Despite an Israeli court order allowing them to stay in their homes, cave-dwelling Palestinian farmers and herders in the southern Hebron hills still face a sustained and often violent campaign of harassment and intimidation by settlers, the Israeli army, and civilian officials, according to a new report from the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem.

Some 1,000 Palestinians have maintained the way of life of their ancestors in the area, which is located in the southernmost part of West Bank.

In the 1970s, however, the Israeli military commander declared the area a ‘closed military zone,’ and in November 1999, soldiers and Civil Administration officials expelled the cave residents, confiscated their belongings, sealed their caves, destroyed wells and outhouses, and prohibited them from returning to the area.

The cave residents petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice, which in March 2000 issued a temporary injunction allowing the residents to return to the area and preventing the state from expelling them until the court reaches a final decision in the matter.

The army, however, continues to claim that expelling the cave residents is justified since “they are not permanent” residents of the area, and that it is needed for important military uses.

In addition to military threats of expulsion, the residents also face frequent violence from nearby settlers. Several residents have been forced to leave.

According to a B’Tselem survey, some 88 percent of the Palestinians in the “closed military zone” have been subjected to settler violence or witnessed such violence against family members. 

The kinds of abuse reported in the survey can be divided into four patterns: blocking of roads and preventing access to fields (51 percent of the cases), property damage, including destruction of crops and theft of sheep and goats in particular (21 percent), intimidation (17 percent), and physical violence (11 percent).

The Israeli police are not conducting enough efforts to enforce the law against the settlers, and the army does even less, B’Tselem charged.

Soldiers have even assisted settlers in carrying out violent attacks against the residents, the report added. Soldiers have also destroyed farmlands and driven tanks and other military gear on the Palestinian lands.

The Civil Administration Office, which is part of the army, prohibits the residents from building their own homes and villages – a decision which forces them to remain in caves, deprived of a proper water supply, electricity, and other essentials of daily living. 

“Israel has been trying to expel them over the past five years,” B’Tselem reported.  “Israel is partially and gradually trying wear down the residents to get them to leave the area.”

B’Tselem urged the army to cancel the orders announcing the area a closed military zone, allow the residents to build their own homes, enforce law against violent settlers, and compensate the residents who lost land and property because of actions by the army, settlers or a Civil Administration Office.

The full B’Tselem report and testimony from victims are available at