Israel’s Occupation Is Forcing Palestinians Underground. Literally.

Israeli military zoning in the West Bank sanctions the demolition of Palestinian structures while green-lighting settler farmsteading. As settlements grow, Palestinians are being pushed underground as they are forced to seek shelter in caves.

Fursan Hanani outside his home in Khirbet Tana. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

Fursan Hanani crouches into a dark, cool underground cavern, taking shelter from the scorching sun in his village of Khirbet Tana, east of the Palestinian town of Beit Furik in the northern occupied West Bank district of Nablus. An old, dirty mattress and van door the sixty-seven-year-old retrieved from a junkyard are erected on metal poles, creating a shaded path to the cave’s entrance. Hanani warmly waves me into the compact space, burrowed into the parched hill. “Ahlan wa sahlan,” he says, a traditional Arabic phrase meaning “welcome.”

Mattresses and blankets are piled in the corner and a dusty mirror is hanging on the cavern’s exterior. “The Israelis can’t reach us underground,” says Hanani, whose permanent, stone home has been razed by Israeli authorities several times over the years. The entrance to this cave has also been dismantled on a few occasions, along with his container homes and tents.

The further Hanani retreats into these ancient caves that protrude from the hills in Khirbet Tana, the safer he feels. There are some forty families who reside in Khirbet Tana, consisting of about two hundred fifty people, many of whom are closely related. They are shepherds, a traditional livelihood practiced here for generations.

For many decades, these shepherds would follow the climatic patterns of the West Bank, migrating seasonally to Khirbet Tana during the winter months to graze their sheep and goats. During the summers, they would gradually return west to Beit Furik where the weather was cooler and the meadows remained green. Over the years, some built permanent stone homes in Khirbet Tana for their families and developed small-scale agricultural farms.

But these shepherds’ traditional way of life is now endangered by Israel’s more than half century military occupation of the West Bank. Just a few weeks after the Israeli army took control of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, the area of Khirbet Tana was repurposed for Israeli military training and declared a “firing zone.” This was in spite of the fact that Palestinian shepherds had been dependent on these lands to sustain their livelihoods for generations, long before Israel occupied the region.

Furhan Hanani outside his home in Khirbet Tana. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

Scores of Palestinians have been arrested for entering these areas and, over the decades, the village of Khirbet Tana has been demolished on numerous occasions. Tired of constantly having to rebuild what the Israelis destroyed, these Palestinians decided to move their lives underground, where they say the Israeli army more or less leaves them alone.

Israeli policy in the region has decimated many of these traditional shepherding communities. Khirbet Tana is now the last remaining herding hamlet in the area of Beit Furik — and among the last in the West Bank.

Yet, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, considered illegal under international law, have been permitted to expand into these closed military zones. As they continue to grow, Palestinians in Khirbet Tana are being pushed further and further underground.

“This is my land and home,” Hanani says, squinting his eyes as he scans the rolling hills surrounding him. “I need space for my goats and sheep. But every time we build anything, we are forced to wait in fear for the day the Israelis come to destroy it.”

“So we also feel safer in the caves,” he continues. “It’s hard to sleep in the tents because we’re always worried that Israelis will come in the night and demolish them.”

Land Grabs

“This is the cave where I was born,” says sixty-eight-year-old Muhammad Tawfiq Nasasra, pointing at a cavern opening in the ground. He balances himself on a walking stick and slowly strolls across the village’s rocky terrain.

According to residents, their ancestors traditionally resided in caves. Without cars or roads, they relied on donkeys for transportation, making it impractical to carry construction material to this highly remote area. The villagers have also long used tents for shelter, which can easily be moved and transported as they follow behind their animals grazing on the surrounding hills.

Inside Furhan Hanani’s cave. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

Israel declared the village a firing zone in 1967 — unbeknownst to the Palestinian residents. According to Dror Etkes, founding director of the Israeli rights organization Kerem Navot, the process of declaring hundreds of thousands of acres of land closed for military zones started just a few weeks after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Close to 436,141 acres of the entire West Bank are today defined by the Israeli army as closed military areas for various purposes, of which 53 percent are designated as firing zones. These vast areas mainly served the rural and Bedouin shepherding population. The traditional bounds of their pasturage reached from east of the central range that lies west of the Jordan Valley and stretches from Yatta in the southern West Bank to Tubas in the northeastern West Bank.

“There was no Israeli military infrastructure that existed in these areas at this point that could have allowed Israel to convert these lands into training areas,” Etkes tells me. “So it is clear that the idea behind declaring these areas as closed military zones was and still is mainly a political tool to limit the ability for Palestinians to access very large parts of the West Bank.” A result of this land grab is the creation of massive reserves for the future expansion of settlements.

