A news story published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week shed new light on a long-forgotten, yet crucial, subject: Israel’s so-called “firing zones” in the West Bank.
“Israel has impounded the only vehicle available to a medical team that provides assistance to 1,500 Palestinians living inside an Israeli military firing zone in the West Bank,” the story revealed. The Palestinian community denied its only access to medical services was Masafer Yatta, a tiny village located in the South Hebron Hills.
Masafer Yatta, which exists in complete isolation from the rest of the occupied West Bank, is located in Area C — the largest chunk, about 60 percent, of the territory. This means that the village, along with many other Palestinian towns, villages and small, isolated communities, is under total Israeli military control.
Do not let the confusing logic of the Oslo Accords fool you: All Palestinians in all parts of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the besieged Gaza Strip are under Israeli military control too. Unfortunately for Masafer Yatta and all those living in Area C, however, the degree of control is so suffocating that every aspect of Palestinian life — freedom of movement, education, access to clean water and so on — is controlled by a complex system of Israeli military ordinances that have no regard whatsoever for the well-being of the beleaguered communities.
It is no surprise, then, that Masafer Yatta’s only vehicle — a desperate attempt at fashioning a mobile clinic — had also been confiscated in the past and was only retrieved after the impoverished residents were forced to pay a fine to Israeli soldiers.
There is no military logic in the world that could rationally justify the barring of medical access to an isolated community, especially when occupying powers like Israel are legally obligated, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to ensure medical access to civilians living under occupation.
It is only natural that Masafer Yatta, like all Palestinian communities in Area C and the larger West Bank, feel neglected — and even outright betrayed — by the international community, as well as their own quisling leadership. But there is more that makes Masafer Yatta unique, qualifying it for the unfortunate designation of being a Bantustan within a Bantustan, as it subsists in a far more complex system of control compared to that imposed on black South Africa during the apartheid era.
Soon after Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, it devised a long-term stratagem aimed at ensuring its permanent control of the newly occupied territories. While it designated some areas for the future relocation of its own citizens — who now make up the illegal Jewish settler population in the West Bank — it also set aside large swathes of the Occupied Territories as security and buffer zones.
What is far less known is that, throughout the 1970s, the Israeli military declared roughly 18 percent of the West Bank to be “firing zones.” These zones were supposedly meant to be training grounds for the Israeli army, although Palestinians trapped there often report that little or no military training actually takes place.
According tothe UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Palestine, in 2012 there were about 5,000 Palestinians, divided among 38 communities, who still lived under dire circumstances within the so-called firing zones.
The 1967 occupation led to a massive wave of ethnic cleansing that saw the forced removalof approximately 300,000 Palestinians from the newly conquered territory. Many of the vulnerable communities that were ethnically cleansed included Palestinian Bedouins, who continue to pay the price for Israel’s colonial designs in the Jordan Valley, the South Hebron Hills and other parts of occupied Palestine.
This vulnerability is compounded by the fact that the Palestinian Authority (PA) acts with little regard to the Palestinians living in Area C, who are left to withstand and resist Israeli pressures alone, often resorting to Israel’s own unfair judicial system to win back some of their basic rights.
The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 between the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government, divided the West Bank into three regions: Area A, theoretically under autonomous Palestinian control and consisting of 17.7 percent of the overall size of the West Bank; Area B, which covers 21 percent and was under shared Israeli-PA control; and Area C, the remainder of the West Bank and under total Israeli control. This arrangement was meant to be temporary, set to conclude in 1999 once the “final status negotiations” were concludedand a comprehensive peace accord was signed. Instead, it became the status quo ante.
As unfortunate as all Palestinians living in Area C are, those living in the firing zones are enduring the most hardship. According to the UN, this includes “the confiscation of property, settler violence, harassment by soldiers, access and movement restrictions and/or water scarcity.”
Expectedly, many illegal Jewish settlements sprang upin these firing zones over the years — a clear indication that they have no military purpose whatsoever, but were meant to provide an Israeli legal justification to confiscate nearly a fifth of the West Bank for future colonial expansion.
As unfortunate as all Palestinians living in Area C are, those living in the firing zones are enduring the most hardship.
Throughout the years, Israel has ethnically cleansed nearly all the Palestinians remaining in these firing zones, and the few still left behind are likely to suffer the same fate should the Israeli occupation continue on its same violent trajectory.
This makes the story of Masafer Yatta a microcosm of the tragic and larger story of all Palestinians. It is also a reflection of the sinister nature of Israeli colonialism and military occupation, whereby Palestinians lose their land, their water, their freedom of movement and, eventually, even the most basic medical care.
These harsh conditions “contribute to a coercive environment that creates pressure on Palestinian communities to leave these areas,” according to the UN. Ethnic cleansing, in other words, which has been Israel’s strategic goal all along.