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A look at Israel’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ zones

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firing zone
A warning sign posting for the Israeli military firing zone in the South Hebron Hills.
(Photo: Alternative Information Center via Christian Peacemaker Teams)

Were it not for the razor wire, giant concrete blocks, steel gates, watchtower and standard-issue surly teenage soldier, it would be impossible to tell at what point the barren uplands of Israel’s eastern Negev give way to the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank.

The military checkpoint of Shani vaguely marks the formal demarcation between Israel and occupied Palestinian territory, but in practical terms the distinction is meaningless. On either side of the Green Line, Israel is in charge.

In recent weeks it has been intensifying a campaign to summarily evict Palestinian farming communities from their ancestral lands to replace them with Jewish newcomers.

Israeli human rights lawyers, tired of the international community’s formulaic criticisms, say it is time to be more forthright. They call these “ethnic cleansing” zones – intended to drive off Palestinians irrespective of the provisions of international law and whether or not the Palestinians in question hold Israeli citizenship.

In the occupied South Hebron Hills, a dozen traditional communities – long ago denied by Israel the right to enjoy modern amenities such as electricity and running water – are struggling to remain in the cave-homes that sheltered them for centuries.

Israel has reclassified much of their land as a military firing range and demands that they leave for their own safety. An appeal to the Israeli courts, the latest installment in a 14-year saga to avoid eviction, is due in the next few days.

Israel’s concern for the villagers’ welfare might sound more convincing were it not encouraging Jews to live close by in illegal settlements.

Palestinians in other parts of the occupied territories coveted by Israel – such as villages next to Jerusalem and those in the fertile Jordan Valley, the territorial backbone of any future Palestinian state – are being squeezed too. Firing ranges, closed military zones and national parks are the pretexts for Israel to seize the farmland these rural communities need to survive.

As a result, Palestinian life is withering in the nearly two-thirds of the West Bank Israel was temporarily entrusted with – the so-called Area C – under the Oslo Accords.

Endlessly harassed Palestinians have sought sanctuary in West Bank cities under Palestinian Authority control. Today the remnants in Area C, a population of about 100,000, are outnumbered three to one by Jewish settlers.

A discomfited European Union, normally mealy-mouthed on Israel’s occupation, has started to describe this as “forced transfer”. The term may sound ominous and reproving, but human rights groups say that, from a legal perspective, the terminology obscures rather than illuminates what is taking place.

“Forced transfer”, observes Suhad Bishara, a lawyer with Adalah, a legal centre for Israel’s minority of 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, usually describes uncoordinated and unofficial incidents of population displacement, often as an outcome of war.

Bishara and others argue that Israel is carrying out a systematic and intentional policy to drive Palestinians off their land to replace them with Jewish communities. This, they say, should be identified as “ethnic cleansing”, a term first given legal and moral weight in the Balkans conflict in the early 1990s.

As evidence, the lawyers point to recent developments inside Israel. The treatment of tens of thousands of Bedouin in the Negev, all of them Israeli citizens, is virtually identical to that of Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills.

The Bedouin too have faced a prolonged campaign to push them off their ancestral lands, where most live as pastoral farmers, and into a series of “townships”, forcibly urbanising them in the most deprived communities in Israel. In the disconcerting language of Israeli bureaucracy, the Bedouin need to be “concentrated”.

Israel has increased the pressure – as in the West Bank – by denying these Bedouin all public services, and demolishing any concrete homes they build. As with Palestinians under occupation, the Bedouin have found their communities reclassified as firing ranges, military zones or national forests.

The village of al-Araqib, near Beersheva, for example, has been demolished more than 50 times in recent years as Israel plants on its land – with a suitably sinister irony – the Ambassadors’ Forest, commemorating the help provided to Israel by the international community’s diplomatic corps.

Waiting in the wings are developers ready to build on the Bedouin’s land 10 towns for Jews only. The rest of the territory is being eaten up by Jewish ranches, given swathes of land to create new tourism opportunities, such as vineyards with wine-tasting services, camel and horse riding centres and, in one case, a pet cemetery.

