Threatened villages in South Hebron Hills
Wadi Rakheim is a a few miles inside the southern border of the West Bank. Like other Palestinian villages in the area, it is denied mains electricity, water and sewerage facilities. It suffers attacks by settlers and demolitions by the Israeli army. There are demolition orders on the school in the village, and on toilets outside the school. The headmaster proudly showed me a biogas plant which will provide the school with heating during winter and three families with gas for cooking. These families are responsible for topping up the digester which produces the gas with droppings from sheep and goats penned nearby.
The headmaster says that the Israeli military and settlers use four strategies to take over the land. The original village of Suseya, from which the villagers were expelled, was declared to be a site of archaeological importance. Although Palestinians have been excluded from it, Jewish settlers are now living there. The second way of displacing Palestinians, also used here, is by preventing them from entering 'security areas' declared round Jewish settlements built illegally on Palestinian land. The third way is for village land to be designated part of a 'closed military area.' The fourth mode of dispossession is by settler violence. Not only are villagers assaulted, but settlers have driven their own animals onto the villagers' crops to destroy them.
I spent a night in the village of Jimba which is further south, at the southern boundary of the West Bank. An 11-year-old boy showed me superficial injuries on his back due, he claimed, to detonation of unexploded ordnance. The land on which Jimba and 11 neighbouring villages lie has been declared a closed military area, 'Firing Zone 918.' So far 19 people have been killed by unexploded ordinance in the zone. 315 sheep were stolen from Jimba shepherds by soldiers and driven off into Israel. A large olive grove planted by the villagers is threatened with being bulldozed. There is a court case on 16th December at which the villagers are contesting the right of the Army to destroy their habitations and drive them out of the firing zone. Although there is little or no military activity in most of the zone, we did hear distant gunfire for a few minutes, and there was a helicopter in the air.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 18% of the West Bank has been designated for military training. 5000 Palestinians live in this area, which includes a considerable part of the Jordan Valley. Two schools and one kindergarten located in firing zones have demolition orders against them. Demolitions in the zones have already displaced 820 Palestinian civilians. A number of Jewish settlement outposts have been established in the firing zones. These are not demolished, but tents and other structures belonging to Palestinians are.
Most of the Palestinian families in the firing zones are herders, but they face restrictions on grazing their livestock and are liable to substantial fines or imprisonment if they do not observe the restrictions. Reduced access to grazing areas diminishes their livelihoods. Water is scarce in most of the communities and over half receive less than a third of the WHO's recommended one hundred litres per person per day.
These measures are coercing Palestinian communities off land they have occupied, in most cases, from before the start of the occupation in 1967, or the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. All this in spite of Israel, as the occupying power, having the legal obligation to protect Palestinian civilians and administer the territory so as to ensure their welfare and provision of their basic needs.
The Israeli human rights organisation, B'tselem, has pointed out that Israel's declared policies show that the real motive behind turning areas into closed military zones is to drive out the Palestinian residents, establish settlements on their land, and annex the areas. The threatened expulsions would contravene Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Hague Conventions, and would be a war crime.