Continuous Invasions by Settlers Spoil the Joy of Palestinians’ Olive Harvest

A once-annual visit is all the villagers of Deir al-Hatab get to see whether squatters have invaded their land.

Amira Hass
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Abed el-Karim and Nidal Zamel at Deir al-Hatab, a Palestinian village encroached on by settlers, October 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amira Hass

Abed el-Karim and Nidal Zamel of the village of Deir al-Hatab, east of Nablus, could be considered fortunate: Civil Administration officials ordered settlers who were squatting on their land to leave. About a week ago, they told me what such good fortune looks like, near a mound of earth blocking the old road to their orchards.

On October 6, Abed and Nidal, cousins, went outside accompanied by about 50 relatives. Escorted by Israeli troops, they were on their way to harvest olives on roughly 200 dunams (49 acres) of land owned by the extended family.

The settlement of Elon Moreh, on a hilltop to the northeast, dominates the view over about half of Deir al-Hatab’s 12,000 dunams, including the Zamels’ land. Because of the settlement’s and the settlement’s outposts’ proximity to the land, the army only lets Palestinian farmers go out to their fields with advance coordination and a military escort. And this happens only a few days a year: two days during the olive harvest and maybe another day or two to turn over and weed the soil a little.

An army position, a “sterile” road off-limits to Palestinians, dogs, cameras, patrols by soldiers and the settlement’s security people, an iron gate on the road leading to the fields, an earthen mound and fear — all this stands between the farmers and their trees, livelihood, heritage, inheritance and working their land.

As during the past seven years (the army did not allow Deir al-Hatab farmers to work their land between 2002 and 2007), a funereal atmosphere prevails in the village at harvest time.

At one time, the olive harvest was a continuous holiday. The whole family went out to work, spend time on the land, rest, eat and drink among the trees.

“Now the soldier says we aren’t even allowed to drink tea,” Nidal Zamel said. “The soldiers made us rush, and we hadn’t found many olives in any case.” He said that a few days earlier he could see Israelis picking olives from the trees.

The once-annual visit to the orchard is the only chance the villagers have to see whether squatters have invaded their land. During the 2007 olive harvest, the Zamels learned that strangers had planted olive shoots in a field where they had grown wheat during better times, when working the land wasn’t a matter of three or four days per year.

They complained to the Israeli police about the squatters and were joined by Israeli activists from the Villages Group, who attended the olive harvest in Deir al-Hatab and the nearby villages of Salem and Azmout because of constant attacks by Israelis.

The complaints worked. In December 2007, the Civil Administration issued a stop order against a squatter, Nati Sholev, a resident of Elon Moreh. Sholev appealed the Civil Administration’s injunction to the appeals committee, which is made up of military judges. The committee turned down his appeal in March 2009.

In June that year, the Civil Administration uprooted the young olive trees, but because the landowners are not allowed to go there for 360 days a year, the Zamel family had no way to protect or cultivate their property.

In 2011, the family discovered that unidentified squatters had returned and planted grapevines on their land. Nidal Zamel told Haaretz that on October 6, in a vineyard that had been planted by strangers on the same piece of land that had been invaded and later evacuated, he saw the settler whom he recognized from the appeals committee hearing.

In all, the Civil Administration issued three stop orders to remove Israeli squatters from Deir al-Hatab farmland. The three orders were obeyed; the olive shoots were uprooted.

Sometime up to three years later — undercover of the army’s order denying the Palestinians access to their land — squatters resumed planting in the same three fields, which amount to 42 dunams.

Same thing for 14 years

The Zamels are not alone. The number of takeovers of Palestinian land, whether privately owned or public land that is declared state-owned, has been increasing since the start of the second intifada in 2000.

The army has abetted this phenomenon by forbidding Palestinians free access to land next to outposts and settlements. That’s their way to prevent friction and attacks by settlers on Palestinian farmers.

Dror Etkes, an independent researcher of Israeli settlement policy, found — based on tours of the area and Civil Administration figures — that settlers have taken over 14,000 dunams for farming purposes since mid-2006.

This means 484 separate takeovers of farmland; 293 of them of land privately owned by Palestinians — not land that was declared state-owned, land or land that had been owned by Jews before 1948. The total amount of privately owned land taken over by settlers is 5,861 dunams.

As takeovers by Israeli agriculture of privately owned and public Palestinian land increased, and following on the outposts, the military authorities could no longer ignore the phenomenon.

In January 2007, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, the head of the Northern Command at the time, signed a “disruptive use” injunction letting the Civil Administration remove settlers from land they had taken over up to three years before, or from land whose cultivation had undergone an essential change in the three years before the injunction was issued. The period covered by the injunction was later increased to five years from three.

The injunction was novel in that it let the Civil Administration act even if the landowners or their representatives (mainly the rights groups Rabbis for Human Rights and Yesh Din) had not yet turned to the legal system.

In March 2012, Etkes and Rabbis for Human Rights asked the Civil Administration, based on the Freedom of Information Law, how many injunctions to stop disruptive use had been issued. Etkes received the information in May 2014, 28 months later.

Over seven years, the Civil Administration issued 23 stop-disruptive-use orders concerning 472 dunams of privately owned land that had been taken over by settlers — 8 percent of all takeovers of private land in those years. Five of the 23 injunctions were enforced; the shoots were uprooted, but the Palestinian landowners are permitted access to their land only after coordination with the army and with an escort, for just a few days per year.

In Deir al-Hatab, the takeover of farmland has resumed in blatant disregard of the three injunctions. Also, another agricultural invasion of another piece of land near the outpost of Adei Ad was stopped and an administrative injunction activated, but the landowners have no access to their land. The other 14 injunctions issued for the removal of squatters have not been implemented; settlers continue to work the land unimpeded.

Since Etkes received this information, two more injunctions have been enforced, according to information supplied by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, COGAT. Haaretz asked COGAT to comment on the statement that the low number of injunctions, their partial enforcement and their decrease in number since 2012 confirm reports by Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson that the Civil Administration fails to act against the invasions because of pressure from the settlers.

A COGAT spokesman said: “In 2012 we were contacted [about repeated squatting at Deir al-Hatab]. After holding a meeting and touring the area, we asked the plaintiffs [representatives of the landowners] for supplementary material so we could consider the option of issuing an injunction to stop disruptive use, but the supplementary material was never submitted.”

In any case, the matter is under examination, the spokesman said. The Civil Administration is coordinating efforts to prevent harm to privately owned Palestinian land, including the use of injunctions to stop disruptive use on privately owned land.

“The injunctions’ purpose is to provide a solution to the situation in which there is a danger of harm to public order and public welfare, not to decide on contradicting claims regarding land rights,” the spokesman said.

“In the case of fear that the land might be damaged, there are other options available to the complainant such as contacting the Israel Police and the legal system, and contacting the bureau for initial registration. It should be noted that injunctions to prevent disruptive use have a time limit during which they can be used.”

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