Dangerous turns along 14 kilometers of unpaved and rugged rocky terrain that residents cross on foot or on the back of an animal is the first thing you see when you arrive at Masafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills. It took more than an hour in a four-wheel drive car on a bypass road to reach an Israeli army checkpoint set up at the entrances to some villages and khirbes (ruins) after declaring the area "Firing Zone 918", which only residents of the khirbes and villages are allowed to cross.
Here, time stops. There are no electricity networks, telephones, sanitation, or roads. Residents of Masafer Yatta live a primitive life in tents, tin sheds, or in caves, all lacking the minimum conditions for human living. They are isolated from the outside world and surrounded by more than eight settlements or outposts, illegal under international law, and a number of Israeli military training camps, which torture the Palestinian families living there. Despite the hardships of life, no less than 1,200 people who live in Masafer Yatta are under constant threat of forced eviction and displacement. Yet, they refuse to give up their right to their land or leave, determined to stay in their land no matter what happens.
Masafer Yatta consists of 23 khirbes and villages inhabited by Bedouins who were displaced from areas around Beersheba and the Naqab desert in the south of the country. They include eight khirbes inhabited by 1,200 people who are threatened with eviction after the area was declared a closed military zone, or "Firing Zone 918”, when the Israeli High Court rejected in May of last year an appeal by 12 communities in Masafer Yatta against declaring the area a firing zone and upheld the army’s plan to evict their Palestinian residents. As a result, the communities in which they live became vulnerable to a series of policies and measures that affected the security of the people who live there, worsened their living conditions, and increased the poverty level among them and their dependence on humanitarian assistance.
Some residents of Masafer Yatta were displaced in 1999, followed by dozens of demolitions of homes, schools and mosques.
Masafer Yatta is located between bypass road 317 to the 1949 armistice line in the south. Its lands overlap with the lands inside the armistice line, all of which are classified as areas C, which means they are under the control of the Israeli occupation army.
"Here is my land, where I was born, the land of my father and grandfather. Here is everything for me. We inherited this land, the pastures and the caves from our ancestors, and we will remain resilient because it is our land. We cannot leave it. Our descendants will also inherit it, and they will not leave it," said Khaled Jabarin, 53, from khirbet Janba in Masafer Yatta.
“We live in severe suffering because of the occupation and its settlers. Our land is targeted, and the occupation government encourages settlers to attack us. They try to expel us from our land, but we will not leave it no matter what happens,” he added, pointing out that since the beginning of the 1950s, the occupation authorities began targeting the Masafer area. Four of its residents were killed at the time, and until this moment, the people suffer from daily attacks from the occupation forces and settlers who attack the shepherds and the homes, which forced all the families to put iron bars on the windows for protection.
From Khirbet al-Mufgara, Numan Hamamdeh, 58, says: "The occupation tries to crush us by force. We suffer from the restrictions by the occupation forces and settlers against the shepherds and preventing us from grazing our livestock and from plowing the land. We were born on this land and our entire history goes back to this land. We will remain patient and steadfast, and only death will get us out of it."
Rabia Hamamdeh, 70, also from Khirbet al-Mufgara, said, "My grandchildren and I live in this house and I will die in it. The occupation and its settlers attack us, but we will not leave our land no matter what happens."
In a cave she and her family inherited from her husband's grandfather, Naima Hamamdeh, 50, mother of eight children from Khirbet Jenbah, ignites the tabun oven with wood to make bread and cook food due to the absence of cooking gas in the villages and khirbes. "The tabun fire does not extinguish in the Masafer," she says.
“Our family used to own more than 250 sheep, and now we only have 150. All the families have suffered from a decline in the number of livestock due to the high price of fodder and water and the restrictions on the use of pastures by the settlers and the soldiers,” she added.
"The conditions of the residents in Masafer Yatta are full of persecution, neglect, harassment and displacement by the Israeli occupation forces, which destroy the basics of their living conditions under various pretexts, including a firing zone or settlement expansion," says Nidal Abu Aram, head of the Masafer Yatta villages council.
He adds that the majority of the people of the villages and khirbes who are under the threat of displacement from Masafer Yatta have documents dating back to the Ottoman period proving ownership of the land.
The people of these villages and ruins live off raising livestock and farming to a lesser extent. They have been subjected to the policy of eviction and forced displacement by the Israeli occupation, threats and deprivation of any rights, and they lack the basic infrastructure and services.
“The families suffer from restrictions in an attempt to push them to leave their lands and stop practicing the profession of their fathers and grandfathers in sheep herding,” said Abu Aram. “The occupation forces and settlers sought to prevent the shepherds from grazing, in addition to the high price of fodder that exceeds the financial capacity of the herders. Therefore, raising sheep has become a burden on them and does not meet their needs, which prompted the majority of young men to work in Israel and leave the herding to their wives and daughters.
