The Nature and Natural Parks Protection Authority and the Israel Lands Administration are government bodies that in many cases have been responsible for exacerbating a sense of alienation and oppression among the Arab citizens of Israel.
Today too they see Arab areas as places that must be fought with for the control of lands in the country, and in various places they relate to Arabs' homes as obstacles inside nature reserves and national parks.
However, last week these bodies took participated in something unusual that could mark a newer, more democratic and egalitarian direction in attitudes toward Israeli Arabs and their right to live in places from which the state intended to eject them.
Last Thursday, in Nahal Tsalmon in the Galilee the first environmental mediation agreement was signed. It bridges the disagreements between the Arab residents, who want to continue to live there and work the land, and the authorities that intended to develop a national park Nahal Tsalmon and for many years had been demanding that houses be cleared and demolished, on the grounds that they are illegal located inside a national park.
The agreement was signed by representatives of the residents of the area and representatives of the national local governments - the Nature and Natural Parks Protection Authority, the Israel Lands Administration, the Ministry of the Environment and the Misgav regional council, adjacent to Nahal Tsalmon.
Also present at the ceremony were members of the mediating team, Amitai Har Lev, Uri Ramon and Jallal Abu Tuameh, who had acted on behalf of the Institute for Mediating Environmental Disputes. The mediation procedure is aimed at bringing about agreement between the two sides in a dispute by means of a third side, at the beginning of which the various issues are clarified.
After that, an agreement is formulated, which is based on public participation and complete accessibility to all the information that is connected to the dispute. In the case of Nahal Tsalmon, the inability to solve the problems of the inhabitants inside the area of the national park led to a decline in its condition. The inhabitants' quality of like was also affected, as they were under the constant threat of eviction from their homes and were unable to get help with essential infrastructure.
Under the mediation agreement, it was possible to mark out walking trails inside the national park that would also pass through private property. However, this will not involve any damage to the private property rights, and there will be a separation between the visitors and the farming plots. Approach roads will be arranged that will allow the residents to get to their houses, they will be hooked up to the sewage system and the property-owners' rights to work their land will be maintained.
Most important, it was determined that the legal status of the residential homes will be regularized and building rights and restrictions defined. The next generation of the families living in the park will find alternative housing in nearby locales and not within the park.
On the background of the tough attitude that he the authorities have evinced until now toward the Arab inhabitants' claims to the land, the mediated agreement in Nahal Tsalmon sounds too good to be true. But it was achieved because official bodies like the Nature and Natural Parks Protection Authority and the Israel Lands Administration realized there is no benefit to leaving the national park neglected.
Now comes the test of the implementation and it is especially important, because the Tsalmon agreement could become a precedent for settling disputes in other places. However, non-fulfilment of the agreement will shatter the fragile trust that was built up between the sides in Nahal Tsalmon and exacerbate the dispute considerably.
The authorities that are involved in the agreement must prove that they that have not signed it only in order to improve their image. They must act toward the swift authorization in the planning institutions of the development plans for the national park and regularization of the rights of the inhabitants who live.
The conclusion to be drawn from the Tsalmon agreement need not be the replacement of the law-enforcement system by mediated agreements between citizens and government authorities. These agreements must take the legal framework into account but they must also give citizens an opportunity to articulate their distress. There is no justification for mediation of an agreement with someone who wildly invades land and demands recognition of rights he never had. There is very good reason for a mediation procedure with someone who has a connection of many years' standing with the land, from a time when the legal and government framework was different.
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