But, as in the West Bank, the Bedouin are refusing to budge, and pressing their historic land claims in the Israeli courts. Rather than wait for a verdict it may not like, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is rewriting the Bedouin’s citizenship rights.

The Prawer plan, which passed its first reading in parliament last month, will force 40,000 Bedouin off their land – the largest expulsions inside Israel for decades. Unlike Jewish citizens, they will have no say over where they live; they will be forcibly assigned to a township.

For the first time, Israeli citizens – the Bedouin – are to be deprived of any recourse to the courts as they are harried from their homes. Instead Israel will resort to administrative procedures more familiar from the occupied territories.

The policy is clear: Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line are to be treated like sheep, penned into ever-smaller areas, while Jews will have unrestrained access to a Greater Israel envisioned by Netanyahu.

The international community has long criticised Israel for the “discrimination” its Palestinian citizens face and for the “oppression” of Palestinians under occupation. This terminology needs overhauling too, say the human rights lawyers.

A political system that treats one ethnic group as less human than another already has a legal name: it is called apartheid.

A version of this article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook
About Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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13 Responses

  1. Citizen
    July 10, 2013, 11:11 am

    I guess Israel is thanking Bedouin for their service in the IDF, which mirrors the native Americans who served the US cavalry as scouts, etc? Is this the 19th Century or the 21St Century? Is this before, or after two world wars and Nuremberg? I get confused since America pays for this Israeli/AIPAC mentality.

    • ziusudra
      July 11, 2013, 3:42 am

      Greetings Citizen & Seafoid,
      Much thanks for great posting.
      Unfortunately Zionistan, the vassal of big brother won’t lose.
      They will implode of their own accord as time goes by.
      The 35 Apache including Geronimo & the Scouts never returned.
      The only consolation is that Zionistan will ne’er enjoy their Grand
      Theft in peace & harmony with 350 mill Muslims surrounding them.
      Might is not right & is weakened only by other might that is birthed
      by other constellations.
      The Generations of the Falesteeni have lost since the 1880s.
      We remember the promise of Lawrence to the Arabs that the English Empire reneged on.
      The Falesteeni will survive, like the Mayans & Aztecs, but w/o possession.
      Our dear Catholic Church always quipped, life before circumstance. This time,
      they are right.

  2. Woody Tanaka
    Woody Tanaka
    July 10, 2013, 11:51 am

    It’s slow-motion genocide. Nothing less.

    • just
      July 10, 2013, 6:20 pm

      Not much “slow” about it…… and we, the US, enables them.

      History has already judged the US and Israel harshly, for good reason. It will continue as long as there are no consequences for these myriad atrocities. Seems we keep on creating new ones, too.

  3. giladg
    July 10, 2013, 3:23 pm

    An artillery shell can reach over 25 miles (40km) and Israel is 60 miles wide (96km).
    Jonathan Cook, how good is your understanding of math?
    Oh, I see, Israel should choose peace so it does not need a standing army. Great advise.
    Which “piece” should it have and which “piece” should it use for training?

    • Bumblebye
      July 10, 2013, 8:06 pm

      I think the “piece” it should use for training should be in the area which is legitimately Israel, don’t you? I’m sure you’ve read plenty of talknic’s comments advising you exactly where legitimate Israel exists.

      • ritzl
        July 10, 2013, 8:46 pm

        Roger that. Or aim them out to sea. There’s an Israeli Marine base right down the coast next to Ashkelon. Use that.

        But of course the “closed military zone” part is not about anything military, is it?

    • ziusudra
      July 11, 2013, 3:52 am

      Re: giladg,
      You have a puny Standing army of 176.500
      You have reserves of 445.500
      unemployed 600.000
      orthodox 900.000
      Squatters 500.000
      (Israel’s priveledged own enemy!)
      Pssst, giladg, who’s driving the buses or peeling the spuds in social Services when they are serving. You just don’t have enough people!
      Pssst, 400.000 in Tel Aviv, but 30K bunker capacity!

