The High Court of Justice ordered the state on Wednesday to explain its refusal to evict settlers from a tract of West Bank land that they are working, even though it is privately owned by Palestinians.
It also required the state to explain its refusal to consider the Palestinians’ request to work the land themselves.
The land, more than 1,000 dunams (about 247 acres) in the northern Jordan Valley, has been designated as a closed military zone since 1969. Consequently, its Palestinian owners have been barred from entering it for more than 50 years. During this time, settlers were allowed to begin working it, including a date-growing company called Zorganika.
The court issued its order in response to a petition filed by 20 of the owners in 2018 asking that the land’s designation as a closed military zone be rescinded and the settlers evicted. The state now has 60 days to respond, after which another hearing will be held and the court will issue its verdict.
The current petition was filed after a previous petition on the same issue was rejected. After it was filed, as Haaretz revealed in July, the Defense Ministry asked the Jewish National Fund to buy the land from some of the owners to resolve the dispute.
At a hearing in April, the justices criticized the state for failing to submit the agreement that allowed settlers to farm the land and demanded its immediate submission.
In a subsequent brief, the state’s lawyers said that the World Zionist Organization, which allocated the land to the settlers, doesn’t seem to have any written documentation of the terms of the lease between the WZO and Israel or “the exact circumstances in which civilians began working the territory.” Rather, the WZO’s documents merely show that the land was originally slated to be worked by the army, but “at a certain point, armed civilians were allowed to work the area.”
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The brief also said that based on the WZO’s documents about an allocation of land to one specific settler, it’s hard to determine whether this tract is part of the land covered by the petition.
The brief acknowledged the problem posed by the fact that this land is privately owned by Palestinians but is being worked by Israelis, “ostensibly under the auspices of a closure order issued for security reasons.” Nevertheless, it added, even if the settlers stopped working the land, the Palestinians still wouldn’t be allowed to enter it, because the “security reasons” for declaring it a closed military zone are still valid.
It also said that settlers have worked the land for many years with the knowledge of the army, which permitted them to enter, “and it appears that governmental agencies approved of their holding it and were involved in it.”
Finally, it rejected the idea that the state should give the settlers alternative lands, because “no other lands of equivalent fertility are available.” The current tract’s fertility, it said, stems from its proximity to the Jordan River.
The petitioners’ lawyer, Wissam George Asmar, responded that the claimed security justifications for keeping the Palestinians out are “baseless.” First, he said, the land is next to the river, which is the border with Jordan, and Israel has a peace treaty with Jordan. Second, the settlers are in any case using Palestinian workers on the land.
Moreover, Asmar said, judging by the absence of a lease agreement and by the state’s brief, it seems that the settlers and the WZO “worked behind the state’s back” to carry out a “patently illegal transaction.”