'Private Settler Farm': Israeli Activists Petition High Court to Revoke West Bank Nature Reserve's Status

The petition argues that the area's designations as a reserve and a firing zone are mere pretexts that allow the state to legally remove Palestinians

A settler is seen with a herd of cows in the Umm Zuka nature reserve, West Bank.
צפריר רינת

Human rights activists are trying, for the first time, to get a nature reserve’s status revoked on the grounds that its designation as a reserve has simply become a means to enable settlers to take over West Bank lands with the army’s assistance.

In nature reserves within Israel, even someone who goes off the marked trail or picks a protected flower can expect a fine, while building a house in a reserve would draw a much stiffer penalty. But in the West Bank, if the builder is a settler, there’s a good chance his house will be allowed to remain.

That’s precisely what has happened in Umm Zuka, in the northeastern West Bank. Half this area has already been declared a nature reserve, while half is slated to become one. The half that’s already designated also largely overlaps an army firing zone.

But two years ago, an illegal settlement outpost was established in the section slated to be added to the existing reserve. The settlers say it’s a farm. It currently contains several buildings connected to water and a paved access road, despite having no building permit and no possibility of getting one, since building permits can’t be issued in land zoned as a nature reserve.

Moreover, the outpost residents ride tractors throughout the designated reserve. They have also started work on a well, put up cowsheds and apparently even sowed some of the land. And they sometimes graze their cattle on land used by Palestinian herders from the nearby town of Samra.

Left-wing activists claim that soldiers regularly come when settlers call and force the Palestinian herders to leave, but fail to evict the settlers’ cows from the Palestinians’ lands when the activists call. The army insists that it did send soldiers to remove the settlers’ cows when the activists called last week, but the activists deny this.

A spokesperson for Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank said the administration had begun unspecified “enforcement proceedings” against the illegal outpost, but stressed that the outpost was located “outside the declared nature reserve.” Whatever those unspecified measures are, however, they clearly haven’t made much impression on the settlers. As of last week, the outpost was still standing, and there were even still construction materials in the nature reserve for work on the well.

All this led a group of left-wing activists to petition the High Court of Justice two weeks ago demanding that Umm Zuka’s status as a nature reserve and a firing zone be canceled. The petition, filed by attorney Eitay Mack, argued that these designations are meaningless when “the reserve and the firing zone have effectively become a private settler farm that receives personal security service from Israel Defense Forces soldiers and bars entry to the farm’s enormous territory on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, religion and political opinions.”

The petition argues that the area’s designations as a reserve and a firing zone are mere pretexts that allow the state to legally remove Palestinians from it. The army also sometimes bars human rights activists, who come regularly to help the Palestinians resist the settlers, from entering the area, it added.

The state has not yet responded to the petition.