By Jihan Abdalla
AL-MUFAQARA, West Bank (Reuters) - An Israeli plan to evict 12 shepherd communities in the occupied West Bank to make way for army training zones was condemned by the Palestinian premier on Wednesday as a move to depopulate Palestinian areas.
Israel has designated the area south of the city of Hebron as a closed military zone and asked for Supreme Court approval to move the residents to the nearby village of Yatta, where the Israeli Defense Ministry says many of them have permanent homes.
But Palestinian villagers say Israel wants to eject them from the area in order to clear a path for the expansion of nearby Jewish settlements. No date has been set yet for a ruling by the high court, according to rights activists.
"This measure is aimed at evacuating the Palestinians from their land," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said while visiting a partially demolished mosque in one of the communities. "There is no other explanation."
Fayyad visited the community of Al-Mufaqara, one of 12 where some 1,500 people live on 3,035 hectares (7,500 acres) of land.
Living in cave homes wedged in the bone-dry hills, residents of the tiny hamlets, some of which date to the 19th century, have no running water, electricity or services.
"We are one kilometer (mile) away from one settlement, and 700 meters (2,300 feet) from a (settler) outpost - why aren't they being evacuated?" said resident Mahmoud Hamamdeh, dressed in flowing traditional dress and headgarb.
"We got our first demolition order right after the settlements were built in 1985," he says.
The United Nations' International Court of Justice and most governments deem Jewish settlements in the West Bank illegal. Israel disputes this and also cited Biblical and historical links to the land.
VILLAGES UNDER DEMOLITION THREAT
The hamlets of Al-Mufaqara, Tuba, Majaz, Tabban, Sfaye, Fakhit, Halawa, Al Marqaz, Jinba, Kharuba, Megheir al-Abeid and Sarura have been under threat of demolition since 1999, according to the Association for Human Rights in Israel.
An evacuation was halted in 2000 by a court decision after 700 people had already been evicted.
Fayyad, seated in a rough tent surrounded by village residents, said that Israeli settlement expansion and forced evictions of Palestinians had undermined the viability of reaching a peaceful solution with Israel and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
"As a matter of principle, this is not Israeli land. If they want to practice military training, they should go elsewhere."
According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 10 Jewish settlement outposts are located either partially or completely in army firing zones.
OCHA says some 38 communities with 5,000 Palestinians, mostly Bedouin and pastoral communities in the West Bank, reside in areas designated as "firing zones" - which comprise approximately 18 percent of the West Bank.
Residents of firing zones are routinely subject to demolition orders. Almost half of all demolitions since 2010 have occurred in these areas, displacing over 820 Palestinians so far, according to OCHA.
In May, EU foreign ministers criticised what they said were worsening conditions for Palestinians living in Area C -- the 60 percent of the West Bank which is under full Israeli control and where most Jewish settlements are located.
An EU mission also visited Al-Mufaqara on Wednesday and issued a statement later protesting at what it called a planned "forced transfer of ... people contrary to Israel's obligations as the Occupying Power".
It added: "The designation of the area as a live firing zone would thus reduce further the opportunities for Palestinian communities to live and work in Area C and ... any potential of economic and social development for the Palestinians in this area of the occupied Palestinian territory".
Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in late 2010 in a dispute over Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, and Palestinians say talks cannot resume unless such construction is frozen.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)