How Israel Keeps Palestinians Off a Third of All West Bank Land

Kerem Navot, a nonprofit, reports on how closed military zones have worked to shape the map in the settlers' favor.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A camel on the edge of a military firing zone in the West Bank.
A camel on the edge of a military firing zone in the West Bank.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Once in a while, the question of the occupation still creates headlines in Israel. A young Palestinian woman, modestly robed from head to toe, is shot and killed by a soldier at a Hebron checkpoint because she may have been carrying a knife (the photos from the Palestinian side show one story; the Israel Defense Forces spokesman tells a different one); yet another Jewish settlement is being built in East or North Jerusalem, to a chorus of condemnation from the world; an Arab-Israeli actor who doesn’t want to perform beyond the Green Line (the pre-1967 borders of Israel) annoys the culture minister; a settler is named as ambassador to Brazil and upsets the delicate souls of former ambassadors; the list of security threats from the Palestinian side is endless; and, of course, opinion pieces in this newspaper warn daily of the dangers of prolonging the current situation and the slippage toward a binational state.

And yet, the occupation is feeling perfectly comfortable, thank you. This June marked 48 years since the Six-Day War. Barring an unexpected change that isn’t visible on the horizon, the chances are that the situation will stay like this even on the 50th anniversary, in June 2017. The birthrate of the Israelis on the other side of the Green Line; the expansion of the outposts (even if the prohibition on the establishment of new outposts is, for the most part, enforced by the state); the gradual change in the character in the ranks of the IDF, which sees more and more soldiers and officers sporting skullcaps – all these are establishing facts on the ground that make it very difficult to evacuate the settlements in the future.

In the meantime, what is barely being discussed – except in Amira Hass’ columns – is the systematic way the Israeli establishment is expanding its control and influence in the West Bank, while gradually diminishing any Palestinian room for maneuver. A new report by Israeli nonprofit Kerem Navot, which monitors Israeli land policies in the West Bank, shows in detail how the system works, through the issuing of closure orders for large tracts of land that become closed military zones.

The original justification for the land closure procedures, which began immediately after the war in 1967, was on security grounds. However, since then, many other considerations have been added, primarily benefitting the settlement project. The bottom line is that currently nearly 1,765,000 dunams (about 436,000 acres) – nearly one-third of the land in the West Bank – is closed to the Palestinians, on the grounds that these are military zones.

The justification is not entirely consistent with the reality, according to the report, in that about 78 percent of the land closed for military maneuvers is not being used for that purpose at all. The report says the rest of the land is divided between areas that the army makes frequent use of (more than one training exercise every three months – about 10 percent of the closed areas) and land for which little use is being made (about 12 percent have, on average, less than one training exercise every three months).

Kerem Navot is one of the many activities being pursued by Dror Etkes – a one-man enterprise, you could say. Etkes has been monitoring the settlements for nearly 20 years through a series of roles – initially in Peace Now, then in other organizations. His new report, “Walled Garden – Declaration of Closed Areas in the West Bank,” is one of the most detailed, extensive reports he has released. According to the report, the first closure order was signed as early as July 8, 1967, less than a month after the end of the war. That was Order 34, which declared the entire West Bank a closed military zone. The order is still valid, but is not used much because the state prefers to use more specific orders. Since then, thousands of additional orders have been signed, though their exact number is unknown because most have applied to relatively small areas and for relatively short periods. However, in addition to these, scores of permanent closure orders for extensive tracts have been issued, for various purposes.

The primary uses of these orders have been: Closing the borders of the West Bank (the border with Jordan in the east, the Latrun area in the west) and later for closing a considerable area of the seam line to the west of the separation barrier; establishing settlement jurisdictions; closing off security zones around a number of settlements; and closing off tracts the army has defined as essential for its needs. Thus, cumulatively, more than half of the Israeli-controlled Area C in the West Bank (about 61 percent of the entire occupied area) is currently defined as closed military zones.

The report states that these orders make it possible to place severe limitations on the ability of Palestinians to move freely and make safe use of extensive tracts of land. “Closing off areas is the administrative measure that has influenced, more than any other, the restriction of Palestinians’ movements and their ability to use land resources, even though officially a considerable part of those lands are also off-limits to Israelis,” Etkes writes.

The report describes how most of the military zones (about 1.5 million dunams throughout the West Bank) were closed during the first decade after the war. Initially, training zones were declared in the Jordan Valley, while the Latrun area was closed off right after the war. At the beginning of the 1970s, the eastern strip of the West Bank was closed from Jericho southward, so that by 1972 the map of the military training zones coincided almost completely with the map of the Allon Plan – which was designed by Yigal Allon following the Six-Day War to preserve Israel’s security control on the mountain ridge and in the Jordan Valley. Aerial photographs from the period show that, until then, Palestinians had been living and cultivating the land or grazing their herds on some of the tracts that were subsequently closed off.

Another significant change – in the opposite direction – appeared after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993-1995. After these agreements, the IDF redeployed and evacuated Area A, which was transferred to full Palestinian control (although this was eaten away during the second intifada between 2000-2005) and maintained security (but not civil) control in Area B.

According to the report, from the beginning of the 1990s to the beginning of 2015, with the cancelation of Training Zone 911 north of Jericho, the closure of about 364 dunams was revoked. Of these areas, about 300,000 dunams were training zones that were reduced in size or canceled (after the IDF shut down many units and reduced the extent of its training maneuvers).

