Israel’s Supreme Court has upheld a long-standing expulsion order against eight Palestinian hamlets in the occupied West Bank, potentially leaving at least 1,000 people homeless, an Israeli rights group representing the villagers said.
The verdict, issued late on Wednesday as Israel largely shut down for its Independence Day, marks the end of a more than two-decade legal struggle by Palestinians in the Masafer Yatta region of the southern West Bank to maintain communities they say go back decades.
“Without warning in the middle of the night, the Israeli High Court of Justice published a verdict with unprecedented consequences,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has represented the residents throughout the process, said in a statement.
“The High Court has officially authorised leaving entire families, with their children and their elderly, without a roof over their heads,” it said.
Roni Pelli, a lawyer at the association, said the verdict is final and it is not clear if there are any further legal steps that can be taken.
The forcible displacement of the communities could happen at any time, she told The Associated Press.
The military declared the area a firing and training zone in the 1980s.
Israeli authorities have argued that the residents only used the area for seasonal agriculture and had no permanent structures there at the time.
In November 1999, security forces expelled some 700 villagers and destroyed homes and cisterns, the association said.
The legal battle began the following year.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the state and said the villagers had rejected a compromise that would have allowed them to enter the area at certain times and practice agriculture for part of the year.
The military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The families say they have been there for decades, from long before Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war.
They practice a traditional form of desert agriculture and animal herding, with some living in caves for at least part of the year, but say their only homes are in the hardscrabble communities now at risk of demolition.
“The occupation court just decided: My community will be destroyed,” tweeted Basel Adra, a prominent activist from the area.
“The army can now place us on trucks, 2,400 people, and expel us from our ancient villages, one by one.”
The West Bank has been under Israeli military rule for nearly 55 years.
Masafer Yatta is in the 60% of the territory where the Palestinian Authority is prohibited from operating.
The Palestinians want the West Bank to form the main part of their future state.
Jewish settlers have established outposts in the area that are not officially authorised by Israel but are protected by the military.
Last autumn, dozens of settlers attacked a village in the area and a four-year-old boy was hospitalised after being hit in the head with a stone.
Israel halted plans to formally annex parts of the West Bank in 2020 but it retains overall control over the territory, with the Palestinian Authority administering major population centres and co-operating with it on security matters.
Nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, which is home to nearly three million Palestinians.
David Mintz, one of the Supreme Court justices issuing the verdict on Masafer Yatta, lives in the West Bank settlement of Dolev.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is opposed to Palestinian statehood and routinely refers to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, the biblical name of the region.
He and other nationalist leaders view the West Bank as the historical heartland of the Jewish people.
The last serious peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down more than a decade ago.
Mr Bennett’s government has ruled out any major initiative to end the conflict but has taken steps to improve economic conditions for the Palestinians.
Three major human rights groups have said Israel’s policies, particularly in the West Bank, amount to apartheid, allegations Israel rejects as an attack on its very legitimacy.
One of those groups, the Israeli organisation B’Tselem, said that in the Masafer Yatta ruling the justices “once again fulfilled their role in Israel’s regime of Jewish supremacy and paved the way for the crime of forcible transfer to be committed”.
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