Only President Biden and Congress Have the Power to Stop a War Crime
By Ali Awad
It is rare that a person is given advanced warning that a war crime is about to be perpetrated against him. But a few months ago, the Israeli Supreme Court signed-off on the full-scale expulsion of my community in the occupied West Bank.
For over 30 years, we have struggled to defend our homes, as Israel has tried to turn our land into a military training ground. But now, without immediate US intervention, I will lose the only place I have ever called home
Since the early 1980s, Israel’s occupying army has been trying to expel more than 2,000 residents from twelve Palestinian villages in a remote area of the West Bank called Masafer Yatta, including the village where my family lives, Tuba.
Our villages are perched at the edge of the mountains where they recede into the desert. The sound of shepherds calling to their sheep and goats fills this expanse. In the winter, the hillsides burst green and yellow and white. My heart breaks to imagine that this will all be gone, that my uncle Jaber will never graze his sheep on these hills again, that my nieces and nephews will not grow up knowing the beauty of our village.
Israel claims they want to expel us because they see our location — between the mountains and the desert on the southernmost point of the West Bank — as a “strategic area for military training”. But we now have proof, from recently-discovered government meeting minutes, of what we knew all along: that the real reason is not military necessity. In the early 1980s, then-Minister of Agriculture and future prime minister Ariel Sharon explained the purpose of designating a training-area was to cleanse the area of its Palestinian residents on account of “the spreading of the Arab villages on the mountainside toward the desert.” Shortly after that meeting, Sharon became Israel’s defense minister, and the state established Firing Zone 918 over our land in Masafer Yatta.
Sharon, the Israeli army and the Israeli Supreme Court believe that our land belongs to them. We had low expectations of the Israeli High Court but we hoped that the justices would still consider approving the forced displacement of thousands of Palestinians a step too far. But they had no qualms in throwing out our case while determining that Israel is exempt from international law.
My community’s entire life is intertwined with our land. The hours of our days, the schedules of our weeks, and the passing of our years are shaped by the land, by our livestock and by the changing of the seasons. If Israel expels us, we won’t just be moved from the buildings we call home, everything about who we are will be taken from us.
In 1999, the Israeli army gave us eviction orders for “illegally dwelling in a firing zone.” They loaded us onto trucks, destroyed our homes and cisterns, and confiscated our property. They dropped us–homeless, cold, and in shock–on the side of the road. We set up camp and waited to return to our caves, but a few months later the army came again and confiscated everything, including our water tanks and food. Without shelter, all of my family’s newborn lambs–our future livelihood–died in the cold. Thankfully, relatives from the nearby city brought a tent for us children and were able to drive my mother, Sarah, to the hospital as she went into labor the next morning giving birth to my fourth brother Musab. Otherwise, I don’t know what would have happened to us.
I was one year old at the time. Of course, I don’t remember anything from the eviction, but my grandfather, Ibrahim, told me about it so we would never forget. He carries the fear and trauma of that time with him every day. These stories have made me sad and fearful my whole life, but they have also instilled in me the love I feel for my home and my community.
In 2000, thanks to an emergency petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, we were allowed to return to our land. But ever since, we have lived under the constant threat of expulsion as the Supreme Court deliberated our fates. For two decades now, we haven’t been allowed to build new structures or even fix existing ones without the army immediately coming to demolish them. Meanwhile, we’ve watched as Israeli settlers from Havat Maon, Avigayil, and Mitzpe Yair–outposts that are illegal under both international and Israeli law–have built many new structures, including in the firing zone, without any repercussions. These settlers regularly harass and attack us in the fields, in our villages, and even on our way to school, trying to make our simple lives impossible to live, to drive us out and take over our land.
In spite of all the hardship, we have stayed and we have lived. We have raised families and continued in our indigenous ways of life. But the Israeli military and Supreme Court don’t care, and they are ready to forcibly transfer us again. This time without any hope of return.
The Biden administration and the US Congress have the power to stop Israel from carrying out this war crime; already nearly 100 senators and representatives have voiced their opposition in two congressional letters to Secretary of State Blinken. They can tell the Israeli government that if they expel 2,800 Palestinians, there will be serious consequences, such as conditioning or restricting the $3.8 billion the US gives to Israel every year. This is the only policy that can uphold international law and save my family, my community and all of Masafer Yatta.
Ali Awad is an activist and writer from Tuba, Masafer Yatta, in the occupied West Bank.