IDF Earmarking West Bank Firing Zones for Settler Expansion, Figures Show

Settlement analyst says the areas marked are in the Jordan Valley or near settlements; Civil Administration calls claims baseless.

Miki Kratsman

The Civil Administration has in recent years earmarked 35,000 dunams (8,650 acres) of land currently defined as military firing zones to expand settlements and outposts, according to a settlement-tracking researcher’s analysis of its figures.

Dror Etkes has analyzed the extensive geographical information in the hands of the Civil Administration and says it shows that the administration has been surveying and mapping the old state lands recently, although these are firing zones. Since 1999, a Civil Administration team – known as the “blue line team” – has been using advanced digital methods to reaffirm the boundaries of the state lands. So far, 260,000 dunams have been mapped throughout the West Bank – 35,000 dunams of which are in firing zones.

In the 1970s, approximately 1 million dunams of land in the West Bank were declared firing zones for the exclusive use of the Israel Defense Forces. Until the 1990s, these areas were used extensively for training. However, after the IDF moved training bases to southern Israel following the Oslo Accords, the use of firing zones in the West Bank declined and most are now abandoned or used only sporadically for training. Nevertheless, the IDF is still keeping Palestinians out of these areas and demolishing buildings that are sometimes erected there.

According to Ottoman law, which is applicable in the territories, land that is cultivated for more than 10 years can come under the ownership of the individual working it. However, land that is not worked – for example, whose owners do not have access to it because it has been expropriated for use by the IDF – can be declared state land. So far, a reported 99 percent of this land in the territories has been allocated to settlers.

The state’s official position is that the firing zones are used for operational purposes only, in keeping with international law. However, many believe the firing zones are actually being used to keep the Palestinians out. For example, a master plan is being formulated to expand an area around settlements near Route 5. In 2012, 900 dunams were taken from a firing zone and given to the settlement of Sha’arei Tikva. Additional uses are planned for this area, including construction of an industrial zone.

Last May, Haaretz reported on remarks by Col. Einav Shalev – an intelligence officer in the GOC Central Command – to a subcommittee in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee dealing with the West Bank. “I think that the movement of armored battle vehicles in this area and thousands of soldiers marching when the columns are marching, people move aside and I don’t differentiate here between Jews and Palestinians, I’m speaking generally There are places where we have thinned out the amount of training significantly, and small weeds have grown there.” Shalev said “this is one of the reasons that we, as a military system, bring down much of the training to the Jordan Valley.”

Mapping the Jordan Valley

Etkes says the areas mapped are in the Jordan Valley or in areas near settlements. For example, in an area known as Training Zone 203 – in the western part of the northern West Bank, closer to the greater Tel Aviv region – 17,000 dunams have been mapped in recent years. In Firing Zone 912, in the Jordan Valley, 10,000 dunams have been mapped. In the western Hebron Hills, near the Green Line, 4,296 dunams have been mapped in Firing Zone 935 and 2,808 dunams in Firing Zone 918.

A petition involving Palestinians living in Firing Zone 918 is currently before the High Court of Justice.

In contrast, there are a number of outposts in or near firing zones where the Civil Administration does not enforce the law regarding construction. For example, Mitzpeh Avigail, Havat Ma’on, Mitzpeh Yair and Havat Yaakov Talia.

The mapping survey of state lands can be used to legalize outposts by issuing building permits retroactively for existing structures there and earmarking land reserves for additional construction. Other mapping done in 2012 in Firing Zone 904 identified 699 dunams of state land where Outpost 777, near the settlement of Itamar, had been built.

Etkes told Haaretz that the fact so much effort is being put into marking the state lands that were previously firing zones “goes together with the fact that these are areas that, for all intents and purposes, either were never used for training or have not been used for training for many years.”

He adds this makes it clear that declaring these lands the property of the state “is no more than a fiction intended to prevent Palestinians from using them.”

According to Etkes, the location of these lands is no less significant, “showing that these firing zones are nothing less than a land bank that Israel manages to promote its settlement interests, which has nothing whatsoever to do with military training and operational readiness.”

The Civil Administration responded: “Any attempt to present the data as if they contain a political, or other, motive to allocate them in the future for settlement is completely baseless. The blue line team’s work is intended, first and foremost, to improve maps that were made in the 1980s. The team consists of land officials in the Civil Administration who are acting out of professional considerations. As part of their activities, the blue line team carries out a survey based on a court decision, or to resolve disputes over land – some of which are in firing zones. The examination of the declarations [of state land] is done over the area in general, and not according to specific points.”

To prove its point, the Civil Administration cited the case of an area in Firing Zone 918, near the Beit Yatir settlement in the Hebron Hills, noting that this area was surveyed in light of a land dispute in the Palestinian village of Bir el-Eid. “Another case, in the area of Mitzpeh Avigail is under review in light of a petition to the High Court,” it added.