Infiltrating Israel via the South Hebron Hills has never been easier: Under the nose of the Israel Defense Forces, Palestinians in recent months have paved a new road straight through army firing range 918.
The length of the road is around 5 kilometers (3 miles) and joins the primary south-to-north smuggling route that connects Tel Arad on the Green Line to the South Hebron Hills. The new road runs east to west and expedites transportation from the Yatta area and Route 317 (the main road in the South Hebron Hills region) past the Green Line and into Israel proper. This artery is exploited by bandits, illegal migrants, drug smugglers and weapons smugglers. In recent years, women from the Hebron area have also been smuggled into Israel via this route for the purpose of polygamist marriage to Bedouins living in southern Israel.
Regavim, a pro-settler NGO dedicated to guaranteeing responsible land use and restoring rule of law in Israel, to order the cessation of the road’s construction. Its activists in recent months have documented the strategic breach and have sounded the alarm over the security and criminal dangers it poses.
The Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories has taken action to enforce the law and has confiscated equipment, but that failed to stop the Palestinians from completing the road late at nights and on weekends. Three days ago, concrete was laid on a portion of the new road — another phase toward it becoming a paved route. The road is comfortable for private vehicles and essentially serves as an alternative to the old, dilapidated route that only 4×4 vehicles could traverse and which originated from the area of Mitzpe Yair. Nearly a year ago, the old route was used by the terrorists who perpetrated the Sarona Market attack in Tel Aviv, in which four people were killed.
On Monday, we went for a drive along the new route to document the smugglers. We saw their vehicles, most of which had yellow (Israeli) license plates, in all likelihood stolen, arrive from the Yatta area, descend the newly constructed road and easily continue toward the joining smuggling artery en route to Israel proper.
A Border Police team along with a COGAT inspector patrolled the new road Monday morning and stopped several drivers, but most of the time traffic along the route proceeded undisturbed, day and night. The smuggling route is simple. The driver merges with the central artery and from there the distance to Tel Arad, the Bedouin communities and Shoket Junction is short.
‘The state is dragging its feet’
The separation fence in the South Hebron Hills begins in Tarkumiya and ends in Yatir. The entire Negev Desert, Arad Valley, Judean Desert and Dead Sea regions are breached. Firing ranges 917 and 918 serve as buffers between the South Hebron Hills and the Negev. In the past, the IDF used the ranges for live-fire training, but stopped doing so several years ago due to Palestinian settlement nearby.
“In recent years, the Palestinian Authority has spearheaded a concerted effort to take control of strategic areas in Area C in Judea and Samaria, which are completely under Israeli jurisdiction, to annex them, de facto, under its control, as part of a comprehensive plan to unilaterally establish a Palestinian state,” said Oved Arad, a field manager for Regavim.
“The takeover is happening through a variety of allegedly innocuous construction, agricultural and civilian development projects,” he said.
For several years already, the High Court of Justice has been hearing petitions against dismantling the 12 Palestinian shanty villages inside firing range 918. The state is willing to “legalize” some of them, but the people living there are demanding legal status for all 12. The mediation process between the sides has hit a snag, and the High Court does not want to order the eviction of thousands of people from their homes.
Yochai Damari, the head of the Hebron Hills Regional Council, said: “Every single day we discover a new home in the area, a new road has been built, a new antenna. In its last ruling, the High Court ruled that the state must outline policy to counter the wave of illegal Arab construction. To our regret, the state is dragging its feet and is showing weakness on all matters pertaining to protecting its lands. This is a wake-up call before the point of no return.”
A COGAT spokesperson told Israel Hayom that the office is “working hard against the illegal construction in firing ranges across Judea and Samaria, and in 2016 over 300 cases were enforced and more than 100 illegal structures were razed. In addition, regarding the case at hand as well, vehicles used to pave the road were confiscated. The petition letter [to the High Court of Justice] has not been accepted yet.”
An IDF spokesperson said military units in Judea and Samaria are “working in conjunction with all the relevant security elements on a daily basis, employing a variety of resources to thwart smuggling and illegal migrants [from entering Israel]. Within this framework, the army is conducting patrols in the sector, ambushes, intelligence gathering and observation operations, and targeted interceptions.
“In the past few months the Judea and Samaria Division carried out a wide-ranging operation that included arrests and vehicle confiscations, which significantly reduced the number of illegal migrants entering Israel.”