Who Needs a New Law? Israel Already Expropriates Palestinian Land for Settlements

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Majdi Shtiyeh and his herd, in Salem this week. The grazing lands are now inaccessible.
Majdi Shtiyeh and his herd, in Salem this week. The grazing lands are now inaccessible.Credit: Alex Levac

Dozens of sheep were crowded along the slope. They don’t have anywhere to go from here. Even their feed is not feed, consisting of leftover thistles and autumn thorns. One shepherd reports that they are already eating one another: the wool of some has been plucked, exposing bare patches of skin. His uncle already sold his herd and now only he is left to carry on, in one way or another, herding his sheep on the tiny piece of grazing land that still remains accessible to his village, Salem, east of Nablus.

The picture is similar in the neighboring village, Deir al-Hatab. Twenty years ago it had 10,000 sheep, but now barely 200 remain. Israel is choking off the villages of these shepherds and their pasture, and transferring the lands to the large settlement up on the mountain, Elon Moreh, which long ago spread onto the nearby ridges.

There is nothing new about this, but over the years the situation has gotten worse. A new report issued this week by the Israeli nongovernmental organization B’Tselem outlines the methods employed by Israel. As Israel is being rocked by the political free-for-all that has accompanied passage of the bill to legalize West Bank outposts, out in the field the question is reduced to this: Who even needs such a law when the systematic disinheritance of the Palestinians from their lands has been going on for years, without any need of a law?

The herd that was crowded onto the slope is owned by Majdi and Sharif Shtiyeh, cousins from Salem. Elon Moreh, the settlement that suffocated their village, is one of the oldest and more established settlements. It, too, was relocated early on from its original location, following the intervention of the High Court of Justice. But no worries: In Elon Moreh’s original location, another settlement eventually arose: Itamar. Then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin went on to say: “When it is my time to stand before the court up on high and I am asked what good deed I performed to make me worthy of entering paradise, I will reply: Elon Moreh.”

Paradise or hell, Begin’s good deed destroyed the quality of life of three Palestinian villages situated in the valley below the settlement: Salem, Deir al-Hatab and ’Azmut. The three villages have lost thousands of dunams and the majority of their living space.

Late morning on the edge of Salem, a village of approximately 7,000 residents. The local shepherds are standing on the dirt road that leads east, to their pasture lands. But the Israel Defense Forces has placed boulders and a concrete block in the middle of the dirt road. The sheep could easily pass between the boulders, but the shepherds are afraid: They know that the moment their herds dare to cross this crude roadblock – for which it is unclear what legal grounds exist, if at all – the jeeps of the IDF, the army that sees everything, will soon appear, or the security vehicles of the settlers, or all of them together, and the shepherds will be sent back to the narrow strip of habitat that Israel has designated for them.

Now, as well, when we suggest that the shepherds should get nearer to the boulder roadblock, they are extremely fearful, taking a few hesitant steps forward with the donkey leading the way, followed by the sheepdog and the sheep. But then they hasten to retreat. One of the shepherds mumbles verses from the Koran to himself, just to be on the safe side.

The roadblock is preventing them from reaching the bypass road that goes up to Elon Moreh. “Madison Route,” as the army calls it, is essentially open only to soldiers, and settlers and their guests. The shepherds aren’t interested in actually using the settlers’ road. All they want is to cross it on foot – since it is the only path they can take to access the land that lies beyond the road, land that belongs to them: about 12,000 dunams (3,000 acres), they estimate. This land has neither been expropriated nor confiscated. No law has transferred it to other hands, and ostensibly it has not even been stolen. The shepherds are simply being prevented from reaching it.

The B’Tselem report is entitled “Expel and Exploit: The Israeli Practice of Taking over Rural Palestinian Land.” It delineates the methods used to gain control over Palestinian-owned land – a system for disinheriting the owners that never waited for legislation and was never in need of it. In the framework of this process, Israel has exercised control over the Palestinian rural expanse, broken it into fragments, dispossessed the residents and transferred their lands to the settlers.

The story of Elon Moreh, as it appears in the report, is one of disinheritance of this style: When it was established in 1980, the state expropriated 1,278 dunams for it. Two years later, the lands to the west were declared a “nature reserve.” It took five more years until this “nature reserve” was declared “state lands,” and since 1998 an illegal outpost has been in place there.

