Israel Summons Palestinian Farmer Over Scarecrows, Rain Shelter on His Land

When Al-Walaja residents’ farmlands became part of new Jerusalem municipal park, government promised that they could continue with their traditional farming methods

A scarecrow put up by Yasser Khalifa in al-Walaja's farmlands, January 23, 2018.
Aviv Tatarsky

Israeli inspectors have summoned a Palestinian farmer for questioning after he put up two scarecrows and built a rain shelter on his village’s agricultural lands south of Jerusalem.

Most of the agricultural land belonging to the village of al-Walaja has been classified as a national park for decades, and it recently became part of Jerusalem’s new metropolitan park. But planning documents cite the area’s agricultural terraces and other traditional farming methods as major reasons for the park’s establishment, and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority promised that farmers would be able to continue working their lands. After the separation barrier was erected near al-Walaja, separating the villagers from their farmland, the Defense Ministry also vowed to keep the agricultural gates in the barrier open.

Instead, government agencies appear to be trying to make life miserable for the farmers of al-Walaja.

On Monday, two inspectors – one from the parks authority and one from the Jerusalem municipality – arrived to the village, looking for Yasser Khalifa, one of the residents. They told him that a hut he had built to enable him to stay in the fields when rains was considered an illegal construction, and demanded that he also remove two scarecrows from his land.

A scarecrow put up by Yasser Khalifa in al-Walaja's farmlands, January 23, 2018.
Aviv Tatarsky

The municipal inspector gave him a written warning which stated that he must “restore the situation to what it was” and remove the scarecrows, fencing and some terraces. The parks authority inspector handed him a summons to the Jerusalem police station for questioning over “harming a national park.” But as a West Bank resident, Khalifa can’t enter Jerusalem; instead, he’ll be questioned in the West Bank in another two weeks. Other farmers in the area were also given summonses for questioning.

Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the left-wing nonprofit organization Ir Amim who was present when the inspectors arrived, said the parks inspector told Khalifa, “You’re in a national park. Terrace agricultural is okay; four stone walls aren’t. The scarecrows are ugly, and they have no connection to traditional agriculture.”

Both Tatarsky and Khalifa claim the scarecrows and the stone shelter were erected outside the boundaries of the national park – and in fact beyond the boundaries of Area C entirely. (Area C is the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control as per the Oslo Accords.) But the parks authority says they are all inside the national park.

Tatarsky pointed out that the parks authority didn’t forbid the construction of two roads and the separation barrier in the area, which caused enormous damage to the scenery and the terraces in the national park. “Now, instead of supporting the farmers who created and are preserving this special natural site, parks authority inspectors are harassing them,” he said.

The area’s largest natural spring, Ein Hanya, was recently fenced off, which means the farmers’ sheep and goats can no longer drink water there. Instead, the spring will become one of the park’s attractions.

The parks authority said it is in regular contact with al-Walaja farmers, and on Monday, during a routine tour of the area, the inspectors discovered a stone building with aluminum window frames alongside it. “The authority supports continuing agricultural work in the park as agreed,” it said. “But in this case, we’re talking about illegal construction within the territory of a national park created in 1965.” Consequently, the inspector ordered the buildings removed.

The Jerusalem municipality said it sent its inspector in response to a complaint by the parks authority about illegal construction. The inspector issued the farmer a warning and told him to dismantle the buildings and restore the status quo.

“The municipality and the parks authority are working to preserve traditional agriculture and terraces at this site, and won’t allow them to be harmed,” it added.