The World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division has allocated grazing areas inside Israeli army firing zones for use by West Bank settlers.
In one instance, the division set aside pasture land in Firing Zone 918 in the South Hebron Hills for a resident of the settlement of Sussia. The move did not have the required approval of the head of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs.
Furthermore, sources said, the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank, which is Israel's governing body operating in the West Bank and responsible for providing land for the Settlement Division, was unaware of the agreement.
Firing Zone 918, which is also known as the Masafer Yatta firing zone, was first designated as such in 1980. The zone encompasses Palestinian villages who are petitioning the courts to halt their evacuation.
In its response to this article, the Settlement Division said it “always acts solely within its area of responsibility and based on permission given to it by authorized officials.” The division said the land was allocated to it by the Civil Administration in 1984 and designated a firing zone in 1999, when 700 Palestinian residents were evicted from the zone.
A court petition was subsequently filed challenging the Palestinian residents' eviction and the Israeli High Court of Justice issued an interim order permitting their return.
Another petition was filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in 2013 challenging plans to evict Palestinian residents. That case is expected to be decided in the coming months.
In 2018, in response to the second petition, the Israeli government suggested allowing Palestinian shepherds in the area to graze their livestock in the firing zone on weekends and holidays only.
The Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories said in response: “The Civil Administration does not allocate land in firing zones and generally, in cases in which there is overlap of this kind, the allocation preceded the declaration of a firing zone."
"A large amount of land was allocated to the World Zionist Organization in the 1980s and in many cases, the World Zionist Organization allocated this land to third parties without the Civil Administration being informed,” the response said.
Last year, the World Zionist Organization's Settlement Division agreed to a contract providing grazing land to settler Ya’akov Schechter inside the firing zone. The contract signed with Schechter, who is a resident of the unauthorized outpost at Sussia, does not limit his use of the land to weekends and holidays, as the Palestinian villagers were offered.
Schechter confirmed that he has a contract with the Settlement Division and said that it is the division’s responsibility to coordinate the matter with the Israel Defense Forces and the Civil Administration in cooperation with the Agriculture Ministry.
“I get a contract, sign it, I don’t know and it doesn’t interest me what they have agreed between themselves,” he said. The contract was signed this year, he said, adding that it was not the first such agreement that he had signed.
Meanwhile, two Palestinians were injured by gunfire by settlers a month ago and five others were hit by stones in clashes over an unauthorized building erected by a settler in the area, near a Palestinian farm. That same day, settlers presented soldiers with Schechter’s grazing contract from the Settlement Division as proof of their authority to be there.
Confusion and a lack of transparency in grazing contracts
Grazing land has become a prominent issue in the West Bank in recent years due to the presence of settlement farming outposts. This small number of residents expand their presence over relatively large swaths of land with the support of settlement organizations.
According to a report issued in November by the Israeli civil rights organization B’Tselem, four such farms have taken over about 21,000 dunams (5,000 acres) of land.
This year, in response to an inquiry by the Peace Now organization, the Agriculture Ministry said that six outposts had been allocated 8,719 dunums of pasture land, although it didn’t specify where.
In 2019, Dror Etkes of Kerem Navot, an Israeli organization seeking to counter dispossession of Palestinians from their land, filed a Freedom of Information Act petition for information on the allocation of pasture land in the West Bank.
The case ended after the Civil Administration said that such contracts are not in its possession. The court ruled that Etkes should refile his request as an administrative petition challenging the fact that the Civil Administration, as a regulatory entity, did not have possession of such contracts.
In 2016, following the filing of a petition on land allocation for residential use, Yossi Segal, the government supervisor of abandoned West Bank property at the time, wrote to the chairman of the Settlement Division, Gael Greenwald, asking to begin reporting to him in advance of any new allocation of land to a third party.
In 2019, the Civil Administration informed the Movement for Freedom of Information that it had not received any reports regarding allocations of land.
In response to an inquiry from Haaretz, the Settlement Division noted that the 2016 petition related to residential land and not pasture land, and that no court order was issued requiring the supervisor of abandoned property to approve land allocations.
Responding to a question from Haaretz about the absence of the contract's approval with Schechter from the head of the IDF’s Central Command, the Settlement Division said that it is not responsible for forwarding such requests to the army or the Civil Administration and that it is the Agriculture Ministry's responsibility.
The division stated that all the contracts that have been approved have been reported to the Civil Administration, including the one in question.
The Agricultural Ministry said that it can only provide advice and is not responsible for reporting land allocations to the Civil Administration. In cases in which farmers apply for support grants from the ministry, the Agriculture Ministry contacts the Civil Administration and the army for information on the status of the land, the ministry said.
The ministry has not received approval for the contract with Schechter in Firing Zone 918, a source told Haaretz, although he did request a grant from the ministry. Apparently, Schechter had more than one such contract.
For its part, the Agriculture Ministry added the following: “When the request for support was received, the ministry asked for comment from the Civil Administration regarding the land in Schechter’s possession. Since a portion of the land is in a firing zone, the ministry asked for the approval of the army. In accordance with the approvals that were received, the ministry acted and provided the support for Mr. Schechter. Beyond that, we are not able to comment on the case for reasons of protection of privacy.”
The Settlement Division said it “always acts solely within its area of responsibility and based on permission given to it by authorized officials,” adding: “Allocation of areas for grazing is carried out via the grazing committee, which has representatives from the Agriculture Ministry, the regional councils and the Settlement Division.”
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The grazing committee only considers and approves requests pertaining to areas where the division has been granted permission, the Settlement Division said, and following committee approval, a list of approved requests is provided to the Civil Administration by the Agriculture Ministry.
In cases involving firing zones, it is also provided to the army. Schechter’s contract, like all the other contracts, was approved by the panel, the Settlement Division said.
“We don’t need approval to allocate land that is within the framework of the agreement granting us permission from the custodian of abandoned property....the Agriculture Ministry decided, based on its rules, that with regard to every request related to allocation of land, it must receive the Civil Administration’s approval. As stated, we are authorized to allocate where we have a contract with the custodian granting us permission,” the Settlement Division said.