Masafer Yatta evictions enabled by British-born judge

A man with a Palestinian flag confronts two soldiers

An activist scuffles with Israeli soldiers in Masafer Yatta, 20 May.

Mamoun Wazwaz APA images

To Palestinians and their supporters, it is known as Masafer Yatta.

To Israel – and in keeping with the aseptic detachment common to colonial regimes – it has been Firing Zone 918 since 1981, when then agriculture minister Ariel Sharon decided on that designation explicitly in order to force out the area’s residents.

Located in the South Hebron Hills, the area spans 12 Palestinian villages with nearly 2,800 residents whose livelihoods depend mainly on farming.

Agricultural communities have lived on the 8,600 acres of land and called it home for generations.

In 1999, the Israeli army expelled 700 residents of the area, though they were able to return pending a final ruling.

This decades-old attempt at ethnic cleansing is now entering a crucial phase.

On 4 May, Israel’s high court issued a ruling enabling the expulsion of nearly 1,200 Palestinians from the area, including 500 children, a decision the UN said “may amount” to a war crime.

On 1 June, Israeli forces demolished two homes in Khirbet al-Fakhit and two storage sheds as well as two homes in Khirbet Markaz – both part of Masafer Yatta. In all, 21 people, including nine minors, were displaced.

Eleven homes and workshops have been demolished since the May ruling.

“Nakba after Nakba”

Masafer Yatta puts on full, naked display the cynical, oppressive, and overall colonial character of the ruling, issued by David Mintz, a judge who lives in an illegal settlement in the West Bank – and Israel’s state actions.

In the words of Nidal Younes, head of the Masafer Yatta village council, the ruling was simply racist.

“The court decision is a racist decision taken by a settler judge … We have been fighting with Israel in the courts for the last 22 years and it took this judge five minutes to destroy the lives of 12 villages and the people who are dependent on the land.”

Younes regards the ruling as a continuation of the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

“History repeats itself: Nakba after Nakba,” Younes has said.

This helps throw into focus how a major injustice has become entrenched. British-born Mintz wields total, life-divesting power over those who are indigenous to the land.

Through and through, Israel weaponizes indeterminacy – an “unresolved” preponderance of settlers and settlements (really, colonizers and colonies,) undeclared borders, de facto annexation – against the indigenous population.

Israel’s main imperative is to displace, no matter the cost.

This is why the families of Masafer Yatta need to “prove” that their home is their home, and why this ostensibly simple, even mundane truth can be so arrogantly delegitimized by the labyrinthine logics of settler-colonial law.

Younes’ words also capture, in exacting detail, how the struggle of Palestinians in Masafer Yatta illuminates the overall anti-colonial character of the Palestinian resistance struggle as a whole.

Nakba after Nakba. So long as Zionism – Israel’s state ideology – exists, it will continue to mean an alternating dance between colonial violence and the reactionary settler-laws that justify it.

And, of course, there is the “settler” – the glorified squatter, the would-be colonizer fully supported and enabled by Israel, which in turn was founded by and is sustained through the very acts of violent theft, appropriation and racist dehumanization this figure represents.

What began as an apparent “exception” is inevitably codified into general policy by a settler-colonial state.

Stories of dispossession and resistance

Organizers and activists remain acutely aware that there is an added layer of cruelty in addition to the colonial process of expulsion from Masafer Yatta. As activist Hamdan Mohamed al-Huraini has explained, “It’s not really about destroying the houses… it’s about destroying the life.”

If the area can be entirely depopulated, the time during which Palestinians lived there can in turn be erased. This allows Israel’s colonial repurposing to eventually be confirmed by a surface reality made possible by ethnic cleansing.

Then there will be no sense of time, no possibility of history outside of the colonizer’s claims.

Indeed, to be Palestinian living in the extended present of ongoing Zionist settler-colonialism means confronting time on many levels and in many ways.

First, naturally, it means to continue finding oneself racing against time, as Israel and its military steal more land, prolong an inhuman blockade, raze more homes, and continue to execute, detain and incarcerate Palestinians, fracturing intimate timelines of kith and kin.

It also means to have colonial history weaponized against you, as procedures and conventions set into place by a violent settler regime become their own repetitive reference points justifying Palestinian dehumanization and dispossession.

The ongoing struggle to save Masafer Yatta encompasses all of these.

But the story of Masafer Yatta is not just the greater story of Palestinian dispossession.

It is also the greater narrative of Palestinian resistance.

“The entire government of Israel can’t remove me. We will not leave… we will not get out of here because we are the inhabitants of the land,” Palestinian farmer Khalid al-Jabarin has declared.

The phrase “Nakba after Nakba” reminds us that the Nakba was not a moment in time. It is an ongoing process.

A process against which Palestinians continue to rise up.

What is happening today in Masafer Yatta is just as fundamentally a part of this phenomenon as the ongoing repression and resistance in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah, in Gaza and beyond.

The Unity Intifada of 2021 showed the world that Palestinians are rising up together, regardless of location.

This is why we must not only support the call to save Masafer Yatta in as many ways as possible. We must also see the fight to save Masafer Yatta as connected to the larger battle to defeat Israel’s settler-colonialism and to free Palestine from the river to the sea.

Omar Zahzah is the education and advocacy coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine, as well as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.