JERUSALEM - The Israeli government has asked its Supreme Court to allow the demolition of eight Palestinian hamlets in the South Hebron Hills so the area can be used for military training.
The request, filed Sunday by Israel's Defense Ministry, is part of a struggle lasting decades between Israel and the tiny hamlets of cave-dwelling shepherds, who were returned to their homes by court order after an earlier forced evacuation by the state.
Advocates for the Palestinians contend that it is part of a broader government effort to reduce the number of Palestinians living in parts of the West Bank known as Area C, which is under Israeli control, and prevent them from building new homes or businesses there.
"It was never a declared Israeli policy to take over Area C, it was a policy that was taking hold on the ground," said Shlomo Lecker, a lawyer who, along with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, represents about 200 families in the area. "It's in many ways retreating from any agreements with the Palestinians, with the U.S., any kind of arrangement of two states. Where will be the two states if Israel will take over?"
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the prime minister's office, rejected that analysis. "I deny totally that there's any effort to get Palestinians out of Area C," he said. "There's no such policy goal." Mr. Regev pointed out that under the 1993 Oslo Accords, "there are signed agreements that we have full jurisdiction over Area C" until some future final status is determined through further negotiation.
Area C, covering 61 percent of the West Bank, is home to about 350,000 Jewish settlers. The number of Palestinian settlers varies. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics puts the number at 117,000; the Israeli government estimates there are 92,000, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says there are 150,000. Some right-wing politicians have recently called for Israel to assert legal sovereignty over the territory, a unilateral step that would essentially define the contours of a future Palestinian state - and that is anathema not only to the Palestinian leadership but also to the United States and Europe.
The case at hand involves about 7,500 acres near the Palestinian town of Yatta, and about 1,800 people who live at least part time in a dozen communities that predate Israel's 1967 seizure of the West Bank from Jordan, and in some cases have been around since the 1800s. Israel refers to the area as Firing Zone 918, a so-called closed military zone, and has tried for decades to clear the area for live-fire exercises.
In 1999, government forces evicted about 700 residents and demolished some of their buildings and wells. After the families sued in 2000, the Supreme Court granted an injunction that allowed them to return until the case was resolved. The sides engaged in mediation for several years but reached an impasse in 2005.
Now, the Defense Ministry has asked the court to remove about 1,500 people from 8 of the 12 villages, and relocate them to Yatta, a city of 50,000 in Area B under the Oslo Accords - about 21 percent of the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority runs civilian operations but shares security duties with Israel.
Many of the Area C families live part time in Area B and send their children to school there. They would be allowed to graze their sheep and cultivate their land on weekends and Jewish holidays, when the military does not train, and during two other months of the year. Four villages in the northern part of the area, with about 300 residents, would be allowed to stay.
In court papers, the Israeli administration contends that in recent years there has been an influx of residents, a rash of construction, and support activity by international organizations in the part of Area C in question, "violating the status quo, violating the ground closing order, and violating the building and planning laws."
The filing states: "Starting from 2009, an increasing trend of augmenting and strengthening the population on the C Grounds is taking place. There are increasing events of infiltration into the closed fire zones, and the number of such infiltrators grows regularly, and so does the quality and quantity of their housing on these grounds."
After a period for lawyers for the families to respond, a hearing will be scheduled. "It's not like tomorrow bulldozers are going to come," acknowledged Tamar Feldman, a lawyer for the civil rights group. But Ms. Feldman and others said the government's request was just the latest in a series of steps in the West Bank that could threaten a future Palestinian state.
In June, under court order to remove 30 families from a Jewish settlement apparently built on private Palestinian land, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to build 800 new settler houses elsewhere. Earlier this month, a state-appointed panel of jurists issued a report urging the legalization of scores of unauthorized settlement outposts, flouting international opinion by saying Israel's presence in the West Bank is not an occupation.
And just last week, the authorities elevated a college in the West Bank town of Ariel to university status. "There are indications that there is a general policy being drafted or formulated," said Ms. Feldman, the lawyer.