Palestinians lose two-decade court battle over land

·2-min read
European Union officials and Israeli rights group representatives visit Palestinian communities in the Masafer Yatta area, in October 2020 (AFP/HAZEM BADER) (HAZEM BADER)

Israeli civil rights groups on Thursday denounced a High Court decision that approved the eviction of roughly 1,000 Palestinian villagers to make way for a military training zone.

Residents of eight villages had been in court for around 20 years fighting Israeli government efforts to evict them.

The case of Masafer Yatta -- or Firing Zone 918 -- an agriculture area near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, has been one of Israel's longest running legal battles.

In the early 1980s the army declared the 3,000-hectare (30 square kilometre) territory a restricted military area and claimed it was uninhabited.

The roughly 1,000 Palestinians living there said it was their people's home long before Israeli soldiers set foot in the West Bank, which the Jewish state has occupied since 1967.

It captured the territory from Jordan in the Six-Day War and the West bank is now home to more than 475,000 settlers -- Jewish Israelis living in communities widely regarded as illegal under international law.

In its decision late on Wednesday the High Court said the villagers "failed to prove" their claim to permanent residence before its declaration as a training zone.

A court review of aerial photographs proved the army right, Judge David Mintz said.

First kicked out in 1999, about 200 families filed their court challenge the following year with help from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

They secured a temporary reprieve which allowed the Palestinians to stay on the land until a final resolution of the case.

ACRI on Thursday said there were "unprecedented consequences" to the top court's ruling handed down "without warning in the middle of the night".

It "allows the expulsion of approximately 1,000 women, men, children and elderly Palestinians," the organisation said in a statement.

Another rights watchdog, B'Tselem, described the decision as weaving "baseless legal interpretation with decontextualized facts". It added "there is no crime which the high court justices will not find a way to legitimise."

Lawyers said they were still trying to see whether or not there were any further legal avenues to stop the expulsions.

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