Jerusalem24 – When local journalist and activist Basel Adra spoke to us two weeks ago, it was business as usual in Masafer Yatta.
Basel, armed with his camera, diligently documented the demolitions, arrests, assaults by Israeli settlers, and other forms of harassment from the Israeli military that the residents of the south Hebron hills in the occupied West Bank have been dealing with for the past several decades.
Now, his community has been officially notified by Israeli authorities that over 1,300 residents – half of them children – will be forcibly removed from their homes “in the coming days”.
The small communities of Masafer Yatta have been rocked by an increasing number of demolitions in the eight days since the notification was issued: of residential homes, of water wells, of a tent serving as a temporary classroom for children after their school was demolished in November.
“In general the situation is very bad,” Basel tells Jerusalem24.
On Monday 2 January, the Israeli District Coordination and Liaison Office (DCO) notified their Palestinian counterparts that the residents would receive notices to evict their homes “in the coming days”, and would be transferred to “an alternative location”.
Israeli NGO B’Tselem called the DCO notification and impending expulsion a “fast-tracked war crime”.
“The demolition policy has been going on for many years but it’s increasing year after year – mostly because of the settlers’ pressure because the settlements are expanding,” explains Basel.
The demolitions’ goal is “to control and annex as much land as they can in Area C” and amount to ethnic cleansing, charges Basel.
1,300 residents at least, says Basel, from a total number of 14 communities, will be physically transferred out of their homes “under the pretext the occupation army needs [the land] for military exercises.”
Basel points out that the Israeli settlers living within the firing zone across three outposts are not themselves under threat of removal.
The land the communities of Masafer Yatta have been living on since before the creation of Israel was designated “Firing zone 918” in the 1980s, and Israeli authorities have used this pretext – as well as arguing that the people of Masafer Yatta are not “permanent residents” of their villages – to try and forcibly displace them since.
A ruling from the Israeli Supreme Court on 4 May 2022 finally paved the way for their mass expulsion.Hundreds of Palestinians across the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, and also the Naqab desert within the Green Line, are forcibly displaced on an annual basis, mostly through individual house demolitions.
But the last time forcible displacement took place on anything resembling this scale was in 1999, when 700 of the same residents of Msaafer Yatta were loaded onto trucks and their villages razed to the ground (in contradition with an existing Israeli military order, which stipulated that the restrictions regarding the firing zone would not be applied to existing residents of the area). And before that, in 1986, when 400 residents of Susya – also in the south Hebron hills – were carted away in the same manner to make place for an archeological site run by the nearby Israeli settlement of the same name.
B’Tselem comments that the “alternative location” put forward by Israel in the notification seems to constitute an admission on Israel’s part that the residents’ permanent home is, indeed, Masafer Yatta.
“Israel is doing whatever they want here,” says Basel. “They ignored all the evidence that the Palestinians provided in their legal battle [to show] that they are living here since before the state of Israel was established, through aerial footage showing the communities before 1948.”
Basel is adamant that an alternative location “is not acceptable for us. We don’t know about it and we haven’t asked about it because it is not acceptable at all.”
Basel says the “offer” means the residents will be displaced from their own home “to another Palestinian’s lands: this means another Palestinian will have to lose his land to give it to the people in Masafer Yatta.”
Buses and trucks
“Yesterday was a very long day,” sighs Basel, “five families lost their homes. It is horrible that you are sleeping in your home and in the morning you find a bulldozer outside your door, they just decided to demolish it. Your home will turn to rubble and you will just sit on it, and start to think of a solution: to live in your neighbor’s home, or to find an old cave and to renovate it inside.”
He believes Israel means business with the recent DCO notification – and with far-right extremist leader of the Religious Zionism party, Bezalel Smotrich (himself a settler) at the helm of settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, Basel expects the worst.
“This is part of what we expect with this new right-wing government: ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. This has been going on for a long time, but I think now it will be more serious, by physically taking people from their homes – not just demolishing their homes, but physically taking them out, putting the people on buses and trucks.”
“This will be more horrible than ever.”
History repeats itself
Basel was three years old the first time the trucks came for his family and his neighbors in 1999. He was young but the trauma is shared by his entire community. “They put them in trucks with their belongings, animals, sheep… and all that was left behind was destroyed by the bulldozers.”
Initially, the 700 displaced residents set up tents in nearby communities’ fields out of the firing zone, but eventually began moving back to their lands – an enterprise which met with constant push back from the army.
“Many of them were arrested, many of them were beaten up, their sheep were confiscated as well as their trucks when they tried to enter their fields.”
This scenario played out for around six months until a temporary court ruling allowed the residents back while their fate was decided in Israeli courts – a decision which took 22 years to issue, in the form of the Supreme Court ruling of May 2022 which paved the way for the residents’ final expulsion.
People have been recalling their memories from that time, the trucks and the trauma, and talking more about it since the notification from the DCO came last week, says Basel.
“We need to think of what to do. No one can think about a solution, except to say we’ll stay, steadfast on our lands, we’ll never leave. Even if they take us out we’ll go back to our homes.”
“But life is going to be, I think, very hard. I can’t, even now, think about it and imagine it.”
Showing the truth to the world
“I always try to use my camera to document what’s happening,” says Basel, “through the stories of Masafer Yatta residents, my people: what’s going to happen to them, what is happening to them in their daily life. To me, to my family, to everyone around me.”
When we spoke to him two weeks ago, Basel told us all about the skills he acquired specifically so he could help his community, namely English, photography, and social media. He told us how he was encouraged that the stories from the south Hebron hills had reached the outside world through his and others’ documentation of events.
But his tone today is more somber.
“I believe in filming this to show the truth to the world, [for them] to put more pressure and to stand in solidarity with us. Because we have the right to live on our land.”
“But to be honest, I am more, now, hopeless,” Basel tells us. “I always thought, ‘The international community are going to know and find out the truth and try to help to stop it.’ But after what happened in the UN, that the US, the UK, France – all these countries that are pretending to support human rights and protecting international law – vote against the ICC checking out the occupation in the West Bank, when they vote against this, this makes us disappointed as Palestinians.”
Basel is scathing in his criticism of the international community, particularly as international delegations regularly visit Masafer Yatta to express support and awareness of the residents’ plight. “They say they support the two-state solution and are against the occupation. But they are just saying it. And now when it comes to the place where they have to take action, they are taking action against the Palestinians, against the rights of the Palestinians.”
“We’re living in a world of hypocrisy.”
“Stop the crime before it takes place”
But his exasperation with empty words and gestures doesn’t mean Basel – or anyone else in Masafer Yatta – is giving up.
“We want to continue to fight for our rights. Even if we don’t have energy, we have to look for it in any small thing, to find energy to continue our fight. We can’t give up in this world. We can’t just raise a white flag and say, ‘We’re done, do whatever you want to do.’”
“It’s our home. It’s the only place we want to live. We want to have our rights as human beings and continue living our life. We want to fight until the end of it and give it all the power that we have.”
And Basel hasn’t completely given up on outside help, either.
“I only wish that these people can do something to stop the crime before it takes place. I hope that everyone who hears us can do something, even if it is a very simple thing, to stop this before it happens. It’s the last chance to do this.”Listen to the full story with Basel on Vibes.