JERUSALEM: Israel's Supreme Court has rejected a petition against the eviction of more than 1,000 Palestinian inhabitants of a rural part of the occupied West Bank in an area which Israel has designated for military exercises.
After two decades of inconclusive legal manoeuvring, the Supreme Court issued its ruling late on Wednesday, paving the way for the demolition of eight small villages in a rocky, arid area near Hebron known to Palestinians as Masafer Yatta and to Israelis as the South Hebron Hills.
In its ruling, the court said it had found the Palestinian dwellers, whose inhabitants have kept a distinct, generations-long nomadic way of life, making a living from farming and herding, had not been permanent residents of the area when the Israeli military first declared it a firing zone in the 1980s.
Masafer Yatta residents and Israeli rights groups say that many of the Palestinian families have been permanently residing in the 3,000 hectares area since before Israel captured the West Bank, in the 1967 Middle East War.
"This proves that this court is part of the occupation," said Nidal Abu Younis, Masafer Yatta Mayor. "We are not going to leave our homes. We will stay here," he said.
The European Union Delegation to the Palestinians said the eviction constitutes a breach of international law. "As the occupying power, Israel has the obligation to protect the Palestinian population & not displace it," it said on Twitter.
Israel's military said that the area had been declared a firing range because of security needs and that at the time, it was uninhabited. In the three decades since, Palestinians had built in the area without legal permit, the military said.
The court said the door was still open for the villagers to agree with the military on using parts of the land for agricultural purposes and urged the sides to seek a compromise.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), who along with Masafer Yatta residents petitioned against the expulsion, said the verdict would have "unprecedented consequences."
"The High Court has officially authorised leaving entire families, with their children and their elderly, without a roof over their heads," ACRI said in a statement.