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The Plight of Masafer Yatta
0:00 / 26:57
June 8, 2023

In May 2022, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition against the forced transfer of more than 1,000 Palestinians who live in Masafer Yatta, a region of rural hamlets in the south of the occupied West Bank. Israel had previously designated a large swath of Masafer Yatta as a military “firing zone,” and argued to the court that it needed to forcibly displace these residents because they were illegally living in a military training area. As a result of the ruling, Israel’s army can move forward with their plans at any time. But for now, Masafer Yatta’s residents remain, even in the face of an escalated campaign of military demolitions, training exercises, and harassment. On this week’s episode of On the Nose, senior reporter Alex Kane speaks with Basel Adra, a Palestinian journalist and activist from the Masafer Yatta village of al-Tuwani, about life in the region, Israel’s campaign of violence against its residents, and what might stop the state from following through on its plans of mass displacement.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”


Classified document reveals IDF ‘firing zones’ built to give land to settlers,” Yuval Abraham, +972 Magazine

I filmed a settler pogrom. Now the Israeli media is smearing me,” Basel Adraa, +972 Magazine

Largest Palestinian displacement in decades looms after Israeli court ruling,” Henriette Chacar, Reuters

They Want To Kick Us Out of This Land,” Mari Cohen, Jewish Currents


Alex Kane: Hello, and welcome to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Alex Kane, your host today, and I’m the Senior Reporter at Jewish Currents. In May 2022, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition against the displacement of more than 1000 Palestinians who live in the area of Masafer Yatta in the occupied West Bank. Masafer Yatta is a region Israel has designated as a military firing zone, and this ruling gave Israel’s army the legal green light to move forward with their plans to forcibly displace the residents there. Masafer Yatta is also a frequent target of Israeli settler violence. One of the most dogged journalists and activists documented the plight of this rural part of the West Bank is Basel Adra, a Palestinian from the Masafer Yatta village of al-Tuwani. Basel is in New York for a visit, and I’m so delighted to have him on to this episode of On the Nose. Welcome, Basel.

Basel Adra: Thank you, Alex.

AK: So I want to start by just introducing listeners to Masafer Yatta and yourself. So, could you tell us: Where is Masafer Yatta, who lives there, and about your life there?

BA: Hi, everyone. Masafer Yatta is a Palestinian town located in the southern occupied West Bank in Palestine. We are 20 small communities, mostly farmers, living there decades and decades, mostly having sheep, goats, and farming our land agriculturally until the 80s, when the Israeli state starts building settlements in our town by confiscating or stealing our land under a pretext that the law is allowing them to do this.

AK: What’s your day-to-day life like in Masafer Yatta? What exactly are you doing to resist these Israeli plans on your land?

BA: So I grew up with two parents who really served through activism in my community, rejecting the occupation, and the things that they succeeded and managed to do in my community, for example: they built our school, the school where I was educated. My father and my mother were not educated because there were no schools, and you’re not allowed to build any schools. So in 1998, when the people of my village started building the school, they had the Israeli army invading the village and threatening to confiscate the tools and arrest them. My mother’s like, “We’re there.” And she’s proud to tell this story to us, that she led the women and the kids in doing simple work and protecting the equipment and the tools while men came to work at night. And the women, at the same time at night, were in the hills watching the roads; if the army came to invade, they would call the men of the villages and they could escape from any risk to be arrested. This continued for 20 days, until they built like three rooms to be the first school in Masafer Yatta—and they kept improving it until 2014. That was the year that I finished my school.