However, the new boundaries of the training zones take up a larger part of Area C – thereby restricting many Palestinian villages’ access to lands that had been in their possession and were declared closed training zones. Moreover, the total area designated as a closed military zone has increased since the end of the 1990s, because the IDF declared all the settlement jurisdictions to be military zones closed to Palestinians. This is a total area of about 540,000 dunams and comprises about 9.7 percent of the total area of the West Bank.

The closed areas were expanded further during the course of the second intifada, when Israel designated as closed the seam line area around the West Bank security barrier and special security zones around many of the settlements, with the aim of preventing Palestinians from entering them. This measure, which was implemented at the height of the deadly infiltration attacks on settlements and along the seam line, is now also used for other purposes – among them expanding the effective area of the settlements and distancing Palestinian farmers from their lands. In this way, about 180,000 dunams have been added to the closed areas.

Comparing a map of the military training zones with a map of the settlement jurisdictions shows a close correlation between these two types of areas – which together constitute about 82 percent of the total of the closed areas in the West Bank. According to the report, “It is clear that behind this correlation is the intention to make extensive areas closed to Palestinians.”

IDF soldiers on maneuvers at a firing zone in the West Bank.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Etkes also identifies a more extensive move that he says is planned for the future. Currently, about 348,000 dunams of the tracts Israel has declared to be “state lands” in the West Bank are located within the training zones (or about 43 percent of the state lands beyond the Green Line). About 35,000 dunams of designated state lands within the training zones have been mapped by the Civil Administration’s “Blue Line team” (which began to map the boundaries of the settlements about a decade ago, following U.S. pressure). The report claims that the intention is to release some of these lands for future settlement expansion.

The method of expropriation orders also has another important element: the absence of enforcement against Israelis. The report lists 10 outposts and settlements where houses and public buildings have been built inside closed training zones. The enforcement authorities have indeed issued demolition orders for more than 170 of these buildings, which are illegal by virtue of the definition of the land, but to date no move has been made to evacuate them. In two other cases in recent years, the state has reassigned some areas in the training zones to settlements for purposes of their expansion. The cancellation of Training Area 911 north of Jericho was designed to enable the forced relocation of Bedouin to this area after evacuating them from an area east of Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Settlers are using lands that have been designated as training zones in another way as well. Today they are cultivating about 14,000 dunams of the shuttered areas, which are also supposed to be closed to Israelis. About 73 percent of these agricultural lands have been transferred to the settlers by the authorities in areas that have, de facto, been closed only to Palestinians, along the border and in the Latrun area. Some 3,000 additional dunams of agricultural land are being cultivated by settlers without them having been given official permission to do so. Most of these sites are registered as privately owned Palestinian lands, but the authorities aren’t enforcing the law against the settlers. Indeed, according to the report, they are even supporting the settlers’ cultivation of these lands.

The report quotes Central Command operations officer Col. Einav Shalev’s testimony to a Knesset subcommittee in April 2014 (at a discussion into illegal Palestinian construction in Area C, reported by Amira Hass). Shalev offered a glimpse into the system, explaining that the fact the IDF had gone back to holding extensive division training exercises in the Jordan Valley was helping to distance Palestinians from those areas. “I’m saying this here because I think that the story of the training maneuvers is an element that is not coming up for discussion, but it carries considerable weight. In places where we significantly reduced the amount of training, weeds have grown,” he said, referring to Palestinian communities. “This is something that should be taken into consideration.”

Shalev’s subcommittee remarks – in a discussion that featured only two Knesset members, both from the settler-friendly Habayit Hayehudi – tell a large part of the story. To understand the issue of the closed military zone, it is necessary to see things through political eyes, not protective military eyewear. In many cases, security is just an excuse for other far-reaching considerations lurking behind it.

Two turning points

Haaretz asked a high-ranking IDF officer who served for long periods in the territories to respond to the main findings of the report. He said the policy of closing off areas during the past decade has become far stricter, and that today it is difficult to close off tracts of land and declare them military zones for irrelevant justifications.

The officer identified two turning points over the years: the Elon Moreh High Court of Justice ruling of 1979 (which disqualified the security justification invoked for expropriating lands for the building of settlements); and attorney Talia Sasson’s state report into the outposts, published in March 2005, which, although it was not adopted by the government, revealed and analyzed the method in detail.

According to the officer, “Ever since the Sasson report, there have hardly been any new expropriation orders. Every security expropriation undergoes very close scrutiny by the lawyers and requires complete proof of the security need. Even when a brigade commander wants an expropriation order to set up a pillbox [a tall reinforced concrete guard tower] by the roadside, he has to prove a real security need and convince the legal advisers that it is essential.”

The Kerem Navot report reaches a different conclusion. “The State of Israel is making sweeping use of closure orders in the West Bank for varied purposes, first of all closing off areas for military training maneuvers. Research shows that the continued closure of the vast majority of the training zones does not answer to any military need, since in 80 percent of the areas no military maneuvers are held at all. The size of these areas, their locations, the correlation between them and other statutory elements that limit the Palestinians’ ability to use them – like the jurisdictions of the settlements and designated nature reserves – lead to the conclusion that the continued closure of these areas is a major factor in the land regime the State of Israel is pursuing in the West Bank. It appears that its main aim is to drastically reduce the Palestinian population’s ability to use the resource of land and to transfer as many parts of it as possible into the hands of the settlers.”

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