Israel's Supreme Court has decided that the Palestinian region of Masafer Yatta in the southern hills of Hebron is to be appropriated entirely by the Israeli military and that the local population of more than 1,000 Palestinians is to be expelled. The court's decision on 4 May was hardly surprising. Israel's military occupation is not only enforced by soldiers with guns, but also elaborate political, military, economic and legal structures, all of which are dedicated to the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements and the slow — and sometimes not-so-slow — expulsion of the Palestinians.
When Palestinians say that the Nakba ("Catastrophe"), which led to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel on its ruins, is an ongoing unfinished project, they mean exactly that. The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the endless torment of Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab, and now in Masafer Yatta, are all testament to this reality.
However, Masafer Yatta is particularly unique. In the case of occupied East Jerusalem, for example, Israel has made a fallacious, ahistorical claim that the city is the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people. It combined its unsubstantiated narrative with military action on the ground, followed by a systematic process to increase the Jewish population and eject the native inhabitants of the city. Such notions as 'Greater Jerusalem' and legal and political structures, like that of the Jerusalem Master Plan 2000, have all contributed towards turning the once absolute Palestinian majority in Jerusalem into a constantly shrinking minority.
In the Naqab, Israel's objectives were put into motion as early as 1948, and again in 1951. The process of ethnically cleansing the natives remains in effect to this day.
Although Masafer Yatta is part of the same colonial scheme, its uniqueness stems from the fact that it is situated in Area C of the occupied West Bank. In July 2020, Israel purportedly decided to postpone its plan to annex nearly 40 per cent of the West Bank, perhaps fearing a Palestinian rebellion and unwanted international condemnation. However, the plan went ahead in all but name.
The wholesale annexation of large swathes of the West Bank would mean that Israel would become responsible for the welfare of entire Palestinian communities living therein. As a settler-colonial state, though, Israel wants the land, but not the people. In Tel Aviv's calculation, annexation without the expulsion of the population could lead to a demographic nightmare, hence Israel's need to reinvent its annexation plan. De jure annexation may have been "postponed", but it has continued in de facto terms, which has attracted very little international political and media attention.
The Israeli court's decision regarding Masafer Yatta, which is already being carried out with the expulsion of the Najjar family on 11 May, is an important step towards the annexation of Area C. If Israel can evict the Palestinian residents of twelve villages, more than 1,000 people, unhindered, more such expulsions can be expected, not only south of Hebron, but across the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Palestinian villagers of Masafer Yatta and their legal representation know very well that no real "justice" can be obtained from the Israeli court system. Nevertheless, they continue to fight the legal war in the hope that a combination of factors, including solidarity in Palestine and pressure from outside, can ultimately succeed in compelling Israel to delay its planned destruction and Judaisation of the whole region.
However, it seems that Palestinian efforts, which have been underway since 1997, are failing. The Israeli Supreme Court decision is predicated on the erroneous and utterly bizarre notion that the Palestinians of that area could not demonstrate that they belonged there prior to 1980, when the Israeli government decided to turn the area into "Firing Zone 918".
Sadly, the Palestinian defence was based partly on documents from the Jordanian era and official UN records that reported on Israeli attacks on several Masafer Yatta villages in 1966. The Jordanian government, which administered the West Bank until 1967, compensated some of the residents for the loss of their "stone houses" — not tents — animals and other properties that were destroyed by the Israeli military. Palestinians tried to use this evidence to show that they have existed, not as nomadic people but as rooted communities. This was unconvincing to the Israeli court, which favoured the occupation army's argument over the rights of the native population.
Israeli firing zones occupy nearly 18 per cent of the total area of the West Bank. It is one of several ploys used by the Israeli government to lay a pseudo-legal claim on Palestinian land and, eventually, to claim legal ownership as well. Many of these firing zones exist in Area C, and are one way that Israel appropriates Palestinian land officially with the support of the courts.
Now that the Israeli military has managed to acquire Masafer Yatta — a region covering 32 to 56km2 — based on completely flimsy excuses, it will become much easier to ensure the ethnic cleansing of many similar communities in various parts of occupied Palestine.
While discussions and media coverage of Israel's annexation scheme in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley have largely subsided, the settler-colonial state is now preparing for gradual annexation. Instead of taking 40 per cent of the West Bank all at once, Israel is now annexing smaller tracts of land and regions, like Masafer Yatta, separately. Tel Aviv will eventually connect all these annexed areas through Jewish settler-only bypass roads to larger Jewish settlement infrastructures in the West Bank.
Not only does this alternative strategy allow Israel to avoid international criticism, but it will also permit the settler-colonial state to annex Palestinian land while incrementally expelling Palestinians. Thus, demographic imbalances will be prevented before they can even occur.
What is happening in Masafer Yatta is not only the largest ethnic cleansing scheme to be carried out by Israel since 1967, but the move should also be considered as the first step in a much larger scheme of illegal land misappropriation, ethnic cleansing and official mass annexation.
Israel must not be allowed to succeed in Masafer Yatta. If it does, its original, mass annexation scheme will become a reality in no time at all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.