So me, personally, I got all my education in my village, and I’m proud of what my parents did, as well. And each event, each protest that my parents go to, I go with them. I remember in 2005, I was nine years old. I went with my parents to protest in front of an Israeli police station against the settlers who poisoned our sheep; they poisoned the fields, and they poisoned the water wells. Living in a home of activism really made me into what I am doing today, as well. I learned how to speak English and how to use a camera to document what’s going on there. I feel my responsibility today, with these skills that my parents don’t have, is to transfer the story and to document and film to show the truth: What’s happening in Masafer Yatta, what’s really happening on the ground. It is important for me, because I believe all these people around the world, they would know the truth, what’s really going on. If Americans would really see the truth, where their money is going–their money is going to the army that comes to Masafer Yatta, to do what? To destroy a school, confiscating bathrooms, demolishing sheep shelters, demolishing houses. I am very sure, when it comes to the majority of Americans, that they will realize that their money is going to these actions they would reject, and they would not stay silent. So this is my hope: To document these things and to show it to the world.

AK: So you’re here in New York, and we were talking before—it’s your first time in the US. What are you doing in New York and in the US?

BA: It is part of the advocacy work that I always wished to do; to teach them about what’s happening, to bring the story in front of them, that this is what’s happening to us. And Masafer Yatta: Masafer Yatta is under threat of serious displacement at any moment by the Israeli military. And what I’m working on with other friends and colleagues in different places is, really, to prevent this from happening. I wish that the countries and administrations like the US and the EU would stop from just condemnations, condemnations; it’s a good thing, but it’s not helping. The US should really stop sending their billions of dollars to the Israelis to destroy our schools and homes and prevent us from living normally, in our lives. All that we fight for is really to have clean water, good electricity, normal homes, schools, roads; we’d like to live as human beings on our land. I’m here to really try to transfer this message, and people should realize this, and should talk to their representatives, and the government should look: Where is their money and the taxes that they’re paying? What is happening with this money? It’s really damaging our lives, day after day.

AK: I imagine the village has gone to the army and said, “Can you let us get hooked up to electricity?” What’s that like?

BA: So, as Palestinian citizens, it’s like, we carry personal ID, but at the same time, we are under the Israeli military occupation laws. So whatever law they want, they just impose it on us, while the settlers living 100 meters away from my home, for example, live under the Israeli civil law, and they are Israeli civilians, where they’re voting, where they move freely—we don’t have that. We can’t build anything without getting permission—and, always, we’re wasting our time, it’s always rejected. And this is not just happening in Masafer Yatta, this happening in all areas, which is 60%, from the West Bank. They are rejecting just to legitimize that displacement that they are doing to us; they don’t want to just come and displace us. They want to tell you that we are doing something illegally, that we are building a school illegally, we’re building the homes illegally, we’re connecting the water illegally. They will tell us that “This is your land, but you can’t build there”—and how can you live without having home electricity and these life requirements? So they are displacing us by using the law and carrying out demolition processes every week, most months of the year. Each week, I stand next to a new family where I see the mother and the children running from school or just standing beside their mother and crying there while a bulldozer’s destroying their home. It’s really heartbreaking. I know a family very closely there that, since 2018, have lost their home five times. So their lives literally become to rebuild the home, not to go to work, not to live a normal life. So this is how they are legitimizing: by making a designation that “This area is a firing zone,” “This land is state land,” “You are building this home without getting permission,” but I AM applying, I’m paying thousands of shekels, which is a really big amount of money for each request to get permission.

AK: And people are just—they’re farmers. It’s not like they’re wealthy.

BA: Yeah, they’re farmers. And from the other side, settlers come and take the land very easily, the state providing everything for the settlers to come and build homes and farms. Like today, you just cannot compare a village in Masafer Yatta with an Israeli settlement. If you go nearby Barcena community, you will see like how dark it is. People can’t find water, and if they dig a water well, they would immediately send a bulldozer with a convoy of Israeli military to dig up this well and fill it with stones and soil to prevent Palestinians from using it and not to have water, while we see how easily settlers are getting all of these things. So living in this, day after day and for decades, under these conditions, it’s really horrifying. And it makes us really tired.

AK: The army is coming to destroy water wells or schools or homes. What’s the goal?

