by Birgitta, Sally, Juha, and Arve, South Hebron Hills team
Journey to School
The sun rises as we leave for Masafer Yatta. Its golden rays colour the house walls and alleys in the town. Soon, we leave the good roads and turn onto the stony trails that take us further and further into the hilly desert landscape. Sheep graze on the hillsides even if it difficult to see what they find to eat. A small boy gives them a drink at a water cistern.
At a bend in the road a mother comes down the hill with her two children. Mofeed, the driver, stops and we help the children into the car. The UNICEF Land Cruiser brings children in Masafer Yatta to and from school every day.
The journey continues into the great emptiness of sandy hills, where suddenly small groups of children appear waiting for the car. After about 45 minutes we reach Khirbet al Majaz, where some children get out of the car and others enter. From Majaz we continue to Khirbeit al Fakheit, the main school in Masafer Yatta.
By 9:00 am, the school day starts. We see Israeli air-fighters drawing white lines across the clear blue sky and hear the Israeli army firing of live ammunition in the distance.
To stay and continue to live
Masafer Yatta, is situated next to the Green line. Its 12 small hamlets house a population of about 1400 people, whose ancestors lived in the area for generations as herders of sheep and goats. They are partly nomadic, following their animals in search for water and fodder.
In 1970, the Israeli government decided to designate the area for military purposes under the name firing zone 918 and required the population to move. In 1999, roughly 700 people were forcibly evicted and their homes destroyed. With the support of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) the families took their case to court and in March 2000 the court decided on an interim injunction, allowing the people to return to their homes.
Since then the case is pending a final decision. The people of Masafer Yatta live with the constant threat of destruction of and eviction from their homes. Daily, the Israeli army practices with live ammunition. The are ready to demolish every structure and suspicious of any new construction.
“Existence is Resistance” says an UN-representative working in the area, when describing the people in Masafer Yatta. To stay and continue life under constant threat is difficult and requires strong conviction that one is right and that justice will prevail.
Not giving up
Many of the families in Masafer Yatta have relatives in Yatta and could move there, but that would mean giving up their land and traditional life-style to the occupier and enemy. Instead they send their children wandering over the sandy hills or riding on a donkey to ensure that they receive their education. They accept to live in the most primitive conditions with poor water sources and small sun-panels for electricity. Larger construction would lead to immediate demolition-orders, which often include the makeshift tents they use for housing.
When the families in Masafer Yatta decided a small school was needed in al Majaz, they had to find an existing structure, since a new structure could not be considered. Everyday, international organizations must accompany the children school to ensure their safety, but even they have difficulties.
Recently, the Israeli army confiscated a World Vision car, supporting another school in the nearby community of Jinba, and the children forced to walk back through the desert. Confiscation was also the fate of cars from CometME, Operation Dove and the Palestinian ministry of agriculture.
The case to expel the 1400 people from Masafer Yatta and permanently turn it into a firing zone went to the High Court of Israel for decision on September 2nd. Instead of giving a final decision, however, the court appointed a mediator between the people of Masafer Yatta and the Israeli army. The two parties must decide if this is an acceptable decision on October 17th.
In Masafer Yatta, the people are optimistic. “Finally they are willing to talk to us, not just give us orders” the director of the Khirbeit al Fakheit school says. He hopes for a realistic and viable decision.
Read a previous EAPPI Special Report on Palestinian Villages in Firing Zone 918.