Ariel Sharon, the late Israeli prime minister, said it himself in 1981. In a forty-year-old document found in the Israel State Archives, the then minister of agriculture proposed at a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Settlement Affairs that land in the South Hebron Hills be allocated to the Israeli army for live-fire training. Sharon put forward the idea in light of the “expansion of the Arab villagers from the hills.”

“We have an interest in expanding and enlarging the shooting zones there, in order to keep these areas, which are so vital, in our hands. . . . Many additional areas for training could be added, and we have a great interest in [the army] being in that place,” Sharon added.

Muhammad Tawfiq Nasasra. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

According to Nasasra, a road was constructed in the 1980s that linked Khirbet Tana to the town of Beit Furik. This allowed the residents to construct homes from stone and cement blocks for the first time. About thirty stone homes were built.

Nasasra says life began to dramatically change in the 1990s, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel signed the Oslo Accords. Following the signing of Oslo II in 1995, the West Bank was divided into three distinct areas, A, B, and C.

Areas A and B, where the Palestinian Authority at least partially controls civil and security matters, comprise about 39 percent of the area of the West Bank. The rest — 61 percent of the West Bank — was designated as Area C, where Israel retains full civil and security control. All of Israel’s some two hundred settlements — where more than half a million Israelis live in violation of international law — are located in Area C.

Remnants of structures that have been demolished by Israel. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

Khirbet Tana’s lands also fell under Area C, overturning the lives of its residents. Palestinian construction in Area C is prohibited, unless Israeli-issued building permits are in hand.  But such permits are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain. They are therefore left with no alternative but to construct buildings without proper documentation, which condemns them to a perpetual cycle of reconstruction every time Israeli officials show up to destroy their buildings.

According to the United Nations, last year, Israel demolished or seized 953 Palestinian structures throughout the West Bank. This is the highest number of demolitions carried out since 2016. As a result, more than one thousand Palestinians have been displaced.

Having been one of the first Palestinian families to construct a stone home in Khirbet Tana in 1982, Nasasra says his family was deeply proud of the structure. But soon after the Oslo II Accord was signed, Israeli bulldozers came and demolished it, he says.

Nasasra leads me to a large heap of stones scattered across the ground. It is all that is left of his family’s old home that was demolished nearly thirty years ago.

Left With Nothing

Yusef Hanani, thirty-three, and his family built a five-room stone house in 2000. “It was the first time I ever had a modern house,” Yusef says. “It made me very happy. I loved that house.” It also cost him and his father 100,000 Israeli shekels (about $27,500) — a total that took the family years to save.

But the house only stood for less than five years.

In July 2005, the Israeli civil administration, the military unit responsible for implementing Israel’s civilian policies in the West Bank, demolished nearly all the village’s buildings. It further blocked up the entrances of the caves — an attempt to forcibly remove the shepherds from the land.

Yusef Hanani standing atop the remains of his stone home that was demolished by Israeli authorities. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

Yusef says he tried to intervene in the demolition of his family’s home. “But the soldiers took me, tied me up, and pointed guns at me,” he says. “I felt very bad. It took us our whole lives to save up that money. They left me with nothing. ”

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has documented Khirbet Tana’s misfortunes.

As they note, even though the firing zone had been inactive for at least fifteen years, Israeli authorities demolished the homes and animal pens of Palestinian residents owing to them not having Israeli-issued permits.

According to Etkes, after the Oslo agreements, “Israel basically moved its military training system mainly to the Naqab, in the southern part of the country. So the military bases that were used in the later ’70s, ’80s, and early 1990s for training have in most cases been dismantled.” This includes Firing Zone 904A, where Khirbet Tana is located.

“The bottom line is that the vast majority of this area has not been used for military training for thirty years or so,” Etkes continues. “And that’s true for many other areas declared as closed military zones for training.” According to Kerem Navot, about 80 percent of the overall area declared closed for military training purposes is not actually used for training.

Yusef Hanani inside the cave he and his family extended over the years. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

Army training is sometimes carried out in zone 904A, albeit very rarely. According to Etkes, “These areas are still training zones so the army has to come and do something once in a while,” he says. “But it’s very rare they do it.”

“The vast majority of the area is not being used,” he continues. “When they do come, they use a very small piece of the overall training zone, and it’s not even close to Khirbet Tana.”

A Backyard for Settlements

Over the years, Israeli authorities have carried out numerous demolitions in Khirbet Tana, destroying homes, livestock pens, water cisterns, and tents. Only the local mosque, which was built in the Ottoman era more than a century ago, has remained standing.

