Ma’ayan Hagvura (“Spring of Courage”), as it’s called by the settlers of nearby Eli, is situated in the midst of private and cultivated Palestinian land in the central part of the West Bank. Yet during the intermediate days of Passover, as on other holidays, the spring was full to the brim with Israelis. Families arrived to bathe in the water and hike, young couples sat talking in intimate corners of the park, and two weary soldiers protected the bathers. The spring is a natural gem, one of many similar ones across the West Bank. The Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, which has jurisdiction over many settlements in this area, including Eli, proudly protects and advertises the site, such as on a large decorative iron sign bearing the council’s name, placed at the entrance to the spring.
However, the spring is not in an area that is under the council’s jurisdiction, and it has no authority there. In practice, all six regional councils across the West Bank operate without authority, investing in the development of thousands of acres that belong to Palestinians, or in areas designated as military fire zones. The investments are not limited just to upgrading springs or other tourist attractions lying on Palestinian land or in closed military areas. They include providing infrastructure to illegal outposts lying within their jurisdiction, despite their being unauthorized to do so.
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That these regional councils operate outside their jurisdictions is not just a rhetorical or technical matter – this is their main instrument for providing municipal services, ranging from education to roads, to illegal outposts and to tourist attractions that are closed to Palestinians. Analysis done by the anti-occupation Kerem Navot organization shows that since the Oslo accords were signed, these councils have been operating in roughly 550,000 acres lying in the West Bank’s Area C, comprising almost 40 percent of the entire area of the West Bank. However, more than 225,000 acres of these are closed areas, while another 70,000 acres are privately-owned Palestinian lands.
These operations are possible because the Civil Administration looks the other way. This body is supposed to enforce an ordinance regulating the regional councils’ operations. According to this ordinance, an area is defined as part of a regional council, with boundaries defined and signed by the local military commander. The area also includes land that was “seized for military purposes.”
In other words, the ordinance does not include closed military areas such as fire zones, but does apply to areas seized for other purposes, such as the erection of fences around settlements. On its face, this is a simple and logical mechanism. The regional council has no authority or responsibility over private Palestinian land or in closed areas, just like the Jerusalem municipality has no authority or responsibility in Tel Aviv.
An investigation by Kerem Navot shows that in fact, the councils, in contravention of the ordinance, have taken over 50,000 acres in the southern Hebron hills, and 200,000 acres in the Jordan Valley area. Kerem Navot calculated that if the ordinance was abided by, the councils would have control over only half of the territory they now control.
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The upgrading of local springs is perceived largely as a battle over territory. The Palestinians almost never come to springs the settlers frequent, ones that have armed guards. One of the UN agencies operating in the West Bank (the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) reported in 2012 on the humanitarian impact of the settlers’ takeover of Palestinian springs. According to the OCHA, settlers have taken over dozens of springs, with many of these effectively closed to Palestinians.
According to the report, in order to comply with obligations stipulated by international law, Israeli authorities must restore Palestinians’ access to these springs and ensure their safety. The authorities must investigate cases of violence and trespassing by settlers and indict those responsible, taking measures to prevent patrols by settlers in these areas. In practice, the settler councils have only expanded their control over the springs over the years.
In Mateh Binyamin, for example, the council turned Ein Oz, a spring lying near Shilo and Givat Harel, into a tourist attraction operating under its auspices, despite having no authority for doing so. In the Etzion Bloc, near the settlement of Bat Ayin, another spring called Ein al-Sajma (also called Ein Yitzhak) operates within private Palestinian land. In Samaria there are three springs located on private Palestinian land or in closed military areas, both of which are not under the jurisdiction of the regional councils there. These councils hide nothing; on the contrary, almost all of them operate websites for tourists, carrying similar photos of pools, benches and sitting corners. Visiting these springs shows that they are full of people, mainly settlers, with very few visitors who are not from the national-religious camp.
The ignoring of the ordinance by illegal outposts is encouraged by the Civil Administration. The Civil Administration knows that the lack of law enforcement leads to the regional councils operating in many areas that are not under their jurisdiction, but it claims it has no authority to enforce the ordinance. “Their jurisdiction does not include closed areas or private land” says the Administration, “even if the area is included in maps defining the regional council’s jurisdiction. The boundaries are examined from time to time and are updated according to circumstances. The regional councils are only authorized to operate within their defined jurisdictions.”
Regional councils within Israel are responsible for providing municipal services to all the communities within their area. In the West Bank it’s different: the area is controlled by the Civil Administration and the regional councils are responsible only for Jewish settlements. There are six councils in the West Bank, spanning the entire area from north to south, eastwards to the Jordan River.
A blurring of differences
Taking over springs and other tourist attractions across the West Bank is not an unusual pattern. This is the same pattern as used in the provision of services to illegal outposts situated on private Palestinian land or in closed areas. Thus, for example, the Mateh Binyamin Council took charge of Amona, where 40 families lived before their evacuation, even though the outpost was erected on private land lying outside the council’s jurisdiction. The council provided roads, water, education, playgrounds, etc. There was even a council signpost at the entrance to Amona. The same is true for countless other outposts receiving help from regional councils in the area.
Palestinian sources say that this assistance to outposts and springs has blurred the differences, which are vague in any case, between Israel’s government and the outposts, between settlers and government representatives. “Beyond the physical aggression and the damage inflicted, many farmers cannot reach their lands since the settlers, backed by the army, prevent them from doing so,” says Mazen Shehadeh, the head of the Urief local council, in conversation with Haaretz.
“The occupation administration, which for over five decades has engendered and maintained the vicious settlement enterprise, knows how to be precise to the last meter when it suits them” says Dror Etkes from Kerem Navot. “But the map defining the boundaries of the six councils is the exact opposite. In this case it suits them to be opaque. The vagueness and inaccuracy allow the settlers to take over thousands of acres.”
Yigal Dilmoni, the head of the Yesha Council, the settlements’ umbrella organization, responded to these claims. “We call on the government to impose Israeli sovereignty over the area, including giving regional councils judiciary authority, like in any council in Israel.”
Officially, five of the six councils refused to answer questions by Haaretz on these matters. The Megilot council responded in writing, saying that it operates within its jurisdiction, as defined by the regional military commander. “Megilot is one of the only councils in the country that has a regional development plan, operating along its guidelines since the 1980s, responsibly and with a long-term view. The growth in tourism and demography in the northern Dead Sea area in recent years has been in accordance with the law, taking place within our jurisdiction.”
Off the record, settlers offer a more complex narrative. They say that councils do operate outside their jurisdictions, but that everyone benefits from this. “If we don’t clear the garbage from the roadside nobody will,” says one of them. Officially, the councils have no authority along the West Bank’s highways. The settlers’ claim is true in other areas as well, such as the upgrading of springs being beneficial, rather than leaving them in poor condition.