The paratroopers raided at dawn: less than two weeks ago the soldiers in their vaunted red berets, young men from an elite unit, swooped down on Khirbet Jinba in the land of the caves in the area of southern Mount Hebron. Bursting into the caves, they removed the possessions of the 17 families - of the hundreds of residents who were expelled from them about four months ago - that had returned to them, loaded everything on a truck and without further ado left the site. After travelling for about half an hour, the truck pulled up at the village of Tawana; the paratroopers' mission flawlessly accomplished, they dumped everything along the side of the road and went on their way. The Civil Administration did the planning, the paratroopers obeyed orders and the operation went off without a hitch. During the night, soldiers were posted at the caves and prevented neighbors from supplying the cave dwellers with food and water.
By the side of the road the meager heap of belongings lay exposed to the elements: a pile of rags that were perhaps children's clothes, scrawny mattresses, a few basic food products, even some pitas that had been baked at dawn. Israeli eye-witnesses who arrived at the site encountered a heart-rending site: an elderly man crawling among the objects looking for the remnants of his clothes. A few children who arrived broke out in tears when they saw what the soldiers had done to their things. Four months earlier, in the first eviction operation, they saw how the soldiers treated them and their parents. But their parents did not give in: they are in the caves now, with the few belongings that they hide during the daylight hours for fear of the Red Berets.

Disaster Area

This is what is done to people who have the effrontery to return to their homes, this is how Israel behaves in its dark backyard. In its front yard, Israel dispatches rescue teams to every stricken place on the planet - medicine to Mozambique, a new village with a clinic and a shopping center for Turkey - but here it takes the possessions of a few hundred people and dumps them by the roadside, leaving them destitute.
No one took any interest in this raid by the paratroopers two weeks ago, just as few people are showing interest in the fact that for the past four months these people, who were brutally ejected from their cave-homes near Hebron, continue to be homeless. It took two months after the expulsion before the Meretz ministers raised the issue in the cabinet; Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh was appointed to investigate - and he too reached the conclusion that the expulsion is absolutely fair, justified and necessary. Seven important writers signed a petition, the defense establishment quickly arranged a meeting with them - and went on behaving as it had. The "peace government" is far more perturbed by the fate of Deputy Education Minister Meshulam Nahari.
All along the number of the cave dwellers who were expelled was put at 300, but the Civil Administration claimed that was an exaggeration. Last week the B'Tselem human-rights organization issued a new report stating that the true number is 730. Now it is possible to talk about a disaster area.
The story has its beginnings last October-November [1999], when Israel expelled all the residents of the caves in the area of the settlement of Havat Maon. The official reason: the caves were located in an active IDF firing area. This is easily refuted; the B'Tselem report gives the real reasons. At the time, the media reported that the evacuation was part of the deal that was made by the government with the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements: the evacuation of Havat Maon, where a handful of settlers had been living illegally for two and a half years, in return for the expulsion of the hundreds of Palestinians who had been living in the area for decades.
Now, though, a bigger cat has been let out of the bag: the B'Tselem report discloses that the head of Central Command, Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, explicitly told the writers who met with him about the issue that Israel, which is about to start the final-status talks with the Palestinians, has an interest in leaving the area under its control. A few weeks ago, Ha'aretz also reported that the defense establishment has recommended that the area remain under Israeli sovereignty.

The Caves Were Their Homes

So it turns out that this is not a firing range and that the issue has nothing to do with the arrangement between the government and the settlers. Israel is cleansing the area - there is no other word - of its Palestinian residents in order to facilitate its annexation when the time comes. It's one more caprice of territorial avariciousness at the expense of hundreds of residents who have done no harm to Israel and want only to be allowed to tend to their flocks of sheep and lead their meager lives in the land of the caves, which is their land. Where is there another state that expels people from caves?
About two months ago I saw them in their temporary shelters: here a tent, there the house of relatives who took pity on them. Soon they will have to ask them to leave. And what will happen to them? No one is going to offer alternative housing or financial compensation to these 700 people who have been scattered to the four winds, wandering as far as the Jiftlik in the Jordan Rift Valley in search of a roof over their heads. The caves were their homes: children and elderly people, helpless shepherds whom Israel has abused citing all manner of reasons, but now it turns out that it is once again the territorial dybbuk1 that has seized the authorities.
If Deputy Minister Sneh or Gen. Ya'alon had seen the cowed look of the girl Rasha and her baby brother Suheil as they stood in their temporary hovel after their expulsion, they would understand what they have wrought. But they, of course, will not take the trouble to actually look at their victims. What is the fate of 700 Palestinians to them? They, after all, are entrusted with the security of Israel.

1. Dybbuk: obsession or evil spirit.
From Ha'aretz (English edition), March 12, 2000.