Israel's Top Court to Postpone West Bank Settlement Eviction Based on Jewish Farming Sabbatical

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Meshek Achiya, 2010
Meshek Achiya, 2010Credit: Moti Milrod

Despite criticism of the state's request, the High Court of Justice consented on Wednesday to delay the eviction of Meshek Achiya, one of the largest West Bank settlement farms, due to Jewish agricultural laws. 

The justices were critical of the fact that the state had asked to delay the eviction and relocation of most of the farm’s cultivated land because of the shmita restrictions imposed by Jewish law only after the sabbatical year had commenced.

Every seven years, halakha prohibits agricultural labor in the Land of Israel must be halted for the period of a year.

“We are not comfortable with the date the request was submitted, which was after the start of the shmita year, which was known in advance, and without this matter being addressed in the [original] hearing,” Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote, along with Justices Daphne Barak-Erez and Ofer Grosskopf. Under the original ruling, the state was meant to have cleared out the farm by October 1. Meshek Achiya produces olive oil, and is considered one of the most successful Jewish farms in the West Bank.

Two weeks ago, Defense Minister Benny Gantz asked the High Court to delay the eviction and relocation of the farm’s 170 dunams in the Shilo Valley until after the shmita year, which began on Rosh Hashana. The court had ordered the lands cleared in May, after it partially accepted a petition submitted by eight Palestinians who claimed to be the heirs of the landowners. 

Gantz’s adviser on settlement affairs, Avi Roeh, then conducted negotiations with Meshek Achiya and obtained the farm’s consent to leave the land voluntarily in exchange for land within Israel’s sovereign borders, with the olive trees to be transferred to the new site at the farm’s expense. The request to the High Court said it was being filed due to the ban observed by religious Jews on working the land and planting seedlings during the shmita year. The defense minister asked for the court to delay the move until February 2023, four months after the shmita year ends. 

In response, the lawyer for the Palestinian petitioners, Quamar Mishirqi, argued that shmita laws do not apply to the West Bank, attaching an affidavit from the rabbi of the Shilo settlement, Elhanan Bin-Nun, from 2013, in which he wrote that the settlement’s farmers had planted and seeded during the shmita year based on a special halakhic dispensation since the settlement was established. 

In their decision Wednesday, the justices order the state to respond to several points by October 7: Why it was asking to delay the evacuation until February 2023, when the shmita year ends in September 2022; whether Meshek Achiya’s owners had committed to moving the seedlings and trees from the land when the shmita year was over; whether they would continue to cultivate the land during the shmita year in the framework of temporarily selling the land to a non-Jew, which some rabbis say permits its continued cultivation; and whether they were going to vacate the structures built on the land.

Mishriqi said, “The state and Meshek Achiya are toying with the court system when they know full well that the settlers in the Shilo region, according to a document submitted by the petitioners from the rabbi of Shilo, are working during the shmita year. This is nothing but idle claims with the aim of continuing to get rich from stolen lands.”

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