Two top officials in the Central Command of the Israel Defense Forces are at loggerheads over how to address encroachment by Jewish settlers in the West Bank on land farmed by Palestinians.
The legal adviser for Judea and Samaria, Col. Eli Bar On, recently accused the head of the Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Motti Elmoz, of dereliction of his legal duty to end the encroachments. In a kind of punitive measure, Bar On also informed Elmoz that his office would begin referring Palestinian complainants to Elmoz' office so that it could exercise its authority in the matter.
In 2007, then GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh signed an order authorizing the Civil Administration to remove agricultural encroachments by Israelis from Palestinian land. In effect, the order transferred responsibility for removing the trespasser from the landowner, as it is in Israel, to the Civil Administration. The rationale behind the unusual arrangement is that, whereas in Israel land disputes are primarily economic in nature, in the West Bank they are primarily nationalist and can lead to friction between communities and to public disturbances, and should therefore be addressed immediately.
The protocol allows the head of the Civil Administration to demand proof of rights to the land from the intruder, even in the absence of a complaint from the Palestinian landowner, and to issue the settler with an eviction order, after a hearing. The decision can be taken to the Military Appeals Committee. That committee's decision can, in turn, be appealed in the Supreme Court, as has happened on occasion.
Arguing that land disputes in the West Bank should be settled in the courts, like in Israel, settlers have been fighting the order since it was issued.
Over the past five years, the order has led to the destruction of crops sown by settlers. Orders are currently pending - awaiting either implementation or a judicial ruling - in 13 instances, in Eli, Sussia, Kedumim, Halamish and the Shiloh area.
Several months ago, under pressure from settlers, Elmoz announced that he would no longer issue removal orders based on the 2007 order. He argued that he lacked the legal training he said was needed to make such decisions, which were best handled by the courts.
Two weeks ago, after consulting with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Bar On sent a letter to Elmoz, criticizing the Civil Administration head for his position.
"As you are aware, the office of the legal adviser for Judea and Samaria is handling numerous land disputes ... that are often violent in nature and deteriorate into acts of violence involving injury to person and to property," Bar On wrote.
He went on to explain that his office views the protocol authorized by Naveh in 2007 as "an essential tool for addressing land disputes in the area, whose timely and judicious use can reduce the number and the virulence of disputes."
Continuing, Bar On wrote that continued use of the order was critical to preventing faits accomplis that are difficult to reverse as a result of the failure to discharge their duty to remove illegal encroachments.
"In the past, complainants were wont to appeal directly to our office to exercise the order, despite the fact that the authority lies with you," Bar On told Elmoz. "We do not find it appropriate to continue this practice, and from now on we intend to refer complainants to your office."
The issue now falls to Brig. Gen Nitzan Alon, who begins his term as GOC Central Command today. On one hand Alon is considered anathema to the settlers, and their hatred of him will only increase if he sides with Bar On. On the other hand, if he sides with Elmoz he is setting himself up for a head-on collision with Bar On and the Military Advocate General's Corps, and can expect a battle in the Supreme Court as well.
The IDF's Spokesman's Unit said in response that it would not comment on internal communications. "All of the bodies involved in law enforcement in Judea and Samaria, including the Civil Administration, conduct a joint dialogue regarding all of the issues under their authority. The bodies work in cooperation and coordination in order to realize their responsibility," the unit said.