Settlers in the northern Jordan Valley are farming large tracts of land owned by Palestinians, who are being denied access to it by a military order. The Palestinians submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice last month asking for the return of their land.
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After the West Bank’s occupation in 1967, the Israel Defense Forces forbade Palestinians in the Jordan Valley from encroaching on the Jordanian border. In 1969, Israel issued an order forbidding Palestinians from entering a wide strip of land between the border fence and the Jordan River.
This policy remained unaltered even after the peace agreement with Jordan was signed in 1994. Over the years, and despite the government order not to touch the private land in the area, settlers began to farm it.
In January 2013, following a Haaretz report about the settlers’ activity, a number of Palestinian families – whose land near the Hamra settlement was turned into a date plantation – petitioned the High Court. The court issued a conditional order asking the state to explain why the land owners should not be allowed to farm the land.
Last month, another group of Palestinians, from Tubas, also petitioned the High Court, requesting their land back. The petitioners said they own 800 dunams (nearly 200 acres) in an area they are forbidden to enter, near the Mehola settlement.
They had tried to farm the land last December but a settler blocked their path, they said. The next day, they were told by the IDF that they were forbidden to enter the area. Aerial photographs of the land showed that some 200 dunams (nearly 50 acres) of it was being cultivated for crops.
In its response to the petition last month, the state confirmed that the lands in question belonged to Palestinians. However, it said it had “not completed sorting out the claim” that the land was being cultivated. The state sought to present its broader position at a later date. Justice Zvi Zylbertal instructed that a panel of justices hear the case.
Aerial photographs seemingly show that some 5,000 dunams (over 1,200 acres) of Palestinian land are being farmed by settlers in the fertile Jordan Valley. Some of the settlers were allocated fields by the World Zionist Organization, on the alleged order of the defense minister’s assistant in 1981. Another part of the land has apparently been seized by the settlers.
The state will have to decide whether the land belongs to the people registered as its owners in the Land Registry, or to those who received it from WZO. In the meantime, the state is trying to reach compensation agreements with the Palestinian owners.
Last week, Supreme Court President Miriam Naor and justices Daphne Barak-Erez and Menachem Mazuz, who heard the petition, criticized the state. “Someone decided to ignore [state] decisions and took rights in private land,” said Mazuz, while Naor noted, “I don’t understand how this can happen.”
Justice Barak-Erez, meanwhile, said, “If it’s a military area and a possibility to farm it, why aren’t those who are entering it the owners? In some closed areas, the owners receive a permit to farm the land. The people should be allowed to exercise their ownership, subject to security regulations.”
“The situation is, in fact, clear,” said Mazuz. “You [the state] admit it’s private land. Handing it over [to the settlers] was apparently contrary to the decisions of the ministerial committee for defense affairs. So the state’s first obligation is to restore the situation to its previous condition ... then we must think about the financial aspects.”