Jewish Presence in Nature

The Nature and Parks Authority has allowed itself to be led by the nose by the settlers, complying with nearly their every request.

After causing the state to build almost everywhere they wanted, pave for them bypass roads and enable them to build settlement outposts on every hilltop - and at the expense of every tree - it might have been hoped that the settlers would at least leave the nature reserves in the West Bank for the state to manage. But based on a case that recently found its way to the High Court of Justice, it seems that even in the nature reserves the settlers are becoming the real rulers of the roost.

The case involves Wadi Kelt and Yael Yisrael, the daughter of MK Uri Ariel, who loves both nature and her people and decided to protect both of them. Six years ago she took up residence in the reserve, in order to improve the security of Israeli day-trippers and to protect the flora and fauna. All of this was done with the financial and logistic support of the Mateh Binyamin regional council. Instead of evicting her, as is the general practice when an individual moves into a reserve within the Green Line, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority decided to hire her as a park warden.

One may assume that Yisrael would have gone on living in Wadi Kelt for many years, and perhaps even built homes for the Yisrael progeny. But public pressure and a belated coming to his senses by the current director-general of the Authority, Eli Amitai, led the organization to ask her to leave. Nevertheless, she continues to live on the site and to work as a warden.

A new development has recently cropped up. Earlier this year, Amir Navot - who would often come to the reserve and climb its cliffs - filed a petition with the High Court of Justice against the Authority and the Civil Administration, demanding that they take action to remove Yisrael from the reserve.

In his petition, Navot, who represented himself, also assailed the practice which began two years ago of charging a fee for admission to the reserve. He charged that the fee is unlawful, and that it does not take into account the severe economic situation of the Palestinian residents who wish to visit the reserve. After the petition was filed, the Mateh Binyamin regional council asked to be named a respondent, in order to defend Yael Yisrael's right to live on the site. This request was denied by the court last week.

Based on the written material submitted to the High Court, it is clear that the regional council has become a full partner in running the nature reserve. However, it did not make due with this partnership, which exists in various forms at reserves within the Green Line. Mateh Binyamin is dictating to the Nature and Parks Authority that it is permissible for citizens to live on the nature reserve. Yisrael's habitation on Wadi Kelt is "maintenance of a permanent Jewish presence," which the regional council asserts is intended to halt the damage to the nature reserve by the Palestinians.

The regional council pressed for the opening of a restaurant within the reserve, and for the paving of a special road. Out of concern for the well-being of residents, it arranged an exemption from entrance fees for residents of Anatot, a nearby settlement, and a 50 percent discount for all other residents of the regional council. In its request to join the petition, the regional council even noted with pride that it held festivals on the grounds of the reserve at its own expense.

As such, a nature reserve that had been open to the public at large, free of admission fees, was turned into a tourism and development project of the settlers, who saw to it that a representative of their interests would live on the site, and that their own people would benefit from discounts or exemptions from the official admission fee. It goes without saying that the primary victims of the policy are the Palestinians, who can barely afford the monetary expense - NIS 55 for the average family- of a single visit. Unfortunately for them, they are not residents of the Mateh Binyamin regional council, and cannot enjoy the benefits it bestows on its residents.

The Nature and Parks Authority has allowed itself to be led by the nose by the settlers, complying with nearly their every request. Only this month - in the wake of its previous demand that she vacate the site - did the Authority and the Civil Administration issue an injunction ordering Yisrael to evacuate the house in which she is living, in the heart of the reserve.

The High Court of Justice decided last week to hold another hearing on Navot's petition a few months from now, and until then asked the Authority and the Civil Administration to report on their handling of Yael Yisrael's eviction. The court did not accede to the request to cancel the admission fee, and did not order that the Palestinians from the area be exempt from payment, or that they be awarded the same discount as the settlers. Since the financial burden will continue to make it difficult for Palestinian to visit the reserve, it seems as if the settlers will indeed get the Jewish presence they wanted.