The community’s local school, built with funding from the European Union, has not been spared; Israeli authorities have demolished it at least three times. The school was rebuilt about four years ago and now consists of a metal container, with a set of swings and a single slide in front. It has an active demolition order against it and could be demolished any day, residents say.

For about a decade, residents in Khirbet Tana petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ) seeking to have the civil administration prepare a master plan for the village instead of demolishing their homes. By law, the Israeli army is permitted to remove people from a shooting zone unless they are permanent residents. The state claims that these Palestinians are in fact nomads and not permanent residents of Khirbet Tana; therefore, they are not protected by the law.

In 2015, the HCJ concluded the legal proceedings and accepted the state’s position that the structures were illegally constructed, due to the shepherds residing in Khirbet Tana seasonally — overlooking the fact that some continue to reside there permanently. In the near decade since the HCJ ruling, the residents of Khirbet Tana have been trapped in a vicious cycle of displacement and frequent demolitions.

The EU-funded school with the Ottoman-era mosque in the background. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

This ruling was “a clear expression of the narrow interpretation that the government authorities, with the backing of the HCJ, give to the concept of ‘permanent residency’ in this context,” Etkes has stated. “This interpretation strikes a mortal blow to the economy and tradition of many Palestinian communities that have earned their livelihood from shepherding for generations.”

Numerous other petitions have been submitted by Palestinians through the HCJ against evictions in these training areas. They have all been met with the same state response.

Most recently, in May last year, the HCJ ruled to reject a petition from families of about eight herding hamlets in Masafer Yatta, the Arabic name for the sprawling hills south of Hebron in the southern West Bank. The families are among thirteen hundred Palestinians living in an area Israeli authorities declared a firing zone since the 1980s.

These communities are now facing immediate expulsions from their lands and homes.

Carefully treading over the crushed stones of his family’s former home, Nasasra’s thirty-two-year-old son, Moiyad, leads me to a large hole protruding from a rocky hill — one of the two underground caves the family has now moved into. Over the years, they have expanded the interior of the cave to create more space as their family grew, enlarging the living quarters.

Moiyad Nasasra shows the opening of one of the family’s two caves they moved into. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

“If God wills, one day we will be able to build again above the ground,” Moiyad says. “But for now, we have no choice but to stay in these caves until that day comes.”

The sloping hills of Khirbet Tana stretch out in all directions; they seem almost untouched by human activity. Palestinians are prohibited from building in this area — and are literally forced underground — but the vast area of Firing Zone 904A has “become a backyard for the settlement of Itamar and its outposts,” Etkes says.

Two Sets of Rules

Itamar was established in 1984 on lands confiscated from nearby Palestinian villages — including Beit Furik. It now has a population close to fifteen hundred. Two of its outposts, legally dubious bulkheads often serving as extensions of government-approved settlements, are located within Firing Zone 904A. While Israel considers its settlements in the West Bank legal, the outposts are considered illegal under Israeli domestic law. Despite this, they often receive tacit government support or even public funding. Many are also retroactively legalized.

Nestled in between the hills a few kilometers from Khirbet Tana, one can view a small livestock farm in the distance. It is named Yzhak Basus Farm, after the Israeli who established it about two years ago. His livestock pen appears as a blackened square on the desolate landscape.

This is one of the four Israeli shepherd outposts established around Khirbet Tana, some of which have been settled by individual Israeli families. According to Etkes, these outposts are strategically located to eventually take over the vast majority of Firing Zone 904A.

A view of Yzhak Basus Farm, an Israeli shepherd outpost, which can be seen from where Palestinians live in Khirbet Tana. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

“Hill 777,” also referred to as Givat Arnon, is considered an outpost of Itamar and was established in the late 1990s. It is located on the edges of the firing zone, but still within its borders. The Itamar Cohen Farm, settled in 2014 and which Etkes says is among the West Bank’s most violent outposts, is centrally located inside the middle of the firing zone. Yzhak Basus Farm is located outside the firing zone, close to its border with the adjacent Firing Zone 904.

According to Etkes, the purpose of the Itamar Cohen Farm outpost is to extend its control over the territory stretching from the outpost to Hill 777, as well as the region between it and the Yzhak Basus Farm. Itamar Cohen is already connected to Hill 777 with a road. “The idea is to connect the entire system of the outposts that are east of Itamar with the larger settlement of Itamar,” Etkes adds. “Itamar Cohen is one link that connects this entire chain of outposts with the Alon Road [Israeli settler bypass road built in the West Bank] to the east.”

