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The sweet tea and bitter realities of Masafer Yatta

As illegal Israeli settlements expand, Palestinians here are losing their land, livelihoods and their homes.

Masafer Yatta, occupied West Bank – The landscape of Masafer Yatta, an area of some 1,400 inhabitants scattered in hamlets across the South Hebron Hills of the occupied West Bank, is austere and inhospitable.

But its people, most of them traditional cave-dwellers, are proud of their openness. When visitors arrive at a home, tea is served, then coffee and fruit and local salty stone yoghurt, followed by another round of tea.

“I used to like it here. It is quiet. People don’t gossip,” says Huda Awad, a 58-year-old widow. “Now the isolation is killing our life.”

Huda moved to the village of Tuba in Masafer Yatta almost four decades ago as the 20-year-old bride of a local man. Just a couple of years earlier, in 1977, the area was declared a military training zone by Israel and all new construction was prohibited.

But life continued: couples married, children were born and people needed a place to live. Like many others, Huda and her husband built a home.

Earlier this year, Huda received a notice from the Israeli Civil Administration stating that her house had been built without the correct permit and would be demolished. In March, military bulldozers arrived and demolished the home.

“All I want is to be able to watch TV,” says Huda, looking at the rubble of what used to be her house. Her solar panel system, the only source of energy, was confiscated, and with it, she lost her television, one of her last pleasures in life, she says.

Over the years, villagers have also lost access to large parts of their agricultural land as a nearby Israeli settlement expanded.

In 1991, a new Israeli outpost was built along the main road connecting Tuba to the town of Yatta. Since December 2000, the Israeli military has banned Palestinians from travelling on this road due to its proximity to the settlement, citing “security reasons”. This compounded their sense of isolation and impacted all areas of life.

“My father is 70,” says Hael, a local herder. “I take him to Yatta for medical check-ups using the detour road. I constantly think that if there is an emergency we won’t make it to the hospital on time.”

There is a sense of living on borrowed time in the community. Some demolition orders have been pending for years as court battles drag on, while others are executed quickly.

While some legal battles have lasted for more than a decade, every family here lives with the daily fear of losing their home.

Huda standing in front of her demolished house.  [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Huda standing in front of her demolished house. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
The increasingly isolated area lacks many life necessities: access to water, education, healthcare. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

The increasingly isolated area lacks many life necessities: access to water, education, healthcare. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
Um Mohammed and Abu Mohammed are traditional cave dwellers. "We never open a water tap," Um Mohammed says. "This would be such a waste. We cherish every drop."  Masafer Yatta communities are not connected to the water system and the difficult access to the area makes trucking in water inefficient and expensive. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Um Mohammed and Abu Mohammed are traditional cave dwellers. “We never open a water tap,” Um Mohammed says. “This would be such a waste. We cherish every drop.” Masafer Yatta communities are not connected to the water system and the difficult access to the area makes trucking in water inefficient and expensive. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
Hael stands with his brother Radwan. As their family lost access to two-thirds of its grazing land, Hael decided to move to Yatta and get a job. "My heart, my spirit are still here," he says. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Hael stands with his brother Radwan. As their family lost access to two-thirds of its grazing land, Hael decided to move to Yatta and get a job. “My heart, my spirit are still here,” he says. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
Local herders lost access to large parts of their grazing land due to illegal settlement expansion. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Local herders lost access to large parts of their grazing land due to illegal settlement expansion. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
Saleh studies law at Hebron University. To get to class he takes a one-hour donkey ride through the mountains to reach the closest town, and then a bus from there. He spends an average of four hours on the road every day.  [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Saleh studies law at Hebron University. To get to class he takes a one-hour donkey ride through the mountains to reach the closest town, and then a bus from there. He spends an average of four hours on the road every day. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
Water is the most precious commodity in Masafer Yatta and is much more expensive here than in other localities. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Water is the most precious commodity in Masafer Yatta and is much more expensive here than in other localities. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
Access to education is particularly difficult for girls here, as parents are afraid to let them make the long trip alone. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Access to education is particularly difficult for girls here, as parents are afraid to let them make the long trip alone. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
Despite all the hardship, residents of Masafer Yatta take pride in their hospitality. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Despite all the hardship, residents of Masafer Yatta take pride in their hospitality. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
People in Helawe village say it was named that because its land smells sweet. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

People in Helawe village say it was named that because its land smells sweet. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
In 1977, the area was declared a restricted military zone by Israeli authorities. All new construction was prohibited. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

In 1977, the area was declared a restricted military zone by Israeli authorities. All new construction was prohibited. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
Reem moves her family's possessions into a cave on the day her house was demolished. She arrived at Halawe four years ago as a young bride. Having a house of her own has remained an unattainable dream. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Reem moves her family’s possessions into a cave on the day her house was demolished. She arrived at Halawe four years ago as a young bride. Having a house of her own has remained an unattainable dream. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
"When you have a home, you can close the door and feel safe inside," Reem said on the day her house was demolished. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

“When you have a home, you can close the door and feel safe inside,” Reem said on the day her house was demolished. Alyona Synenko/ICRC
Caves and pre-1977 houses are no longer sufficient to accommodate a growing population. [Alyona Synenko/ICRC]

Caves and pre-1977 houses are no longer sufficient to accommodate a growing population. Alyona Synenko/ICRC

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