November 10, 2021
Halimi, 79, Jinba. Israel carries out military exercises in her village.
Photo Essay

Portraits of Resistance in Masafer Yatta

Israel’s Supreme Court will soon decide the case of the residents of Masafer Yatta, who have lived for decades under the threat of displacement by the military.

Emily Glick Introduced by Maya Rosen

For as long as Ali Awad can remember, he and the other residents of his village, Tuba, have lived under the imminent threat of forced transfer. The village is one of 12 agricultural communities that have existed for generations in Masafer Yatta, an open, sloping stretch of 30,000 dunams (or about 7,500 acres) in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank. In the early 1980s, the Israeli army declared the area a military firing zone, designating it for use as a training ground for soldiers, and in 1999, when Awad was one year old, the military ordered the villagers to vacate their homes, claiming that they were “illegally dwelling in a firing zone.” Soldiers loaded the area’s 700 residents into trucks, forcibly removing them from their land, and destroying houses, water cisterns, and other property in the process. Left homeless, the residents petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for the right to return to their land, and in 2000, they were permitted to do so until the court reached a final decision. Over 20 years later, the court has yet to issue a ruling in the case, and the area’s 1,300 residents continue to live in legal limbo.

That limbo may be about to end, and not necessarily to Awad’s family’s benefit: The court is set to convene on March 15th to decide whether the residents of Masafer Yatta may remain in their homes. Not only will the court’s ruling determine the villagers’ futures, it may also influence the government’s ability to use the declaration of military firing zones as a mechanism to claim other swaths of Palestinian land. As new documents recently uncovered by the Israeli NGO Akevot show, when then-Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon offered the land of Masafer Yatta to the army in 1981, he did so for the explicit purpose of pushing Palestinian communities out of the area. “We have a significant interest in you being in that area,” Sharon stated to Israeli military representatives in a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Settlement Affairs, due to “the spread of rural, mountainous Arabs towards the desert.” In the decades since, Israel has repeatedly used the declaration of firing zones in the West Bank as a pretext to steal Palestinian land. Today, a staggering 18% of the West Bank has been taken over by the Israeli army using this tactic. The military actively uses only 20% of that land, a figure that highlights the extent to which firing zones have become a tool in the project of Palestinian displacement.

The law is not the only force arrayed against the residents of Masafer Yatta. Like other Palestinian communities across Area C—the part of the West Bank that is under full Israeli security and civil control and where all Israeli settlements are located—they also face regular settler violence and home demolitions. While Awad may not remember the night his family was forced onto trucks, he is no stranger to the violent practices that have followed. Awad walked to school as a child under military escort because settlers regularly attacked children on their way. More recently, on a Saturday night this past June, settlers set fire to Awad’s family’s hay supply, destroying in two hours what was meant to feed the family’s sheep—their only livelihood—for the entire year. In another village in Masafer Yatta, Mufagara, settlers staged a violent pogrom last month on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, roving from house to house breaking windows and smashing cars, and sending a three-year-old Palestinian child to the hospital with a fractured skull. This kind of brutality is coupled with destruction by the Israeli army, which regularly demolishes not only homes, but also pipelines that provide the area with water, and roads that connect villages in Masafer Yatta with essential services outside. As of April 2020, the Israeli army has issued 455 demolition orders in the area, targeting the majority of structures in the firing zone.

When the Supreme Court convenes in March, lawyers for the Palestinian residents will point, as they have in the past, to international human rights law that forbids the use of occupied territory for the occupier’s benefit, and prohibits the forcible transfer of a protected population. Meanwhile, the Israeli military has continued to claim that it is entitled to train in the area. Often lost in this dispute are the individual stories of families who have made their homes in the same caves and on the same land for many generations. As part of a larger project to highlight life in Masafer Yatta—in which I am also active—photographer Emily Glick documented the day-to-day reality of residents, capturing their creative resistance to displacement. This week, activists hung posters of Glick’s photographs in public spaces in the cities of Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv to raise awareness about the threat of eviction facing the villagers; some of the images were quickly destroyed or defaced. In the portraits collected here, Awad accompanies children from his village to school along a route rife with violence from settlers. In the nearby village of Khalet al Daba, Jaber Dababse, whose home was demolished for the fifth time this year, inhabits a makeshift structure as he collects materials to rebuild yet again. Awad’s grandmother Zuhour goes about her daily chores on the land where she raised 15 children under the constant threat of eviction. These glimpses reveal the texture of daily life in Masafer Yatta, and the diverse and powerful forms of defiance displayed by the people who call it home.

Left: Mohammad, 1st grade. Right: Rawaa, 4th grade. Their school in Al-Halawa is under a demolition order.

Ibrahim, 79, Tuba

“In 1999, the Israeli military evicted 12 villages in Masafer Yatta, including Tuba. I was evicted along with my extended family: nine sons and six daughters, five grandchildren, the youngest of which was born during the eviction. The wife of one of my sons was pregnant with my sixth grandchild. Hundreds of our sheep were also evicted along with us, thrown homeless out of our land.”