BA: It’s easily to make our life miserable as much as they can, so we would leave this land and they take it for the settlers. And through different policies—not just demolitions but also night invasions by the Israeli military to our homes. They invaded, for example, my home last year at least seven times; sometimes they’ll throw stun grenades, make everyone wake up. This led to terrifying us, trying to stop us from filming, from going to the field, filming what they are doing and writing on social media and writing to the journalists about what’s happening in Masafer Yatta. And other policies, like they’re using the settlers’ physical violence against us. This is happening almost every day: settlers harass, and settlers pogrom, and settlers lynch—it’s really going on all the time there. And it is not a group of settlers that just come and want to do physical violence toward Palestinians. It’s really something invested by the State of Israel against us. It’s like another pressure to make us also feel fear that we don’t have protection.

AK: You mentioned the settler attacks earlier, and you said that they poisoned livestock. What does that mean?

BA: So it was like in 2005, they brought seed, they filled it with poison, and deposited it on the fields where Palestinians go to graze their animals. And then the Palestinians’ sheep come in the morning, they ate, and at this point dozens of the sheep died. It was forbidden for the settlers to be in these fields as it is Palestinian Authority, even according to the military occupation law, that they can’t take this land. So they would allow the settlers to commit the physical violence against the shepherds, against the farmers, so they would be afraid to come to this land. And, after some years, they will declare that Palestinians are not using this land, so they don’t deserve it, and the state will take this land and give it to the settlers.

AK: When you’re out there reporting and documenting, how did the army and the settlers interact with you? What kind of obstruction do you face?

BA: At first, many attacks personally by the Israeli settlers and Israeli army. So I will tell you about September 2021, when there was a Jewish holiday—Sukkot holiday—at that time, where settlers from two outposts, over 16 settlers, armed with sticks and arms and pepper spray, knives, everything like they came down to a community of Umm Fagarah. So I ran there with my camera, and I saw this settler literally running from one home to another smashing the windows, cutting the water pipes, damaging everything they could: the tractors, the solar panels that would provide electricity to these houses, attacking the people with stones and sticks. The soldiers were there, shooting tear gas and stun grenades toward the Palestinians who tried to defend themselves. I saw families running to the valleys, running away from their homes. The settlers chased me at that moment, there were like 15 of them with sticks and stones that started to chase me because they saw that I’m filming. But I managed to run away from them and to escape.

When I was walking back to the village, I saw a fire started in firewood next to one of the houses, and that fire started because the soldiers shot tear gas into this wood. One of them had a GoPro, like a small camera in his chest, and told me “You started the fire.” I was telling him “YOU started the fire.” So after that, the video that I filmed of the settlers’ attack was everywhere. I got a lot of attention internationally, and it makes them annoyed by me. So a week after this pogrom, I saw this clip of a soldier—of a commander, actually—telling me that I started this fire on Israeli mainstream media. And they laid the campaign against me: that a Palestinian started the fire in a Palestinian home to claim that the Jews did this fire. So after it was like on TV and on Twitter (also on Israeli right wing websites that wrote about me, and against me, and against my family, and led really campaign) I also received individual messages of threats and insults, but then also on the field, everywhere I go, my face is known for them. And there is an anger towards me from the soldiers and the settlers and, always, they push me back and try to prevent me from filming—until last year, May 2022.

After the decision about Masafer Yatta, I got another call from our neighbor. He was building a shelter, and four masked soldiers come to take down this shelter—even according to the occupation law, it’s illegal for them to do that. They come just like before, before the night, masked, and start to push him and his kids away. I went there to film that. And immediately, the soldiers brought me to the ground very violently, tried to arrest me, beating me and grabbing me on the stones and the soil. They hurt my legs and my body; they’re kicking me on my neck for 40 minutes. Almost all the activists—all the Palestinians there on the ground—face the same things.

AK: Has anything changed since the Supreme Court ruling giving the army the green light to displace you and your family and the other people? Have you noticed a change?

