Muhammad Tibneh can’t forget the incident that changed his life while he was grazing his sheep in the plains of Masafer Yatta, south of Hebron, in the occupied West Bank.
A few years ago, the shepherd, now 53, went to some fields near his village, Umm al-Daraj, where he found a strange metal object lying on the ground. The Israeli military had recently concluded a training exercise there.
“I tried to move it so as not to endanger the animals. I didn’t know what it was. And when I touched it, it exploded in my hand,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
The explosion caused severe bleeding and Tibneh ended up having three fingers amputated from his left hand.
This is neither the first nor will it be the last incident in which Palestinians have incurred injuries as a result of intensive Israeli military exercises in occupied territory for which the Israeli army confiscates land to use as so-called military zones.
In 1981, Israel announced a decision to convert several Palestinian villages and communities in Masafer Yatta into such military zones, despite the presence of a local population. Indeed, then agirulcture minister Ariel Sharon was quite explicit about wanting to remove locals to prevent the “spreading of the Arab villagers on the mountainside toward the desert” – or forcible expulsion – while keeping the area in Israeli hands.
There are 19 hamlets in Masafer Yatta and its surroundings, in which approximately 2,500 people live.
In 1999, part of Sharon’s plan was implemented, with 700 villagers forced to leave their homes. A year later, Israel’s high court issued an injunction to stop further implementation.
But in 2022, the same court rejected an appeal by residents against the expulsion of more than 1,000 Palestinians from Masafer Yatta because of the military “firing zones” there.
That ruling prompted a UN protest that the forcible transfer of an occupied people constitutes a war crime under international law.
The protest has been ignored, as the UN usually is when it condemns Israeli actions.
All this leaves the residents of Masafer Yatta living a precarious existence, caught between the periodic demands of the Israeli military and the constant threat of forced displacement.
Tibneh said the military exercises completely disrupt the lives of the residents of Masafer Yatta. People are regularly forced to leave their homes under army orders and sleep in caves for days until the end of the exercises.
“They’re difficult days. We leave with our families, we bring cattle and sheep with us to areas we don’t know, then wait in caves until the military exercises end in order to return to our homes.”
It doesn’t end once the families return to their homes, however. The military often leaves behind spent equipment, including unexploded ordnance, that villagers warn their children not to touch.
Control and expansion
Saber Abu Obeid, 45, lives in Tabban, one of the Masafer Yatta hamlets occasionally used as a military zone. Residents aren’t required to leave their homes during live ammunition training, but their nights are fraught.
“When we are informed of the drills, we prepare for a long night of live ammunition, tanks, and planes,” Abu Obeid told The Electronic Intifada. “Our children start crying in fear. We are all terrified.”
Much damage has been made to villagers’ homes, mostly built of corrugated iron in these areas, while unexploded ordnance left behind by the Israeli army has killed no less than 10 shepherds and injured more than 30 people, of whom about 15 had limbs amputated since 1967, according to the Masafer Yatta Village Council.
“Soldiers sometimes raid our homes, search them, interrogate us, and confiscate our ID cards. They terrorize children and women all in the name of training,” Abu Obeid said.
Residents are united in thinking Israel’s so-called military zones are merely a pretext to claim occupied land and aid settlement expansion.
In June it emerged that Israel has allowed the establishment of six settlement outposts, in the form of sheep farms, in the area.
They were established near three existing outposts, all illegal, even under Israeli law, though the current Israeli coalition government is seeking to change this.
Two of the outposts were established before the court approved the expulsion of over 1,000 people in May 2022, while at least three were established after the court’s decision.
Local anti-settlement activist Ibrahim al-Hathlin said it has become near-impossible for Palestinians living in Masafer Yatta to move anywhere freely, to the point that anyone outside their own village, even a few meters, risks arrest on the pretext that they are in a closed military zone.
“The training exercises are terrifying, the sounds of explosions are loud, and the unexploded ordnance is deadly. The most dangerous thing is that it has become a closed area, difficult to enter or exit from, in spite of the large Palestinian presence,” al-Hathlin told The Electronic Intifada.
And harassment is a regular occurrence, whether from the military or the nearby settlers.
At the beginning of August, Israeli soldiers poured out cement on the ground one local was using to build an extra room for his family.
Just this week, according to Abu Obeid, the military confiscated his vehicle from his home in Tabban.
Israel has designated some 18 percent of the West Bank as closed military zones in which no one is allowed without army permission. All these areas, like Masafer Yatta, are in Area C, so-called under the Oslo accords to designate the more than 60 percent of the occupied West Bank that remains under full Israeli military and civilian control.
This leaves villagers with little recourse to justice outside the Israeli court system and barely any options, said al-Hathlin.
“The locals have two options: either leave or be patient,” he said.
“We are very patient.”
Fayha’ Shalash is a journalist based in Ramallah.