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“Our camera is our only weapon”: How Masafer Yatta is fighting back

Jerusalem24 – Yara Alnazer – Waking up to the sound of bulldozers surrounding your home, or finding they have already started tearing down your school, is the kind of fear which Masafer Yatta falls asleep and wakes up to.

“The most terrifying moment is when you can’t guarantee you will have a home,” Basel Adra, a local journalist and activist, tells Jerusalem24.

But the 1,200 residents of the southern Hebron hills in the occupied West Bank, who are under imminent threat of forcible displacement after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition of forcible transfer set forth in international law is “not enforceable in a domestic court”, are not passively awaiting their fate.

Other than the legal avenues they have pursued, Basel and others have taken to their cameras – and to social media – to document their story, catapulting their struggle to international attention.

Our only weapon

In places and on issues where traditional media lacks in coverage or reach, social media has become a favored tool of activists and the underrepresented.

The occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, now a household name across activist communities worldwide, would probably have remained obscure without the high-visibility activism of twins Mona and Mohammad Al-Kurd, who have a combined following of over 2.5 million on Instagram and made the Time 100 list of most influential people of 2021.

Basel, who boasts a more modest 30,000 followers across a variety of platforms, believes this reach is crucial to “raise the voices” of his community, and raise awareness both locally and abroad about the arbitrary displacement and continuous harassment its residents face.

Journalist and activist Basel Adra.

While it may be hard to quantify the true reach of Masafer Yatta’s social media and on-the-ground activism, the community draws regular visits from international delegations and the attention of the biggest western news outlets.

Activism – and attention – comes with a price, though. Basel has been arrested and physically beaten by soldiers numerous times while documenting incidents in the hills.

Despite this, he feels a responsibility to defend his community, he says, and has poured all his efforts into that endeavor. He uses the skills he has picked up along the way to portray the suffering of his community.

“I learned skills which my parents did not learn. For example I learned English, how to use a camera, how to use social media to publish the stories about my community.”

Even as the demolitions pick up pace, and legal challenges are shot down one after the other, Basel feels this form of activism has paid off.

“Now people know the stories from Masafer Yatta – especially when media and agencies did not focus on this until us (and me as an activist) started to talk about this and share the stories about what’s happening here and what’s going on.”

“We are using our cameras, which is the only weapon to defend ourselves.”

“This is the only home we own”

Masafer Yatta was designated “Firing Zone 918” in the 1980s even though several Palestinian villages had been established there for decades – including before the creation of Israel. Masafer Yatta is furthermore located in occupied West Bank territory, and its population’s forcible displacement “may amount to a war crime“.

After over two decades of legal battles waged by the residents and Israel (and regular harassment and demolitions by the Israeli military), this year’s 4 May Supreme Court ruling paved the way for the imminent displacement of Masafer Yatta’s 1,200 residents (including 500 children) for “illegally living in a firing zone”.

A map of threatened communities in Masafer Yatta. [Credit: Middle East Eye/OCHA]
“We are fighting this legal battle in the occupation court – and we don’t vote for these laws, or these courts,” Basel points out. “This is not a court decision, but a political decision to evacuate and displace us from our homes and allow the settlers to steal and annex more of our lands.”

According to OCHA, the Israeli military has demolished 43 structures since January 2022, displacing at least 106 people. 288 residential structures are currently at risk of demolition.

Basel touts the resilience of his community. “Although they are demolishing homes, and confiscating tents, people will still go and live in the caves and not leave the land.”

“This is the only home we own, and it’s the only land we want to live on.”

Israeli forces conducting a training drill near and inside villages in the Masafer Yatta area, West Bank, February 3, 2021. [Credit: Keren Manor/Activestills.org]

Life, interrupted

Israel has been steadily pursuing its act of displacement under the watchful eye of the international community, tearing buildings down one by one rather than all at once, and exposing the community’s most vulnerable members to harsh and uninterrupted intimidation tactics.

Masafer Yatta’s children bear the brunt of their community’s trauma. Compounding the uncertainty of their home life and not knowing if their roof is secure over their head, the children find no stability in their school life either.

In late November, the Israeli military demolished the donor-funded Isfey elementary school under the pretext it was built in the firing zone. The soldiers locked the students in the classroom and fired sound bombs inside, forcing the children to flee through the windows.

Two weeks later, the army demolished and seized two tents that were serving as temporary classrooms for the 23 pupils.

“Now the students are studying in a caravan,” says Basel. “The rainwater enters the caravan, and it’s very small. The teachers don’t have a teachers’ room, and there is only one classroom for all the kids despite the age difference.”

The events take a particular toll because of the already precarious conditions the children are living in, says Basel. “To be able to focus on their lessons, the kids require a sort of special attention because of their particular circumstances, and teachers need a comfortable environment to be able to continue teaching.”

This form of harassment is part and parcel of forcible displacement, according to Noa Sattath, the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “Forcible transfer […] does not always mean packing people up in trucks and taking them away. A slow mistreatment of the population in order to motivate them to leave is also considered forced transfer.”

A call to the world

For all their activism, the 1,200 residents of Masafer Yatta can only live and lie in wait for more bulldozers to come.

Over seven months have passed since the Supreme Court ruling, and no one in Masafer Yatta is giving up. Basel’s tireless advocacy and daily presence on the hills are a testament to his community’s willingness to fight to the last.

But while social media activity has raised awareness internationally, that awareness needs to be followed by action – both by elected officials and the people who put them in power.

“Governments should take a position and end this apartheid, and prevent Israel from displacing us from Masafer Yatta,” says Basel.

“To get this pressure, I think the people abroad need to push their governments to do that.”

Protesters march in Al-Rakeez in the Masafer Yatta region of the South Hebron Hills after Israeli soldiers shot 24-year-old Harun Abu Aram in the neck, January 8, 2021. [Credit: Keren Manor/Activestills.org]
Listen to the full interview with Basel on Vibes.

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