by Nikki, Yanoun Team
“Why is it a military zone for Palestinians only?” exclaims Ayman Banifadl, Mayor of Aqraba.
He is referring to the ‘closed military zones’ or ‘firing zones’ which the Israeli authorities have assigned to 30% of Area C in the West Bank. These areas are meant to be used for military training exercises and usually have signs prohibiting all access, even though often signs are placed directly in front of already existing Palestinian communities. However, the Yanoun team has recently sighted Israeli settlers alongside the Israeli army during a military training exercise within a ‘firing zone’, indicating the ongoing collaboration occurring between the Israeli army and settlers. This incident also highlights the double standards which are exercised by the Israeli army in relation to who is allowed within these closed military areas.
Communities living in areas of the West Bank now considered a ‘firing zone’ by the Israeli authorities face huge threats to their existence. These threats include demolition, displacement, and limited ability to realize their rights to water, adequate shelter, education, health, and livelihood. Many communities have demolition orders on their structures and frequently Israeli authorities demolish houses & structures.
Nearby to the large village of Aqraba is Tawayel (or, Tell al Khashaba), a small Palestinian herding community located within Area C and within a ‘firing zone’. The very existence of Tawayel has been threatened by the demolition of multiple houses and structures, including the community’s mosque on 29 April 2014. According to Ayman, “in 1976 the Israelis said that all the land from Aqraba [eastwards] to Jordan is a firing zone.” This announcement came despite multiple Palestinian communities living within this area. The reason for declaring the area a ‘firing zone’ seems clear to Ayman: establishment of Israeli settlements. He describes how the settlement of Gittit, to the east of Tawayel, was established. The area was first declared a ‘closed military zone’ and a small army camp was established. A mere 2 years later the camp was disbanded and the land was handed to Israeli settlers who built the Gittit settlement.
“It is clear that these lands are used for economic reasons, not military ones,” Ayman tells us.
10 Israeli settlement outposts have been established and allowed to expand within these ‘firing zones’ in Area C, even though they are illegal under international and Israeli law. Whilst Palestinian communities present before the areas were designated ‘firing zones’, face frequent demolitions and are prevented from building to expand or repair their communities.
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that the “Occupying Power may undertake total or partial evacuation of a given area if the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand”. The Israeli army uses the area around Tawayel for military exercises on average once a month. As Ayman stresses, however, “there has been no war in this area since 1967.” The existence of these communities cannot be constituted as an ‘imperative military reason’.
In the case of Tawayel, there are no plans for forced transfer of the community. Instead, the people of Tawayel are being slowly pushed off their land under the auspices of a ‘firing zone’ without anywhere else to go. Ayman believes that the Israeli authority’s policy is to ensure that all remote Palestinian communities are displaced to towns.
If it was not already evident that a ‘firing zone’ only applies to Palestinians and not Israeli settlers, it became clear on 10 September 2014. The EAPPI team in Yanoun was called to Tawayel at 12:30 pm due to sightings of Israeli soldiers near to the village. When we arrived we found a group of 10 soldiers fully armed sitting under a tree sheltering from the midday sun, 100 meters from houses in Tawayel. We stayed in Tawayel to monitor the soldiers’ movements. At 1:30 pm, 3 Israeli army jeeps were sighted at the eastern end of the valley driving towards Tawayel. They had come to drop off more soldiers underneath the trees ready for, what it appeared to be, a training operation on foot.
Following close behind the 3 military jeeps was a civilian jeep. Basem Dili, the Head of Tawayel, identified the driver of the civilian jeep as a settler by the name of Koby. He explains that Koby lives in the settlement of Itamar, near to Yanoun. According to Basem, Koby was the settler who had been in charge of confiscating land around Yanoun to build settlement outposts to expand Itamar. Koby paused to have a conversation with the 2 military jeeps which were stopped by the trees before he continued along the valley. Afterwards the military jeeps returned in the direction they had come from. What was occurring before our eyes was confirmation of the close, collaborative relationship existing between the Israeli army and Israeli settlers.
“No one is making a demolition order for the settlers; [instead] they are building a road for him,” said the Mayor of Aqraba at the most recent house demolition in Tawayel on 20 August 2014, which left 17 people homeless.
‘Firing zones’ in this area are being utilized for settlement expansion towards the Jordan Valley. Like the village of Yanoun, the disappearance of Tawayel would bring the expansion of illegal settlements across the breadth of the West Bank one step closer. It would enable the connection of Itamar to the Jordan Valley settlements. But the people of Tawayel continue to stay strong and remain on their land amidst military training exercises and house demolitions. They have no other choice but to stay, where else would they graze their livestock and earn a living?
*On the morning this article was published, 29 September 2014, Israeli authorities arrived in Tawayel and demolished all the community’s electricity poles.