The laundry gets to me, its bright colors neatly arranged by size. French theorist Roland Barthes might have called it a “punctum.” That’s the heart-stopping detail in a photograph whose personal connection pierces you and holds you. And who doesn’t relate to laundry? But the “punctum” is not limited to photographs. To walk through these ruined households is to feel the same combination of dismay and recognition over and over again.
Previous demolitions took place in Fakheit in January:
The inhabitants of Fakheit rebuilt the town, but now they are afraid to rebuild.
Instead the residents of Fahkit wend their way through the thick of the ruins . . .
or search through the rubble, looking for a hen who has made her way inside and laid her eggs somewhere or other.
Some are considering a return to living in caves as they once did and as others in Masafer Yatta still do. This means renovating caves they have been using for storage.
A cave, they reason, is less likely to be destroyed. No one can accuse the residents of “building” a cave.
The recent ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court is a motivation for the change.
At its founding in the early 1980s, Firing Zone 918 was billed as a training ground for new soldiers, and even though it is not used that way in years, the army is intent on destroying the towns inside it and expelling their inhabitants. After a suit was filed on behalf of the villages twenty years ago, the supreme court temporarily prohibited the army from total destroying them, but it was allowed to demolish any new construction. Since it is impossible to manage without adding an addition to accommodate a new baby or to add a hencoop or rebuild a clinic, the twelve villages frequently receive visits from the army that wreak havoc and leave them devastated. The Firing Zones, which cover approximately 18% of the occupied territories in “area C,” and contain a number of undisturbed Israeli settlement outposts, are in fact explicitly intended as a means of annexing territories.
Besides Fakheit, some of the other villages are Al-Markez, where I witnessed widespread destruction in 2018, and Ar-Rakiz, where Harun lives, permanently paralyzed last year from an Israeli soldier’s bullet after trying to help his neighbor hold on to a generator that the army did not think he should have (the villages are not included in the electric grid). Bi’r al-‘Id, where for years volunteers have been helping to build a road by hand, has almost no one living in it anymore. In 2017, David Massy and I visited another town, Jinba, as an act of solidarity on the day that Israel’s supreme court was to decide the fate of their town and the others. We thought they would wait anxiously for the verdict. In fact, they went on with their daily lives. These decisions, they were well aware, have been scheduled before and would be scheduled again. Many times. After all, the case had already lasted nearly twenty years.
On May 4, the decision finally came. Israel’s supreme court determined that Israel may demolish eight of the twelve villages in Masafer Yatta within the firing zone and expel their inhabitants. The inhabitants, the court decreed, could not prove that they had resided in the zone before it was established in the early 1980s, or that the homes that are clearly visible in arial views, old maps and even old reports of attacks and destruction were really meant to be permanent. Israel does not sign on to the international law that decrees that an occupying power may not deport or forcibly transfer the civilian population of an occupied territory.*
Many of the people of nearby Al-Mirkez still live in caves.
Now the animals do, too. Their pens have been destroyed and they have nowhere to shelter in the heat. They swelter, crowded together in a cave. Their owners worry about them.
In past demolitions, the soldiers destroyed the water tanks and cut the electric lines, even in the caves.
This time, the soldiers let the water tanks and the solar panels alone. It would be bad optics to destroy them, I was told.
A surveillance camera warns residents of the cave when soldiers enter the village. They say they watched the latest demolitions on the screen.
For now, the residents of Firing Zone 918 still cling to their homes. There are those who remember well the moment in 1999 when they were loaded into trucks and deported. Repeated rebuilding is preferable. At the time, the court permitted them to return home to wait for a decision. But now the bulldozers are gathered, and the trucks, too, may gather again: the Israeli Supreme Court has given its blessing.
The European Union, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, and many United States Senators and Representatives have objected to the decision by Israel’s supreme court. You can read a detailed discussion of the court’s decision here. Unfortunately, it has not garnered the international outrage that it should have. Only international pressure can prevent the utter destruction of these people’s lives. In 2018, a timely warning from the international Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda saved the village of al-Khan al-Ahmar in the Jordan Valley from a similar fate. Readers might consider contacting your representatives, foreign office, or other responsible parties. Tell them to urge the Department of State or their foreign offices to recognize that the expulsion of occupied peoples from their homes is a war crime and to act on it accordingly. Ask them to help save Masafer Yatta. You can find a link to a sample letter to members of the United States Congress here.
text and photographs margaret olin © 2022
* Thanks to Guy Butavia for bringing me to the 918 Firing Zone again and again and helping me to make what passes as “sense” out of the situation.