“Before the occupation, our lives were simple. We were dependent on agriculture and livestock, and we ate each plant in its season. Now we wait, under the threat of military expulsion and settler aggression, for the final ruling. All we hope for is to live, as a family, at home in Tuba.”

Ali, 53 years old, Tuba. Settlers burned Ali's annual supply of hay, which he uses to feed his sheep.
Umm Mohammaed, 56, Zaynab, 2, and Ghania, 1, Al-Fakheit. The military cut the water pipe that their family depends on.

Hamoudi, 18, Al-Mirkez

“On January 8th, 2021, I woke up to drive the family tractor to the city of Yatta to buy food for our sheep. When I was about to leave, I noticed that our flock had moved a little too far away from the house. It was winter, and there was no spring grass yet, so they were looking for food. I ran after them, trying to bring them back to the barn. I remember that I was running and then I fell down, but I can't remember anything after. I didn’t know what happened to me until I woke up at the hospital. My body was covered in wounds. I looked down at my leg and stomach and saw that I had had multiple surgeries. But the biggest shock came when I looked down and didn’t find my right hand.”

“I love Masafer Yatta, and I love this village. My family has been connected to this land for generations: My father was born here, and my grandfather inherited this land from his father. Belonging to the land of Masafer Yatta is our identity; it has given us the opportunity to be shepherds, in a quiet place, and to live the only lifestyle we know. I cannot define myself away from this place.”

Jaber, 34, Khalet al Daba

“We are the landowners here; we have documents proving it. But if we put up so much as a tent, the army comes and gives a demolition order for it, or demolishes it without any notice at all. If the people of Masafer Yatta leave their land, the land will be taken over by settlements. But we are here. We will not leave. We will stay on our land and try to live a decent life here. Because how can the land be taken from its rightful owner and given to someone else?”

“When I think back on my childhood, I remember how we lived in freedom, away from the busyness of life. I remember the beautiful rhythms of our lives. I would go out often with my father to graze our sheep. Each season brought its own changes. There was the plowing season, and—my favorite—the threshing season. When I was young, there were no modern technological machines like we have today. And threshing is very tiring, because it comes after a two or three-month period of harvesting wheat. But we would get together with our family and friends in order to help each other. I loved the feeling of sitting next to my father as he winnowed, throwing the grain into the air to separate it from the seeds.”

Mohammad, 4th grade, Al-Fakheit. The road connecting his village to his school has already been demolished twice this year by the Israeli military.
Akram, 50, Al-Fakheit. Akram does not have access to running water to feed his family or his sheep.

Ali, 23, Tuba

“I think about the questions I asked as a child: Why is this our life? Why is this my life? And now, I’m watching another generation of Palestinian children be traumatized by stone-throwing, arsonist settlers. They are growing up under the same shadow, their childhoods are being defined by settler violence, just as mine was. Now, as an adult, I still demand answers. But I refuse to allow terror and injustice to confine me.”

“My oldest memory is of fear. With the excitement of every house we managed to build in Tuba came the fear that it could be demolished at any moment. Everytime someone left home—to go out with our flocks, to go to school, to go pick something up in the city—I was afraid they wouldn’t come back.”

Jaber, 34, and Hamoudi, 3, Tuba. Hamoudi's home has had a demolition order on it for his entire life.
Muslah, 24, Megheir Al-Abeid. Muslah was attacked by settlers. Instead of arresting the settlers, the police arrested Muslah.

Zuhour, 73, Tuba

“It took us five years until the first pregnancy happened. Unfortunately, we lost our first child. The women in the village helped me give birth, but I suffered so much, and by the time I managed to birth him, the baby had already died. There was no doctor to help. After this, I gave birth to nine sons and six daughters in Tuba, all without a doctor. Some, I had the help of the women in the village, and some I was just by myself. I’ve spent my whole adult life in the routine of one year pregnant, one year breastfeeding. When I gave birth to my last son, I was 49 years old, just 25 years ago. By that time there was a doctor, but I gave birth to him by myself.”

“When I was seven years old and moving all over the area, nothing happened to me, even when I went far from home. A few years ago, my 7-year-old granddaughter, Sujood, went to take a bottle of water to my son, her uncle, just behind the nearby hill. On her way, a group of settlers started chasing her and throwing rocks at her. She fell, and they came closer and hit her directly in the head with a rock. I hope that my grandchildren will get back the security and freedom that I had when I was a child in Tuba.”

Emily Glick lives in Jerusalem. She is a graduate student studying Conflict Resolution at Hebrew University and is a member of ActiveStills photography collective.

Maya Rosen is a graduate student studying history at the Hebrew University. She lives in Jerusalem and is active in anti-occupation work.