Etkes explains that these shepherd outposts are part of a larger strategy employed by Israel since the 1970s, in which tens of thousands of acres of open areas in Area C are expropriated by Israeli authorities through the allocation of “grazing lands” to shepherd outposts and farms. In recent years, “the phenomenon mushroomed in terms of area size, resources invested, and destructive repercussions for the Palestinian communities.”

According to a report published last year by Kerem Navot, there are currently seventy-seven farm outposts in the West Bank, designated for sheep and cattle grazing. The great majority of these outposts was established over the last decade and consists of a territory that totals some sixty thousand acres — a little less than 7 percent of the entire Area C.

A view of the landscape of Khirbet Tana, with crumbled stones where homes were demolished by the Israeli army. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

The report notes that about twenty thousand acres, or a third of the total area seized by settlers through grazing, are located within areas declared by the Israeli military as “firing zones,” on the eastern edges of the West Bank. The report states that “these outposts are the spearhead of a violent land-grabbing system, well planned and generously funded by various state and quasi-state bodies,” which include the Israeli military, the Israeli civil administration, regional and local settler councils, the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, the Ministries of Agriculture and Education, and the new Ministries of Settlement and Intelligence.

“All are preoccupied with what has recently been referred to as the ‘Battle for Area C,’ meaning the coercive transfer of Palestinians from the area . . . and their enclosure in isolated enclaves,” the report continues. “They are designed to uproot Palestinian grazing and farming communities from public or private lands, and turn them into lands that only settlers can use.”

In this process, settler violence becomes an essential tool to promote this objective. According to Kerem Navot, the farm outposts have in recent years seen some of the most violent incidents in the West Bank. Rights groups have long documented the use of settler violence against Palestinians and the role of violence in Israel’s long-term goal of taking over Palestinian lands.

According to B’Tselem, “Settler violence against Palestinians is part of the strategy employed by Israel’s apartheid regime, which seeks to take over more and more West Bank land.”

Outside Furhan Hanani’s cave. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

“The state fully supports and assists these acts of violence, and its agents sometimes participate in them directly,” the group states. “As such, settler violence is a form of government policy, aided and abetted by official state authorities with their active participation.”

Consequently, countless incidents involving threats, harassment, and assaults on Palestinian farmers and shepherds have occurred around these outposts in recent years, often in the presence and even with the full support of military or police forces.

Seeking Safety Underground

“Why can he live and build here, but we can’t?” Nasasra asks, pointing to the Yzhak Basus Farm in the distant valley. “We were here before them. But he is Israeli and we are Palestinian — that’s the only difference.”

According to Nasasra, the family on the Yzhak Basus Farm often calls the Israeli army if the Palestinians’ sheep or goats venture toward that area. Hanani tells me that he had once farmed wheat and barley, but about ten years ago the settlers from another farm began attacking him if he attempted to access his lands.

An opening of the cave Yusef Hanani and his family live. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

“Since then, I haven’t been able to grow anything,” Hanani says. “I lost access to all that land. There’s nothing that I can do about it. They have guns and an army protecting them. How can I defend myself against them? We are powerless here.”

Etkes tells me that while the Israeli government will likely adjust the area of Firing Zone 904A in the future to create the necessary conditions to legalize the outposts located there, it has “no interest in legalizing Palestinian villages or hamlets.” Hill 777, which is located inside 904A, was one of ten settler outposts that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved for legalization in February.

“This whole area [of Khirbet Tana] is really the best example of how an area originally declared a closed military zone has been gradually taken over by settlers,” Etkes says.

As these outposts are permitted to grow and expand, Yusef has been retreating deeper underground. He proudly shows off the cave he has extended into a comfortable home for his wife and three small children. It was after his stone home was destroyed in 2005, and his container home shortly thereafter, that he sought refuge in the cave.

It took him about four years to finish constructing and renovating the cave, only working during the safety of night. “You cannot work during the day,” Yusef says, standing by the cave’s entrance and puffing on a cigarette. “We are scared that if the army hears us they will come to stop us. So we have to make sure we don’t make too much noise.”

Yusef Hanani stands outside his family’s cave. (Courtesy of Jaclynn Ashly)

He has painted the doorway light blue and constructed a window on the cave’s ceiling to bring more light into the dark underground cavern. The family also repurposed and expanded an underground well to house their goats and sheep — along with creating an impressive underground water system. They used small tools, chiseling away at the rocks for many nights until the cavern grew into a larger space and channels were dug that could transport the water.

“It makes me angry that we are still living in the same way our grandparents were,” Yusef says, taking a long drag from his cigarette and shaking his head in frustration. “We should be more developed by now. We should at least have permanent homes to live in. None of this is fair. But at least we have these caves to shelter us from the demolitions. If it wasn’t for these caves none of us would be able to survive here.”