dramatically over the past decade.
And thirdly, attempts at mediation to find a compromise solution were unsuccessful. The judges expressed their reluctance at having to abandon the negotiation approach and return to litigation. The court document states that all offers of compromise solutions were rejected by the petitioners and one judge commented that their approach was “all or nothing.”
In spite of the final judgement giving them “nothing,” the respondents expressed their willingness to continue to offer the petitioners access to the land in order to graze their animals in the winter season and to grow certain seasonal crops.
While this is an important case, it is questionable whether or not the demolition of the illegal construction will actually be carried out.
Ironically, when demolition orders are issued to offenders — as was the case here — and those offenders challenge the orders in court, leading to a freezing of the demolition orders with the demand that the offenders not add any more illegal constructions to the site pending a final decision — as is the case here — when, finally, after years and, in this case, two decades, of legal (in)action and incomprehensible delays (during which time the hamlets grow), the court finally declares that the illegal construction must come down — as is the case here — but by then, the courts hesitate to actually enforce the removal of homes, schools and more that have been standing for so long.
There are many similar cases of demolition orders that the Civil Administration under the auspices of Defense Minister Benny Gantz have not executed. This is, of course, in contrast to the immediate actions taken against illegal Jewish construction in Judea-Samaria, what some have called “selective enforcement of the law.” This is not to argue against enforcement of the law with respect to Jews but to enforce the law across the board. After all, is that not how laws are supposed to be implemented?
While reading this judgement on Yom Haatzma’ut was like getting a gift in honour of Israel’s 74th birthday, it is still too early to rejoice in Israel’s ability to protect her sovereignty.
Feature Image Credit: South Hebron Hills Regional Council