BA: So yeah, a lot of change happened since last year until today. Mostly, the attacks became more and more—demolitions also, as well—more than 50 Palestinian homes and properties were demolished, and one of them was a school that was demolished last February. One day, a normal day, when the students were studying at their classrooms, a convoy of soldiers, they made a wall around the school. And another group of soldiers ran to the classrooms and they shut the doors. They kept the kids inside, and they start pushing us journalists and parents away, and they used stun grenades against us. I saw the kids opening the windows of their classrooms and jumping from the windows. Some of them took their bags, some of them not. And they were really crying. The soldiers chased them to make them go away from the school. After that, they steal their tables and chairs, books, everything that was inside the closet—they take it, they put it inside their army-like cars, and they brought in a bulldozer that demolished the school in a few minutes. If you would watch a clip of a demolition, you’d see how easy it is to demolish this, but if you ask the people in Masafer Yatta how hard to build this home or school—and the materials, the time, the suffering to transfer these building materials there—you would understand how hard it is.

And, actually, the bulldozer that demolished this specific school was driven and owned by a settler that lived illegally in an outpost near our communities, living illegally even according to the Israeli military law—but they never do demolitions against these settlements. And he personally does attacks with other settlers against our communities, and instead of being in a jail and then a court, they bring him to demolish and destroy the school and the homes in Masafer Yatta. As well, they did two months of military exercises where they used tanks, set up checkpoints with the tanks, they prevented the school students and the school teachers to go to their schools. They confiscated the teachers’ cars, they set up targets for the soldiers on the roads where the Palestinians move, and they shot at these targets. The Israeli soldiers set up metal gates at the entrance of these communities, and the caravans and the soldiers staying there 24 hours, and no one is allowed to enter except the residents of these communities. The residents, a lot of the time they’ll spend seven to eight hours waiting at the checkpoint being searched. And the soldiers want to make sure if they’re living there, if they’re not living there—just to waste the people’s time each time they want to go in and out from their community. As well, they confiscated the cars from the residents. And lawyers’ and activists’ and journalists’ cars were confiscated under basic stuff like “this is a firing zone.” They want to separate the people who’re really targeted by this decision from the other ones, and to really put more and more attacks on them. I want to tell you that the truth is, when Masafer Yatta were designated as a firing zone, it was designated by Ariel Sharon. He wrote in his secret documents that this will be to hold the land for the Israeli settlements.

AK: This was written about in +972 Magazine.

BA: Yes, so this is the truth. Plus, the human rights laws prevent any country from designating communities as firing zones and doing military exercises above Palestinian communities. And the other thing: 20% of the West Bank, they designated as a firing zone, not just Masafer Yatta, and according to the Israeli military numbers, 80% of the zones that were designated as firing zones are not really used for military exercises. It is used by the settlers to build outposts and settlements, mostly in Jordan Valley and Masafer Yatta. And with the recent government, we see how settlers now in Masafer Yatta are really occupying new areas and building new outposts. So now they are allowing the settlers to build tents and farms, even next to the communities which were designated firing zones.

AK: I imagine that you must have been watching the Israeli protests that are going on in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and around the country calling for protecting the Supreme Court saying that “We want to save Israeli democracy by protecting the independence of the Supreme Court.” Obviously, your community has been put under threat of forced displacement by that very same Supreme Court. What do you make of the Israeli protesters who are looking to save the Supreme Court?

BA: These people did not protest when the Supreme Court decided to displace my community, Masafer Yatta, or Sheikh Jarrah, or Khan al-Ahmar. All of the occupation work in the West Bank is legitimized by the Supreme Court, and we never saw these people going to protest against the decisions that this Supreme Court decided about our future and about our lives. And a lot of them are the soldiers that are protecting the settlements or demolishing our homes and doing the work of the occupation in our communities. So literally, this protest means, to me, nothing—because they are only fighting for their democracy, democracy for themselves.

AK: I’m wondering whether you’ve noticed any changes with this new Israeli government, which includes Bezalel Smotrich, who is a minister in the government, who has a post within the Defense Ministry responsible for construction and building in the occupied West Bank. He founded an organization called Regavim, which is a settler organization that has been targeting Masafer Yatta for years. What does it mean that Smotrich is in the government, and have you noticed any changes on the ground since the new government?

