Thursday, September 19, 2013

Visit to Firing Zone 918

I began my week with my first visit to Firing Zone 918, an area in the south Hebron hills that includes twelve villages and is near four settlements. Every week, CPT and other NGOs provide protective presence in the area that the Israeli military declared a closed military zone for training, Firing Zone 918.  It was declared a firing zone despite the fact that people lived in the area, or perhaps because of it.  When military exercises are happening near one's home or school or grazing fields, one might think twice about living there.  The uncertainty and danger might be compelling reasons to leave. However, residents of the area remain.  "To exist is to resist."  They will not be so easily forced out. 
Al Fakheit school & jeep used to
transport children there

Because some children have to go long distances from their own village to another that has a school, a jeep transports them each morning.  We, as accompaniers,  ride into the area with the jeep and visit the schools and/or villages during the day.  We spend the night in one of the villages and leave the next day when another group takes over the task.
Firing Zone 918; soldiers barely visible

From the school of Al Fakheit, the first place we visited, we witnessed the presence of a large group of Israeli soldiers and heard an artillery training activity in the distance. We saw soldiers and a military vehicle near the village of Halawah. It was the jeep driver who alerted us to their presence.  We needed binoculars to see the soldiers.  The driver knew the sight well enough to recognize it without them. We also witnessed two helicopter flyovers while we were visiting the school in Al Fakheit.   When it happened some of the children were in classrooms studying; others were outside playing soccer.  These activities didn't stop when the helicopter flew overhead.  That's how commonplace it is. 
Helicopter flyover

According to the headmaster at Al Fakheit, the school has been open since 2009.  The eight teachers and headmaster drive in each morning, many from Yatta, the nearest city.  The trip to the school can take up to two hours, on roads that can barely be called roads. It is the dry season now, but as we drove and walked through the area, I kept wondering how any vehicle could get through during the rainy season.  Maybe the earth is rocky enough that it doesn't get horribly muddy, but it didn't look that way.   The school in Al Fakheit currently serves about 50 children; about 20 more will come when the season changes from dry to rainy; for economic reasons, some of the local families divide their time between Yatta and their village.

Students busily working at Al Fakheit school
We stayed the night in the school of Al Fakheit and heard several others helicopters flying nearby, though we couldn't see them. The next morning, we heard what seemed to be bomb detonation and machine gun fire. These are not the sounds one wants to hear upon just waking up.  The sounds were incongruous with the beautiful sunrise I watched. Later in the morning, when we visited the village of Jinba (about a 45-minute walk from Al-Fakheit), residents confirmed that the Israeli military had conducted infantry training exercises nearby from about 6 to 8 AM that morning. Such activities are the reality of the area. 

School at Jinba (at top of photo)
Our time in Jinba included a school visit (where there are 30 students) and home visits, where we enjoyed tea and conversation. There we also learned that the Israeli authorities stopped members of World Vision as they were driving from Jinba to Al Fakheit and confiscated their car.  According to a member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this occurred on September 11 and Israeli authorities said they would not return the car for at least 60 days. 

 The area has been relatively quiet since May – with no training activities seen or heard, though helicopter flyovers continued even during this “quiet” time and settler violence and a military raid occurred in July.  
Girls at Al Fakheit
On our way into the area, we witnessed the digging of a new cistern.  The south Hebron hills are currently dry, dry, dry.  Palestinian residents generally rely on water tanks for their water.  They also collect water in cisterns when they are allowed to dig them and when they are not demolished.  The settlements in the firing zone have access to as much water as they want- no water tanks needed.  The Israeli government issued a stop work order at the digging site we saw.  The reason given: it's in a “nature reserve.” Military training exercises, however, apparently don't disturb the wildlife there.  

The firing zone is currently the subject of a court case in the Israeli Supreme Court because eight of the twelve villages, where about 1,000 people live, are under eviction orders. Many structures within those villages also have demolition orders. The case came to court on September 2 where the judicial panel proposed mediation.  The case will again come before the court on October 2.   The military exercises we witnessed were the first since the September 2 court date.

The UN’s 2012 Humanitarian Impact of Israeli-declared “Firing Zone” in the West Bank Factsheet reports that in addition to restriction on grazing livestock (the livelihood of many inhabitants of the area, “residents of firing zones face a range of other difficulties including the confiscation of property,
settler violence, harassment by soldiers, access and movement restrictions and/or water scarcity.
Combined, these conditions contribute to a coercive environment that creates pressure
on Palestinian communities to leave these areas... International law also prohibits the destruction or confiscation of private or public property, unless for reasons of military necessity, as well as the
forced displacement or transfer of civilians.”

Unfortunately, the Israeli government and military don't seem to have much respect for international law when it comes to treatment of Palestinians. Thankfully, this case has received considerable international attention.  Our hope is that international pressure will encourage the court to make the right decision.

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