The cluster bomb dropped by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which delivered a brutal blow to the agricultural rights of Palestinians, is in the process of being neutralized. I would say that this is dramatic news, were it not for the other cluster bombs that Israel has dropped and is dropping that block Palestinian farmers’ access to their own land and are multiplying despite the egregious injustice involved.
And yet, let’s look at the bright side this time, when suddenly common sense and basic justice seem to be prevailing in the form of a conditional injunction issued by the High Court of Justice, in response to a petition by attorney Tehila Meir of HaMoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual. In the injunction, the justices are asking the government to explain why it should not revoke a particularly draconian and devious regulation that forces Palestinian farmers to split their family’s collective plot into smaller parcels, according to the number of family members, and then preventing them from reaching and tending the land because the size of their share is too small and therefore has no “agricultural need.”
Complicated? Let’s start from the beginning. The Palestinian land in question is hedged in between the separation barrier and the Green Line in the West Bank – what in military jargon is called “the seam zone.” This is one of the most fertile agricultural areas Palestinians have.
About 12 or so years ago, under the pressure of petitions against the invasive route of the planned security barrier, the government promised the High Court that the Palestinians’ right to ownership of the land and to agricultural cultivation of it by its owners would not be harmed.
Surprise, surprise. It very quickly turned out that the army, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the District Coordination Offices that are subordinate to it, are doing everything in their power to limit the number of Palestinians accessing their land: The number of gates unlocked in the separation barrier every day is small, they are often quite a distance from the plots, and bureaucratic red tape makes it very complicated to receive a permit to pass through to work one’s land.
And in fact, as proven by the figures provided by the government coordinator’s office to the High Court, following the demand of Hamoked, the number of permits for agricultural cultivation issued by the District Coordination Offices steadily declined from 20,773 in 2007 to 8,689 in 2019, and to 5,478 between January and October 2020.
In 2018 Palestinians began to report something strange: Their requests for a permit to access their land beyond the separation barrier was refused because “their plot is tiny.” I well remember the angry and despairing look of dozens of farmers in the area of Qalqilyah and Tulkarm, while describing the cruel new state of affairs: The Israeli authorities in these district offices began to divvy up plots of land – which are typically registered in the name of the grandfather or the father of the family – according to the number of his descendants or heirs.
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First, the Israeli officers prohibited the grandchildren of the registered owners from accessing the family land. Then, because each of the many legal heirs is theoretically the owner of a small plot, the staff in the district offices reduced the number of access permits allotted to each plot (for example, those granted to agricultural workers who are hired as reinforcements). In an increasing number of cases the officers refused to approve permits to the owners with the claim that the plot is tiny “and there is no agricultural need for it.”
The agricultural experts in the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories determined that a “tiny plot” is one that’s smaller than 330 square meters. They discounted the explanations that this is jointly owned property where the cultivation is done by the family, that several family members work on behalf of the rest, and that the government promised that the right of ownership would be preserved.
The consequences of this land parcellation are clear as day: Every year the number of legal heirs owning each family plot will increase, and therefore every plot will be divided, at the orders of the District Coordination Offices, into sub-plots, until they are all “smaller than 330 square meters.” And in that way, in the near future Israel will be able to declare that tens of thousands of acres of orchards and fields locked out by the security barrier are not suitable for agricultural cultivation, and that their Palestinian owners don’t need them and should therefore not be permitted to reach them. The huge expanse of land on the western side of the separation barrier will remain registered in the names of its Palestinian owners, but de facto will be annexed to Israel, and gradually Jewish Israelis will take control of it.
The Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee (which sends requests for permits to the Israeli-run district offices in the territories) protested this situation, but the protest had no teeth. The Palestinian National Commission against the Apartheid Wall appealed the “tiny plot” regulation but has since disappeared. The group that has consistently and devotedly managed the campaign to neutralize this cluster bomb is Hamoked, with its entire investigative team and its attorneys.
As a result of its updated petition, a newer draconian restriction invented by the coordinator of activities in the territories in late 2019 has already been neutralized. This was the quota set for the number of days each year that a Palestinian is permitted to reach his land, based on its size and the crop raised there. In October 2020 the government revoked this procedure claiming that it was only a “pilot.”
In the subsequent hearing on the petition, Justices Daphne Barak-Erez, George Kara and Yosef Elron demonstrated that they understand the absurdity and reject the “tiny plot” regulation. As mentioned, on December 10, they issued a conditional injunction, asking the government why the regulation drawn up by the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories regarding the “tiny plot” decree should not be revoked – “and/or replaced by another arrangement that provides a solution to owners of joint property rights.” The bench gave the government 60 days to reply to the petition. In other words, the State Prosecutor’s Office has less than 30 days left, and if I weren’t afraid of the evil eye, I would add: “In order to neutralize the bomb once and for all.”