An Israeli plan to evict eight Palestinian villages in the south Mount Hebron area to make way for army training zones was condemned by a delegation of European Union diplomats Wednesday as a "forced transfer of ... people contrary to Israel's obligations as the occupying power."
Israel has designated the area south of the city of Hebron as a closed military zone and asked for High Court approval to move the residents to the nearby village of Yatta, where the Defense Ministry says many of them have permanent homes.
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But Palestinian villagers say Israel wants to eject them from the area in order to clear a path for the expansion of nearby Jewish settlements. No date has been set yet for a ruling by the High Court, according to rights activists.
The Association for Human Rights in Israel said the hamlets of Al-Mufaqara, Tuba, Majaz, Tabban, Sfaye, Fakhit, Halawa, Al Marqaz, Jinba, Kharuba, Megheir al-Abeid and Sarura have been under threat of demolition since 1999.
An evacuation was halted in 2000 by a court decision after 700 people had already been evicted.
The delegation that visited the area also consisted of senior diplomats from South Africa, Brazil and other countries.
The EU mission issued a statement saying "the designation of the area as a live firing zone would thus reduce further the opportunities for Palestinian communities to live and work in Area C and ... any potential of economic and social development for the Palestinians in this area of the occupied Palestinian territory."
Delegation member in south Mount Hebron area (Photo: Elior Levy)
In May, EU foreign ministers criticized what they said were worsening conditions for Palestinians living in Area C – the 60% of the West Bank which is under full Israeli control and where most Jewish settlements are located.
'This is not Israeli land'
"This measure is aimed at evacuating the Palestinians from their land," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said while visiting a partially demolished mosque in Al-Mufaqara. "There is no other explanation."
Fayyad, seated in a rough tent surrounded by village residents, said that Israeli settlement expansion and forced evictions of Palestinians had undermined the viability of reaching a peaceful solution with Israel and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
"As a matter of principle, this is not Israeli land. If they want to practice military training, they should go elsewhere."
Resident Mahmoud Hamamdeh, dressed in flowing traditional dress and headgarb, said, "We are one kilometer away from one settlement, and 700 meters (2,300 feet) from a (settler) outpost – why aren't they being evacuated?"
"We got our first demolition order right after the settlements were built in 1985," he added.
Other residents who spoke with the diplomats said that by holding on to their land they were leading the "true resistance."
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 10 Jewish settlement outposts are located either partially or completely in army firing zones.
OCHA says some 38 communities with 5,000 Palestinians, mostly Bedouin and pastoral communities in the West Bank, reside in areas designated as "firing zones" – which comprise approximately 18% of the West Bank.
Residents of firing zones are routinely subject to demolition orders. Almost half of all demolitions since 2010 have occurred in these areas, displacing over 820 Palestinians so far, according to OCHA.
Speaking to Ynet, British Consul General to Jerusalem Sir Vincent Fean said the delegation wanted to examine how the Palestinians in Area C are living under what he referred to as a constant threat of eviction and destruction. He said the delegation respects Israel's right to security, but it also respects the Palestinians right to remain in their communities.
Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in late 2010 in a dispute over Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, and Palestinians say talks cannot resume unless such construction is frozen.