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Israeli military drills in Jordan Valley stir Palestinian fears of eviction

The Israeli military regularly evacuates Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley during military drills. The evacuations are temporary, but Palestinians fear a permanent eviction.

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Israeli soldiers stand near a cordon at the entrance to the West Bank Jewish settlement of Brosh Habika in the Jordan Valley, October 11, 2013.

Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters/File

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Two days before last month's Eid al-Adha holiday, the Israel Defense Forces arrived in this tiny Palestinian community in the Jordan Valley with an abrupt message: Clear out.

''An officer named Yigal came and told us we would have to leave our home on the holiday because there would be military training here,'' says Ha'il Hussein Turkman, a sheep and cow farmer and father of six. ''Yigal said, 'The army wants to train. You must go. Those who will not leave, I will bring soldiers to force them out'."

The IDF says training in areas like Khirbet Ibziq, where residents were forced to evacuate for 22 hours on Oct. 22 and 23, is ''vital'' because its topography – rocky hills within a valley – resembles the landscape of areas of possible future military operations. But the tent-dwelling herders who live here and Israeli rights groups see temporary forced evacuations as a means of making their claim to the land tenuous.

They charge that such exercises, coupled with nearby home demolitions and the IDF's blockage of their efforts to upgrade a local road, have one motive: forcing Palestinians out of this sparsely populated area in the Jordan Valley region. The area's status is a major point of contention in peace talks because, although comprising about a quarter of the West Bank, Israel says that keeping a military presence there is essential to protect it against attack from across the Jordanian border.

The IDF has carried out forced evacuations of Palestinians for military training in the Jordan Valley 35 times in the last year, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (the IDF did not respond to requests for a figure). Such evacuations date back to the 1970s, but Palestinians and Israeli rights groups say they have become more frequent, particularly in the Jordan Valley, in the last few years. 

In Khirbet Ibziq alone, the IDF forced residents to temporarily evacuate on three separate occasions in March 2013 and once in October 2012, according to the UN and residents.

Dror Etkes, the director of Israeli organization Kerem Navot, which focuses on West Bank land use, says the evacuations are more than harassment. He argues that temporarily evicting the Palestinians is part of a larger effort to pressure them to leave the area permanently so that it can be more easily annexed to IsraelIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to keep Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley under any peace agreement.

According to Kerem Navot, 18.5 percent of the West Bank has been permanently closed off to Palestinians through designation of areas as military zones.

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''Keeping Palestinians away from a very big part of the West Bank, especially the less inhabited eastern strip, allows Israel to de facto annex the Jordan Valley,'' Mr. Etkes says, adding that temporary evacuations have the benefit of drawing less negative international attention than permanent expulsions.

Defenders of the temporary evictions insist they have no objective other than training troops, while the IDF says it is Palestinians who have become increasingly active in recent years by ''trespassing'' in closed military zones.

''There is real military need here. Every state has the right to establish security and military zones," says retired Brig. Gen. Gadi Zohar, former chief military administrator for the West Bank. 

''It's better that they evict them for a day than that they evict them on an ongoing basis,'' he adds. ''If this harms the fabric of life for isolated days it is unpleasant, but if a person went and sat in a military training area, he must take into account that his life will be disturbed.''

However, local council head Ali Sawafta says, ''Even for an hour or a half hour it's a problem to leave your things behind, your land, your belongings, your sheep, because they will say that this land isn't yours.''

About 60 of Khirbet Ibziq's 178 residents were forced to leave their homes to make way for the military training, according to Mr. Sawafta. Palestinians residing in the tiny Jordan Valley hamlets of Burj and al-Miti had to leave for shorter periods, according to Arif Daraghmeh, a local Palestinian Authority official.

The IDF spokesman's office says that those evacuated in Khirbet Ibziq were ''illegal dwellers'' on land designated ''decades ago'' as training grounds for the IDF and stressed that the exercises were for the "shortest amount of time" possible.

''These trespassers intend to create facts on the ground by constructing illegal buildings in the area, the purpose being to prevent the Israel Defense Forces from training there'' the IDF said in a written response to The Christian Science Monitor.

Turkman, who lives in a tent and uses kerosene lamps because he has no electricity, says he was born in Khirbet Ibziq and that his grandfather first came to the area during the 1948 war as a refugee from the Haifa area. A herder, he spends October through May of each year in Khirbet Ibziq and heads to Jenin in the north, where water is available for his animals at lower cost, for the summer months, he says. Yigal, the military administrator, told Turkman ''You are from Jenin and have to go back to Jenin."

Local resident Imad Hroub, a sheep herder, says the evacuation reinforced fears that Khirbet Ibziq could meet the fate of Makhul, a Jordan Valley village of corrugated structures with more than 100 residents that was destroyed in its entirety by the IDF in September for being illegally built.

''The problem is Israel doesn't want Arabs in this place,'' he says.

Jad Ishaq, director of the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem, a Bethlehem-based Palestinian research center specializing in land issues, describes the temporary removal ''a step towards evacuation on a more permanent basis.''

''Israel has so much land for military training, why does this have to be on Palestinian land?'' Mr. Ishaq asks.

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