Palestinian farmers - Emil Salman - 02082011
Palestinian farmers trying to enter the settlement of Ofra earlier this month. Photo by Emil Salman
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Israeli human rights activists escorting Palestinian farmers to their lands in the West Bank village of Silwad had their route blocked by the Israel Defense Forces yesterday.

The IDF prevented the women from human rights group Yesh Din from entering the West Bank settlement of Ofra on their way to Silwad. The women were escorting five villagers who had been permitted to enter their lands for the first time in about 10 years, during which time the settlement had blocked access to them.

But the region’s IDF brigade commander, Col. Saar Tzur, issued a one-day order declaring the Palestinian lands a “closed military zone,” prohibiting the activists from entering with the farmers.A group of soldiers waited for the Silwad villagers yesterday, following prior arrangement with Yesh Din, to escort them to their lands. The entrance to the lands from the village itself − rather than through the settlement − had been fenced off. The farmers, among whom was the village council head Nail Hamad, were afraid to enter the settlement or be near it without Israeli escorts to help them with the authorities.

Ofra secretary Meir Nahliel said he regretted the villagers’ decision not to enter their lands.
“I’m in favor of them coming to farm their land and make it green,” he said. “A cup of coffee awaits them here.”

He called the presence of the Yesh Din activists a “provocation,” but afterward said he would have let them in had they coordinated in advance.

Yesh Din attorney Shlomi Zecharya said he and his colleague, attorney Avisar Lev, had advised Ofra’s secretary in advance, while they were coordinating the visit, that a number of activists would be accompanying the farmers.

The IDF’s Civil Administration said: “This is a biased, false statement. Yesh Din was told that only the Palestinians would be allowed in.”

The five farmers intended to assess the damage caused to their lands over the past 10 years. The visit was enabled following prolonged litigation by Yesh Din and a petition the group filed in December 2009 to the High Court of Justice against the IDF for confiscating the village’s lands.

The settlers are blocking the Palestinians’ access to some 3,100 dunams, constituting about a quarter of Silwad’s lands and including lands belonging to the villages of Taibe, Ein Yabrud and Deir Jarir as well.

The petitioners said the settlers had fenced off the area, built roads on it and used dogs as well as physical harassment to prevent the Palestinians from accessing their lands. The petitioners attached 11 aerial photographs taken between 1997 and 2009, showing how the cultivated land gradually turned fallow.

In January 2011 the state prosecution told Yesh Din that following numerous complaints about the settlers’ illegally fencing off Palestinian land, the IDF was reexamining the security requirements, with the intention of reducing “damage to private property” as much as possible.

A study by human rights group B’Tselem in 2008 shows at least 58 percent of Ofra was built on private Palestinian land, mainly registered to Ein Yabrud and Silwad in the land registry.

This means that even according to Israel’s criteria, Ofra is not a legal settlement, with no jurisdiction and no legal building permits, B’Tselem says.

Nahliel said the settlement was built following a cabinet decision and its land was legally bought from Palestinians, but the documents are kept secret in order not to endanger the sellers’ lives.