Israel has informed the High Court of Justice that it will revoke certain regulations issued last year that restricted Palestinian farmers' ability to access their lands located between the separation barrier and Israeli territory, and in particular, the annual quota limiting the number of entries.
In response to a petition filed in February by Palestinian farmers and Israeli human rights organization HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual against the restrictions, the state indicated that the regulations were part of a pilot program that has since been cancelled following its expiration.
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The area between the separation fence and Israel, dubbed the "seam zone," comprises about 140,000 dunams (about 34,500 acres), most of which is Palestinian agricultural land that is not accessible to its Palestinian owners on a regular basis. When Israel built the separation barrier in 2002, it had promised that it would allow free access to the farmers through gates it had installed, but these gates are only open during certain hours on certain days, and Palestinians must have an entry permit procured in advance to pass through them.
In November 2019, Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank issued new regulations which made it more difficult for farmers to access their lands along the barrier. Until then, the farmers had been able to acquire entry permits for the broad purpose of “maintaining their connection to the land.” But following the issuance of the regulations in 2019, the purpose was narrowed and the number of times each farmer could access their lands was capped according to the crops grown there.
For instance, under the 2019 regulations, olive farmers were permitted to access their land up to 40 times a year, those raising figs, up to 50 times a year, while tomato and strawberry growers were permitted up to 220 entries a year to cultivate their fields. The regulations also stipulated that the size of the land would be taken into account when determining the amount of days allotted to a farmer.
In its response to the petition filed by the Palestinian farmers and Hamoked, the state informed the High Court that the policy had been part of a pilot program that has ended, and that it would no longer limit the annual number of entrances allocated to Palestinian farmers who wish to cultivate their land in the seam zone.
The state also indicated that the validity of the permits, which had been extended from two years to three under the 2019 regulations, would be shortened back to two years. According to data provided by the Civil Administration in its response, in 2019, Israel granted only 37 percent of the 7,400 requests submitted by Palestinian farmers for agricultural permits. In 2020, the percentage of approvals further declined, and only 24 percent of 6,702 requests submitted that year were approved. By comparison, in 2014, 76% of the requests were approved. In addition to agricultural permits, there are other types of permits, for example, for family members to accompany farmers, for personal needs, or to work in the seam zone.
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Jessica Montell, the executive director of HaMoked, said the abolition of the quota “is a significant achievement that will allow unrestricted access to thousands of people who already have permits from the military." However, she said, "the real solution is to dismantle the separation barrier or moving it to the Green Line. As long as the fence is built within the West Bank, it violates the rights of hundreds of thousands of people seeking to move freely in their homeland.”