People cooling off in the waters of Ein Prat in the Judean desert.
People cooling off in the waters of Ein Prat in the Judean desert. Photo by Amir Aloni / The Israel Nature and Parks Authority
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Palestinians convicted of security offenses are being barred from entering the Ein Prat Nature Reserve in the Judean Desert, even though visitors' security records aren't checked at other West Bank nature reserves.

Inspectors from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority kept two Palestinian visitors out of Ein Prat, also called Ein Fara, two weeks ago, said Dror Etkes, a researcher who monitors settlement construction and was with them at the time. This is in keeping with recent practice at the site, according to the mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Anata.

When the two Palestinians sought to enter with Etkes, inspectors asked them for their identity cards.

“I heard one of the authority men conducting inquiries by telephone, and after a few minutes, he returned and told the Palestinians that they weren’t allowed to enter the reserve,” said Etkes.

Yasser Mohammed Hamdan, one of the two Palestinians with Etkes, said the parks inspector "approached me and said I couldn’t enter,” adding: “I didn’t get any explanation. This is a difficult feeling, because I have land inside the reserve, but I can’t go there.”

Hamdan spent seven years in an Israeli jail for terrorist offenses committed during the first intifada, but said he has not been denied entry to a public place on account of his record in years. The other Palestinian who was barred from entering Ein Prat served a jail sentence of just 10 days.

The incident earlier this month is only the latest at that site, said Anata Mayor Taha Hamdan.

The three men had gone to the reserve to investigate a complaint by the mayor that authority inspectors were conducting security checks on visitors to the reserve and denying entry to people with a record of security offenses. Taha Hamdan said he discovered the new procedure a few months ago, when he visited the reserve with a friend.

He was allowed to enter, but after inspectors examined his friend’s identity card, the friend was denied entry due to a past conviction on terrorism charges.

“It’s okay to protect nature, and that’s above any conflict,” Hamdan said. “But why make a distinction between people like this and deny them entry to the reserve? It was really disappointing to return home with our friend like that after we just wanted to enjoy ourselves a little in the reserve.”

The Nature and Parks Authority said the security checks are done at the discretion of on-site parks inspectors.

“The checks are performed selectively, at the discretion of the worker at the entrance, on anyone who seeks to enter the territory of the nature reserve by a route other than the entrance from the settlement," the authority said in a statement.

Etkes, Yasser Mohammed Hamdan and the third man came to the nature reserve via a dirt road often used by Palestinians, rather than entering via the main road from the nearby Jewish settlement of Anatot.  

The parks authority did not respond to questions of who approved this procedure, when it was instituted or why it exists at this reserve but not others.
Inquiries at other West Bank nature reserves revealed that these reserves don’t check the security records of Palestinians visitors. These include the reserve of Einot Tsukim (Ein Feshkha), which is visited by many Palestinians, and a reserve located near Ein Prat that allows free entry to both Palestinians and Israelis with no security checks whatsoever.

The decision to bar entry to Palestinians with security records “is another manifestation of the expropriation of most of the West Bank from the Palestinians and its appropriation to the Israelis," said Etkes. "But this time, it’s happening under the guise of security considerations. This is further proof, for anyone who needed it, of the fact that the Nature and Parks Authority is yet another agency through which Israel engineers the expanse of the occupation.”

Ein Prat also charges a higher fee to Palestinian residents of the area than it does to residents of nearby settlements, even though some of the local Palestinians own land inside the reserve.

According to Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, residents of settlements in the Binyamin region get a discount because those settlements contribute to developing and maintaining the reserve.

However, the administration added, it is currently looking into the possibility of giving discounts to other population groups as well.