In the southernmost West Bank, some one thousand Palestinians have maintained the way of life of their ancestors: living in caves and earning a living from farming and livestock. In the 1970s, the Israeli military commander declared the area a “closed military area,” and for the past five years, Israel has been trying to expel them from the area.
In November 1999, soldiers and Civil Administration officials expelled the cave residents and confiscated their meager belongings. The army sealed caves, destroyed wells and outhouses, and prohibited the residents from returning to the area. The cave residents petitioned the High Court of Justice, and in March 2000, the Court issued a temporary injunction, returning the residents to the area and preventing the state from expelling them until the court reaches a final decision in the matter. Since then, the residents live with the threat of expulsion hovering over their heads.
Israel contends that expulsion of the cave residents is justified because they are not permanent residents of the area, and that the expulsion is an “imperative military need.” B’Tselem’s report demonstrates that these contentions are baseless, and shows that Israel has continually sought to annex the area and expand the nearby settlements.
In addition to the threat of expulsion, the cave residents are victims of violence and property damage from the residents of nearby settlements. Due the intensity of this violence, the residents of two villages to abandon their villages in 2000. In a survey conducted by B’Tselem, some 88% of the Palestinians in the closed military area were victims of settler violence or witnessed such violence against a member of their immediate family. The abuse reported in the survey can be divided into four patterns: blocking of roads and preventing access to fields (51 percent of the cases), property damage, including destruction of crops and theft of sheep and goats in particular (21 percent), intimidation (17 percent), and physical violence (11 percent).
The police do little to enforce the law against the settlers, and the army does even less. In some cases, soldiers have even assisted settlers in carrying out their violent acts. On a few occasions, the army at its own initiative destroyed the residents’ farmland by driving tanks and other armored vehicles onto the fields. In addition, the Civil Administration prohibits the residents from building in their villages, contending that the area is designated for agricultural use. The prohibition also covers construction to ensure proper water supply and to meet other basic needs.
The report documents Israel ‘s attempts over the past five years to expel the cave residents through legal proceedings, and describes the lives of the residents under the intimidation of settlers, the military, and the Civil Administration.
The bleak picture of Israel ‘s treatment of the cave residents, as described in the report, raises the concern that Israel is attempting to gradually wear down the residents to get them to leave the area , an achievement they have not yet been able to attain in court.
B’Tselem protests the attempted expulsion and Israel ‘s current policy toward the residents, which severely infringe their human rights and flagrantly breach international law.
For these reasons, B’Tselem urges the government of Israel to: revoke the order declaring the caves area in South Mt. Hebron a closed military area and cancel the eviction orders currently pending against the cave residents; instruct the army and police to protect the cave residents and to seriously enforce the law against violent settlers; recognize the right of the cave residents to live in their villages and to build and develop them to meet their needs; compensate Palestinians whose land and personal property were damaged by settlers, the army, or the Civil Administration.
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