AL-FAKHEET, WEST BANK (AP) — Mohammed Abu Sabaha, who has repeatedly rebuilt his home only to be demolished by Israeli soldiers, has a new plan to stay on the land — He is moving into a cave.
Abou Sabah is one of about 1,000 Palestinians in the dry area of the occupied West Bank designated by the Israeli military as a live-fire training area.Israel’s Supreme Court upholds their deportation It was held in May after a two-year legal battle.
Most of the residents of the area, known as Masafer Yatta, have remained in place since the ruling, even as Israeli security forces regularly step in to demolish buildings. But they could be forced to leave at any time, and rights groups fear Israel will gradually do so to avoid international scrutiny.
Surrounding the entrance to Absabaha Cave are the ruins of houses and animal enclosures that soldiers had demolished in earlier raids. The cooing and clucking of chickens can be heard from a damaged chicken coop. A set of stone steps leads to the cave, where he installed electric lights, but it took time to turn it into a home for his wife, parents and six children.
“We have suffered a lot because of this ruling. Especially the children born here,” he said, standing in the dimly lit cave. “They escaped demolition and then went back while we were rebuilding, many times.”
When the army isn’t demolishing houses, it holds training exercises nearby. Tanks raised clouds of dust, heavy machine gun fire and explosions echoed across the desert hills. Abu Sabaha said his 3-year-old daughter Zeynab gets nervous every time he sees them.
“She was always afraid that they would come and sabotage again,” he said.
The military declared this part of Masafer Yatta a shooting and training area in the early 1980s. Israeli authorities say the local population — Arab Bedouins who practice traditional agriculture and livestock farming — use the area only for part of the year, when there are no permanent structures. In November 1999, security forces expelled some 700 villagers and destroyed houses and cisterns. The legal battle began the following year.
The families say they have lived there for decades — long before Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war — and have nowhere to live. Some residents traditionally live in caves for part of the year as they graze sheep and goats in different areas.
Israel’s Supreme Court sided with the state in May after villagers rejected a compromise that would allow them to enter at certain times and farm for part of the year.
Since then, the army has demolished several buildings and confiscated vehicles, setting up roadblocks and checkpoints to limit movement, said Nidal Younes, the president of the local council.
“All of this is within the framework of the occupation, intimidating, intimidating, making people’s lives extremely difficult to force them to leave,” he said.
Masafer Yatta is located in 60 percent of the occupied West Bank, Area C, where the Israeli army exercises full control under an interim peace deal with the Palestinians in the 1990s. Palestinian structures built without military permits – which residents say are almost impossible to obtain – are at risk of being demolished.
Area C is also home to several Jewish settlement outposts, which are protected by the military despite being built without Israeli authorization. Nearly 500,000 settlers live in communities throughout the West Bank, most of them planned and approved by the government. Many resemble small towns or suburbs, with apartment buildings, shopping malls and factories.
Palestinians and the international community see settlements as a major obstacle to resolving the century-old conflict, as they absorb and carve up lands that will build a future Palestinian state with Israel.
Israel officially sees the disputed territory in the West Bank as needing negotiations, but every government since 1967 has expanded settlements and the country’s main right-wing party opposes Palestinian statehood. One of the Supreme Court justices who ruled against Masafer Yatta was a settler.
Eugene Kontorovich, a legal scholar at the right-wing think tank Israel Kochlet Policy Forum, said Israel cannot allow “private squatters to determine the use of state land” and that it is reasonable to ban people from military shooting ranges.
“The technical and legal reasoning is that this is not their land,” he added.
Rights groups say several other Palestinian communities If the international community does not press Israel over the Masafer Yatta issue, the entire West Bank could face similar threats of expulsion. Israel has declared fire zones across 20 percent of the West Bank, affecting some 5,000 Palestinians from 38 communities, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, said Israel may implement a “quiet transfer” that gradually makes life so hard that families are left on their own.
For more than two decades, the Israel Civil Rights Association has been representing the residents of Masafer Yatta in legal battles, and the association has filed a petition against the Supreme Court ruling.
The group’s lawyer, Ronnie Perry, said the “terrible ruling” violated international law that prohibits the transfer of civilians from occupied territories.
“The legal consequence is that international humanitarian law no longer applies in the West Bank because the military commander can issue any order he wants,” she said.
“You don’t have to put people on trucks and force them off land,” she added. “I’m really, really concerned that this could turn into a humanitarian disaster.”
Associated Press reporters Emily Rose in Jerusalem and Nasser Nasser in al-Fakheet in the West Bank contributed to this report.