Regarding the water networks, Abu Aram said a water network was established in the threatened villages and khirbes in 2018 with the support of the European Union and the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, and implemented by the organization Action Against Hunger, ACF, and in 2019 it was sabotaged by the occupation forces that cut off more than five kilometers of the pipes in the network and 10 kilometers were completely destroyed, forcing residents of the Masafer to rely on water-collecting wells to this day.
He pointed out that the villages and the khirbes were supplied with solar cells in stages. Al-Fakhit, Asfi and Maghair al-Abeed got solar cells in 2011, while central solar cells were built for the communities in 2016 in al-Markaz, Janba, Halawi, al-Majaz, and Khallet al-Dabaa.
He said the blockade and restrictions did not stop the aspirations of the residents of the threatened villages and ruins in building five elementary schools where children have to walk four kilometers to reach the classrooms. In the village of al-Fakhit, there is only one high school to which students have to walk more than seven kilometers to reach. The success of the school year depends on the mood of the occupation soldiers by allowing the school staff and students to pass through a closed military gate with special permits and searches, and the accompanying humiliation and daily insults and distress for the students who are already exhausted from the long journey to their school, riding on animals or on foot, going through mountains and rugged terrain in harsh weather conditions. Yet, the rate of illiteracy among the children in the Masafer is close to the rate of illiteracy in Palestine, and that females are nevertheless interested in university studies.
A school in the village of Asfi was demolished in 2022, and the soldiers seized the tent in which the students were studying.
Regarding health care, Abu Aram said there is a simple health clinic that operates one day a week. It provides patients with chronic diseases with medicines and conducts some clinical examinations. Yet, this clinic received a demolition order from the occupation authorities.
He said the khirbes and villages also suffer from rugged streets and the absence of paved roads that facilitate the movement of people.
Caves are a refuge for the residents from harsh weather and aggression from the occupiers
There are hundreds of caves in Palestine inhabited by dozens of Palestinian families, especially in very hot areas. People in Area C, specifically in Masafer Yatta, resorted to caves, renovating and rehabilitating them to make them habitable to face the threat of demolitions and displacement practiced by Israel, which also prohibits construction in these areas and considers Palestinian homes there illegal.
The Masafer Yatta village council head, Nidal Abu Aram, said that since the 1980s, dozens of families have moved to live in the caves and also use them to keep their livestock in light of the occupation authorities' decision to expel them and demolish their homes.
He explained that the villages and khirbes threatened with displacement have more than 300 inhabited or habitable caves, a number of which date back to the Canaanite era, in addition to a water pool that dates back to the same era and is still used in Khirbet Janba, while there are caves dating back to the Ottoman era.
He pointed out that the basic demand of the Masafer residents is to remain safe in their villages and allow them to build, provide a livelihood for the families, provide them with fodder and water, strengthen peaceful popular resistance to strengthen their steadfastness, and pressure from the international community to prevent their displacement.
He called on Palestinian and international civil society organizations to come up with projects that would enhance the resilience of the residents.
In the cave, or al-Tur, as the residents call them, Numan Hamamdeh from Khirbet al-Mufgara lives with his wife and daughter. “I inherited the cave from my grandfather, who rehabilitated it himself,” he said.
The cave in which his family lives has an estimated area of 80 square meters. It consists of a kitchen, a bedroom and a living room. He said the caves have become a refuge for the Masafer families to shelter them from the harsh weather conditions, and now they constitute a haven for them from the demolition of homes and forced displacement, especially after declaring Masafer Yatta a firing zone.
He said he has ownership papers for 12 dunums of land in Masafer Yatta, and that he owns another cave where he used to raise livestock before he was forced to sell them due to the difficult economic situation and the futility of raising livestock due to the high prices of feed and water.
Mahmoud Zawahra, from the Wall and Settlements Resistance Committee, which supports the residents of Masafer Yatta, believes that the caves have become a haven for people in Area C of the West Bank due to Israeli policies that target Palestinian existence.
He said the committee has, during the past years, provided logistical support to people in Area C, including Masafer Yatta, and has renovated and rehabilitated a number of abandoned and previously uninhabited caves, making them habitable and accommodating to Palestinian families, pointing out that the occupation authorities prevent the entry of construction material into the Masafer area.
He stressed that the decision to forcibly expel the residents of Masafer Yatta is a political one aimed at controlling and appropriating their lands for the benefit of the settlement enterprise, and to link the settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, with settlements south of Hebron and with Israel, which means an end to the possibility of establishing a geographically contiguous Palestinian state.
Zawahra warned of the dangers resulting from the displacement of Masafer Yatta, which will facilitate the settlement process and the construction of a series of settlements similar to those of Gush Etzion, Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim and linking them with a network of roads and infrastructure with the south, specifically with Tel Arad and Beersheba. This process will constitute an ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population in that area, will lead to the obliteration of the unique Palestinian cultural heritage there, and will affect the livelihood of hundreds of families who live off raising livestock and farming, calling for the need to strengthen popular resistance to support the steadfastness of the people in Masafer Yatta.