BA: So he, as you said, he founded Regavim here in the US as a charity, taking donations from the Americans as well as from the settlements, councils—and the Israeli government, I’m sure—to steal our land. And all these years that Regavim existed, the number of demolitions really increased. For example, in Masafer Yatta, from 2016 until today, over 220 homes and properties were smashed, and most of it was from Regavim campaigns. For example, in 2019, they led a legal case and also campaigned against the water system that we built in Masafer Yatta, which is 25 kilometers of water pipe that provided water for a whole community. Regavim were behind a decision from the court to make the Israeli army destroy this water pipe, and it was destroyed.

AK: And just to clarify for our listeners, Regavim is an organization that tracks what they call illegal Palestinian building in Area C, which is the area of the West Bank that’s under control of the settlers and where Israeli settlements are located. And it’s under the full control the Israeli army. And so Regavim basically documents and tracks Palestinians building there—and it is technically illegal because Palestinians can’t get permits from the army to build.

BA: And now he’s the one in charge. He just said very clear that Khan al-Ahmar should be demolished and will be demolished—not just because it is illegal, according to them, but also because it’s set in a strategic place to prevent the Arabs, as he called them, to have their own state.

AK: When you’re talking about Masafer Yatta being declared a firing zone and these army exercises going on, what does that look like?

BA: For two months, they did this: They move from one place to another, from one village to another, they set explosives on the ground, and they explode them. They move to another community, running around with the tanks above the grass and between the houses; they block the roads in front of the people, no one is allowed to move, to go into the community or out from the community. Cars are not allowed to move there. They also shot from the tanks—so, for example, last September, they were shooting from the tanks and one of the shots hit a person at home in the Khalet Al Dabea community. And, because the roofs are metal, the bullet stayed stuck in the in the roof of the home. So we called the army to come and to see if their training is causing damages. And this is a very serious threat, and a family were sitting in the home when it was shot, and it could have at least injured or killed someone. They came they looked at the hole they said “Oh, nothing happened,” they left. So the next day, by chance, the EU representatives were coming to this community. So we cut the roof and we took out the bullet in front of the EU representatives. And then we took a picture and we called the army again and said “This is from you,” and they said “It might be from our training.” It was a bullet from a tank—to say “It might be” or “It’s not us” is a very clear lie, because who would have a tank in that area except the Israeli army? So this is how it is. This military exercise is really just for terrifying their lives, it’s really to make the Palestinians move away by themselves so they can easily take the land for the settlers.

AK: It’s been about a year since the Israeli Supreme Court ruling allowing the army to forcibly displace residents of Masafer Yatta. Obviously people are still living there—under a lot of pressure, but they are still living there. What do you think needs to happen to allow Masafer Yatta to survive? Is there a chance that the international pressure and activism that seemingly has stopped Israel from being able to carry it out so far can prevent mass displacement from occurring in the future? What do you think needs to be done to prevent Israel from doing this?

BA: For me personally, I think Israel should get sanctions. Bezalel Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and the recent government is really putting the international community in a corner. Ben-Gvir in a video told the EU and Americans that “You keep doing condemnations, but this is our land and we will continue doing this and we just legitimized nine outposts.” One of these outposts is located in Masafer Yatta. The settlers like committing physical violence from this outpost, and it is in the firing zone. And they’re legitimizing it. So this is like putting a finger on the eye—and to keep doing these condemnations is not working anymore. So Israel should really face challenges—more than just condemning this apartheid system—they should put pressure, all the pressure that’s needed to stop this apartheid. We as Palestinians deserve to get our freedom and our power to decide about our future.

AK: Well, thank you so much, Basel, for joining us. I really appreciate you coming on and talking about your life and what Masafer Yatta is facing. Thank you so much for listening. This was another episode of the Jewish Currents podcast On the Nose. Please like us on podcast apps and share these episodes and others like it. And of course, go to JewishCurrents.org to subscribe and to keep up with all of our coverage. Thanks so much.

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