The West Bank may seem far away and without immediate relevance to the overall strategic equation in the region. But it is an occupied territory, not an internal Israeli affair.
About 1,200 Palestinian men, women and children living in a remote corner of the West Bank face expulsion by the Israeli army at any moment.
If it goes ahead, the emptying out of eight Palestinian herding villages in the Masafer Yatta region will be the largest eviction of Palestinians since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.
Israeli human rights lawyers say it would be a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
“We feel robbed, terrorized and that we are living in trauma,” Ali Awad, a local youth activist told me as I visited Al Fakhit, one of the villages targeted for eradication. Palestinians and left-wing Israeli activists who support them envision two possibilities: wholesale expulsion by the Israeli military or, more likely, troops making villagers lives so impossible through demolitions, destroying roads and other measures, that they leave.
Exactly where they would go is not something that seems to trouble Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz.
At an emergency meeting of about 100 people in the courtyard of Al Fakhit school, I spoke to villagers who eke out their livelihoods by grazing sheep and hardscrabble farming.
The school has an Israeli demolition order against it and the next time I visit Al Fakhit, the school, the village and the Palestinians might all be gone.
Al Fakhit’s predicament highlights that since Israel signed agreements in 2020 with several Arab countries to normalise relations, Israeli policy towards the Palestinian civilian population in the West Bank seems to have become crueler in many respects.
Normalisation was viewed by many as an historic step toward a more peaceful Middle East and may have given Israel reason to feel more secure in the region. But it has not led to a moderation of the ultra-nationalist policies of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government nor mitigated harsh practices towards Palestinians.
Israel appears to feel more free to engage in the land theft and other abuses that are an integral part of its de facto annexation of the West Bank.
In Masafer Yatta, the displacing of destitute Palestinians to enable the upgrading of an army training zone will pave the way for what leading Israeli West Bank expert Dror Etkes predicts will be the transfer of that same land to Jewish settlers.
An expulsion or intensification of coercion here could set a precedent for further evictions across the West Bank territory the international community says it sees as the heartland of a future Palestinian state.
Israeli bulldozers recently demolished the homes of five families in this village and another four in nearby Markaz village, forcing families to sleep in tents and caves.
The Israeli government and settlers “want the land without the people,” said Mohammed Hamamreh, a sheep herder from the Mufagara hamlet.
Hamamreh, his father and grandfather were born in Mufagara and before that his family came from nearby Tuwani, he said. The Israeli occupation came to the area only in 1967. Later, the settlers arrived in violation of international law and in recent years they have engaged repeatedly in violence against the Palestinians and even the Ieft-wing Israeli activists who try to protect them.
Hamamreh’s four year old grandson Mohammed was struck in the head by a rock thrown by a settler during a September rampage. He himself was wounded in the arm and property in the village was shattered by the settlers.
The supreme court on May 4 finished the settlers’ work. Ignoring compelling evidence to the contrary, it ruled that Hamamreh and the villagers are only seasonal itinerants not residents, have no ties to their land and can be expelled. Settler leaders rejoiced, knowing they will be the beneficiaries.
It would be a mistake to consider this abuse of non-violent, defenceless, indigenous people by Israel as merely a local problem. It is not.
Across the West Bank, we are witnessing a deepening of Israel’s occupation with an accompanying increase in home demolitions, settler violence, land takeovers, illegal settlement construction, pressure on Palestinians to relocate and the use of excessive force by the army. To be sure, not all of the problem is on one side, as Palestinian assailants have recently mounted a string of attacks on civilian targets inside Israel proper that shook the tightly-knit country.
But what is going on is not a response to Palestinian violence. Rather it is “institutionalised theft” of Palestinian land, as Etkes calls it. It endangers the commitment of Arab countries to the emergence of an independent Palestinian state.
The United States, European Union and UN have all raised concerns over the evictions but there needs to be a stronger coordinated response to put pressure on Israel to halt the evictions.
A further movement to the right by Israeli society, the morphing of the Israeli army into the enforcement arm of Jewish settlers, the acquiescence of the Biden administration and perhaps preoccupation with the war in Ukraine are some of the reasons Israel is stepping up the magnitude of its violations.
The West Bank may seem far away and without immediate relevance to the overall strategic equation in the region. But it is an occupied territory, not an internal Israeli affair. The cruel expulsion of Palestinians from their land will only exacerbate tensions in the regions and should be meaningfully opposed by Israel’s allies, both old and new.