Farming Permits for Palestinians in West Bank ‘Seam Zone’ Cut Drastically

Nearly three-quarters of requests refused in 2018, compared to one-quarter in 2014

A view of the separation barrier from the West Bank, near Bethlehem, December 1, 2018.
Emil Salman

Israel has drastically reduced the number of Palestinian farmers who are allowed to work their lands located between the separation barrier and the Green Line, according to Civil Administration data.

In 2018, 72 percent of Palestinian requests for farming permits were refused, compared to 24 percent in 2014. There are also very few permits issued for “agricultural employment,” beyond the barrier, permits generally given to the relatives of the plot owner who work with him, but also to paid laborers.

This information was supplied to Hamoked – the Center for the Defense of Individual Human Rights in response to a Freedom of Information Law request. However, it lacks valuable data concerning, for example, the number of seasonal, short term permits which Hamoked believes often replace the long term permits.

The statistics correspond to reports submitted by farmers to Hamoked, to Machsom Watch activists and to Haaretz about bureaucratic obstacles that have been added over the past four years to get the permits to cultivate their land. The land between the barrier and the Green Line, which Israel refers to as the “seam zone,” totals 137,000 dunams (33,853 acres).

Since the start of 2018 through November 25, the Civil Administration approved only 1,876 requests for farming permits of the 7,187 requests submitted – an unprecedented refusal rate of 72 percent. This compares to a refusal rate of 24 percent in 2014, when the number of requests totaled 4,288, and the number of permits issued was 3,221.

According to the Civil Administration’s data, the number of requests for agricultural employment permits dropped from 24,424 in 2014 to 14,857 in 2017. In 2018 the number of agricultural employment permits dropped to only 2,959. While during 2014 to 2017 the refusal rate was around 30 percent, in 2018 around half the requests were refused.

The Civil Administration also provided a breakdown of the reasons for refusal. Only a small percentage of the refusals during 2015 to 2018, an average of 2.2 percent, were for security reasons. (There was no data for 2014.)

Common reasons for denying the requests, according to the Civil Administration documents, were “failed administrative examination,” “the land is in Judea and Samaria [that is, not in the areas beyond the separation barrier],” “request lacks details,” and “request lacks documentation.” These are bureaucratic reasons that according to many of the farmers are due to errors they didn’t make.

Hamoked has been assisting farmers who’ve been refused permits since 2009; their work has ranged from making inquiries with the Civil Administration to identify and correct bureaucratic errors to petitioning the courts. Hamoked has dealt with 1,400 such cases altogether, with 527 of them in the last three years.

During those three years Hamoked’s intervention has helped reverse the refusals in almost two-thirds of the cases, resulting in 352 Palestinian farmers getting permits.

Other reasons the Civil Administration gives for refusing the permits include “failing to meet the policy criteria,” “there are enough permits for the land,” “no connection to the land,” and “the land isn’t cultivated and there is no direct connection to the land.” In 2018, 83 percent of the requests were denied for “failing to meet the criteria,” even though many of these farmers have been dealing with the permit regime since the early 2000s.

A reason that Civil Administration clerks often state out loud, but which isn’t listed in its response to Hamoked, is that the plot for which the farmer is seeking a permit is “too small,” to require cultivation (this refers to plots smaller than 330 square meters). This reason could explain the substance behind the written reasons cited above, and reflects the enormous change Israel is trying to impose on the Palestinians’ ownership and land cultivation customs.

Since 2014, the Civil Administration does not recognize the plot owner’s spouse or his children as having any rights to work the land. They are eligible for an entry permit as “employees” – if the plot is big enough according to the “criteria.”

When they examine a farmer’s request, the Civil Administration takes into account only his relative portion of the family’s land (which is often still registered by the name of grandparents or parents), with no consideration for family traditions of working the land together or the fact that siblings are abroad or otherwise employed and unavailable for farm work. That’s how small, 330 square meter plots emerge that ostensibly don’t need cultivation, even though they contain trees and have been cultivated for decades.

The Civil Administration’s response will be published separately in the coming days.

Hamoked executive director Jessica Montell said, “The data confirm Hamoked’s position that contrary to the High Court of Justice ruling that recognizes the residents’ right to work their lands with their families and employees, the army is acting systematically to deprive the Palestinians of this basic right, to restrict the entry of Palestinian farmers into the seam zone and to gradually dispossess them of their land.