By KARIN LAUB, Associated Press
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Israeli Defense Ministry wants to evict hundreds of Palestinians from eight hamlets in a West Bank area the military has designated as a firing zone, rights activists said Tuesday, portraying the decision as a new Israeli land grab.
The firing zone, one of several in the West Bank, covers several thousand acres close to the border with Israel. Hundreds of Palestinian herders and farmers live there for part of the year in caves and shacks.
Israel's government and Palestinian residents of the area have been waging a legal battle for more than a decade. The Defense Ministry told Israel's Supreme Court earlier this week that those being ordered to leave the firing zone have permanent homes elsewhere, and that they must evacuate the area for their own safety.
Shlomo Lecker, a lawyer representing some of the Palestinians, said Tuesday that his clients own much of the area from which they are to be evicted. The Defense Ministry said herders and farmers could be granted access on weekends and Jewish holidays.
The firing zone is located in the southern Hebron Hills area, part of the 60 percent of the West Bank that remain under full Israeli control and are also known as "Area C."
The Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government set up as part of interim peace deals in the 1990s, administers the remaining 38 percent of the land, where more than 90 percent of the Palestinians live.
Area C is home to about 300,000 Jewish settlers and 150,000 Palestinians, and critics say Israel is using an array of planning and administrative tools to restrict Palestinian development there while expanding settlements.
"The issue of the firing zone in the south Hebron Hills has to be viewed in the context of the Israeli policy in Area C," said Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
Government spokesman Mark Regev denied such a policy exists.
He said the division of jurisdictions in the West Bank is a result of previous agreements signed by the Palestinians, and that the status quo can only change if negotiations on the borders of a Palestinian state resume. Israel and the Palestinians disagree sharply on the ground rules for the talks, which broke off in 2008.
He said Palestinians are given the option of seeking redress from Israel's Supreme Court.
A date for a high court decision on the case of the Palestinian herders has not been set.