Majdi Shtiyeh's herd, in Salem this week.Credit: Alex Levac

The next tragedy that befell residents of the three villages was the signing of the Oslo Accords. Most of their land reserves, intended for future development, were declared part of Area C, on which they were now forbidden to build. The next stage – as of now, the last one – was the paving of the bypass road to the settlement in 1996, which created a physical infrastructure for separation of the village and its lands, even if not in a formal sense. With the outbreak of the second intifada, the residents were completely forbidden to travel on the road, and even to cross it on foot. Their lands remained on the far side, as it were, of the mountains of darkness.

Twice a year, following coordination with the Israeli District Coordination Office and the regional brigade, the shepherds of Salem are permitted to enter their lands for the olive harvest and the plowing season, but not for pasturing their herds. They are forbidden to enter those lands. The issue revolves around the supposed danger involved in allowing them to cross the road at a distance of several kilometers from the entrance to the secured settlement – which has an IDF base in front of it, including a fortified watchtower. But no, it is forbidden to cross the road.

The unauthorized outpost of the settler Yitzhak Skali has been built on the lost lands. He is the scourge of the shepherds here. They say that he has 600 sheep, and that he herds his flocks on their pasture and in their olive groves, as well as in his own.

Ahmed Shtiyeh sold his flock of 80 sheep eight months ago, after finding that he could no longer lead them to pasture. Now he sits at home, waiting to receive a permit to work in Israel. He is 48 and a father of six. He says he does not have the financial means to feed the flock with feed provided to them in a pen. When he complains to the soldiers about the village shepherds not being able to reach their lands, and asks that they check into it with the DCO, they usually come back with the answer that the shepherds are permitted to cross the road.

Shtiyeh conducts negotiations on behalf of the village. There have been nice soldiers and commanders, he says. “I remember Shiran from the DCO, and Hassan the Georgian who is a good guy. And also Sha’anan was good,” he recalls. But then, he says, the soldiers are switched, and once again the shepherds are prevented from crossing the road. Shtiyeh tells the new soldiers that the DCO has approved it, and the soldiers say they don’t care about the DCO, and the story goes on and on.

“That’s it, the people have gotten accustomed to stopping here,” says Shtiyeh, standing next to the boulders and the concrete block. Since the establishment of Elon Moreh, his village has seen much tribulation. But since the bypass road was paved, these tribulations have grown worse. “Doesn’t your heart ache?” asks Shtiyeh. “Isn’t it a shame that the herd is here and not on the other side of the road? The sheep have nothing to eat but sand.”

In the meantime, a Sano company truck speeds past on the road, on its way to Elon Moreh, plus an army jeep and a police car. Most of the time, though, this road is desolate. It is the tragedy of the village residents here. Who needs the new law? Reality has already been regulated here.

Lack of access

Before the bypass road was paved, the road to Elon Moreh passed through the neighboring village, Deir al-Hatab. We drive there. The old road, which is now scarred and potholed, is also forbidden for use by residents of Deir al-Hatab. Ismail Anis drives with us on the forbidden road, but the closer we get to Elon Moreh, the more his anxiety levels increase – so much that eventually we are compelled to stop and turn around.

The end of the road has a yellow steel locked gate, to which only the soldiers have the key. Only they are permitted to drive here. A road crossing through a village whose residents are forbidden to use it. Only in Israel.

Hussein Odeh, a resident of Deir al-Hatab, says his village has lost the majority of its lands not due to expropriation, but due to lack of access. He himself has 25 dunams near Elon Moreh that have been impossible to reach since 1985. At issue are not tracts of land situated within the settlement, but in its surroundings – an expansion zone that has no limit.

His friend Ismail owns 240 dunams that he too cannot access. “I don’t know what their problem is,” says Odeh. “They live up there and our lands are situated well before their village. Why don’t they let us go and till our land? Soon the rains will come. There was a time when we would go on excursions up there, and now it is not possible. There are caves up there and we would hike around. There was wheat, and there no longer is. And there were wells, and there no longer are. None of us are interested in touching Elon Moreh. Just let us go back to our lands. And let the sheep go back to pasture.

“You live up there. What do you care if our people are going to their lands?” says Odeh, whose question is left hanging in the air, as if he doesn’t know the real answer.

The IDF Spokesman issued this statement in response to an inquiry from Haaretz: “The issue revolves around a main road along which there are two regulated passages that enable residents to cross in a safe manner. In light of the reporter’s inquiry, the procedures related to the subject have been clarified to the soldiers.”