    • Hostage
      July 12, 2013, 5:17 am

      An artillery shell can reach over 25 miles (40km) and Israel is 60 miles wide (96km).

      You have plenty of room and uninhabited territory in southern Israel between Beersheba and Eilat for artillery ranges. Try not to be such a dumb ass.

    • eljay
      July 12, 2013, 8:57 am

      An artillery shell can reach over 25 miles (40km) and Israel is 60 miles wide (96km). … Which “piece” should it have and which “piece” should it use for training?

      Gaza is ~12km wide and the West Bank is ~60km wide, so it’s really good to know that giladgeee won’t begrudge the Palestinians the use of “pieces” of Israel for training.

  4. Rusty Pipes
    Rusty Pipes
    July 10, 2013, 6:16 pm

    Israel also is preventing international peace activists from accessing the South Hebron hills where the ethnic cleansing is occurring. CPT sent out an urgent action alert today:

    On two occasions in the past week, Israeli officials at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport refused entry to members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) who traveled to Israel to join CPT’s team in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

    On Tuesday July 2 a CPT reservist from the Netherlands was interrogated and held in the airport for 14 hours before being placed onto a flight home. Three days later a CPT reservist from the United States was also interrogated and held for 10 hours before being placed onto a flight home. Each CPTer had visited Israel-Palestine once or twice before. Both volunteers cooperated with the intensive questioning of Israeli security officials, who seemed most concerned with visas from the government of Iraqi Kurdistan that had been stamped in both CPTers’ passports in connection with their past CPT work.

    CPT’s sudden inability to get team members into the country is especially worrying given Israeli authorities’ recent ban on CPT activities near the Ibrahimi Mosque in Al-Khalil, apparently intended to halt international nonviolent protective presence in the most sensitive and volatile area of the city — one of the vital functions of CPT’s Palestine project.

    Since May 10, Israel’s Border Police have prohibited CPTers from wearing their uniform vests and hats, and from recording the obstructions imposed on Palestinians’ daily life, anywhere between the two main checkpoints that control Palestinian movement past the mosque complex, which also includes a synagogue and visitors’ center frequented by settlers.

    Additionally, Israeli journalist Amira Hass reported in May that Israel is now forbidding “tourists from the United States and other countries to enter the territories under Palestinian Authority control without a military entry permit.” It is still unclear how Israel will enforce this restriction, or where and when it will facilitate permit applications.

    Other international human rights organizations have been increasingly impacted by Israeli access restrictions. In recent months two members of Operation Dove, an Italian group working in the South Hebron Hills, were also stopped on arrival at Israel’s airport and turned back. Two others were constrained to a one-week visit, and could not extend their visas.

    In response to these developments, CPT’s team in Palestine wants to initiate a quick “surge” of volunteers traveling through Israel to join its project within the next few weeks. This will help CPT better staff the project and uphold critical commitments in this interim period of very few team members. The results of this initiative will also help CPT to ascertain whether or not it is being targeted for removal by Israeli authorities.


    Make a contribution today to help CPT fund several volunteers traveling to join its Palestine team in very quick succession. CPT relies primarily on individual donations to fulfill its travel and operating costs. Your gift of $20 or more will make a difference. Remember to designate “Palestine project” with your donation.

    Share this alert with your community.

    If you are a CPT reservist and able to come to Israel-Palestine within the next few weeks, please contact us. A scholarship may be available to reduce your fundraising obligations.

    For background information and updates contact Christian Peacemaker Teams in Palestine:
    [email protected]
    +972 598104549
    +972 543420117
    +972 22228485

  5. seafoid
    July 11, 2013, 1:17 am

    “The policy is clear: Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line are to be treated like sheep, penned into ever-smaller areas, while Jews will have unrestrained access to a Greater Israel envisioned by Netanyahu”

    This is simply insane.

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