The strike has ended. No, not the famous one by Palestinian prisoners in Israel, but another strike that affects tens of thousands of Palestinian families whose lands are trapped between the West Bank separation barrier and the Green Line – the area known in military jargon as the seam area.
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In late February, the Palestinian liaison committees in Qalqilyah, Tul Karm, Salfit and Jenin stopped submitting requests to Israel’s liaison office from Palestinian farmers seeking permits to enter their lands. (They continued submitting other permit requests.)
Quite a bit of land is involved – about 137,000 dunams (nearly 34,000 acres), 94,000 of them privately owned, according to Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank. But new regulations, and new interpretations of existing ones, have reduced the land Palestinians are allowed to work. And since late last year, reports have multiplied about the new difficulties farmers are facing in obtaining permits to work their land.
“We can’t cooperate with, and thereby give a seal of approval to, regulations that will make it easier for Israel to take over many thousands of additional dunams, on the pretext that the land was neglected,” the liaison committees said, explaining their unusual move.
After almost three months in which farmers were unable to renew their permits and increasingly feared for the fate of their neglected crops, the issue was discussed last Tuesday by Civil Administration head Brig. Gen. Ahvat Ben Hur and the Palestinian Authority’s deputy minister for civil affairs, Ayman Qandil. Various other people from both sides were present, and one of the Palestinians understood that in exchange for the immediate renewal of the committees’ work, the regulations would be frozen until June 15. During that time, Ben-Hur will reconsider them, and “we’ll hope for the best.”
The Civil Administration isn’t calling it a freeze, but “an examination of several issues relating to regulations governing the seam area.”
This strike, surprisingly, has made no waves beyond the farmers and their families, even though it affects the future of the entire Palestinian public’s land reserves. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, though, because since October 2003, Palestinians have had no freedom of movement in this area. That’s when Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, commander of Israel’s forces in the West Bank, issued a closure order for the entire seam area.
Israeli citizens and residents, people eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return (that’s what the order says) and tourists can enter this area freely. Only Palestinians need permits to enter their lands and houses, and they can’t enter for any purpose other than work or residence.
Since 2009, the Civil Administration has published its booklet of standing orders for entry permits to the seam area every few years (and not just to farmers) to enable implementation of this order. In February, the fifth version was issued. Its combination of new regulations and new interpretations of existing ones caused alarm bells to ring.
One eviscerates the Palestinian tradition of families working the land collectively. Instead, the Civil Administration effectively forces families to artificially divide the land among the heirs after the father dies, even if they would rather treat it as collective property, with some actually working the land, others paying for the tractor, seeds or tools, and still others marketing the produce. Dividing the land takes time, especially given the dual Israeli and Palestinian bureaucracy. It also costs money (fees, etc.) and could spark disputes.
This order was first introduced in 2014. From conversations with farmers at the end of 2016, it became clear that some of them have already followed it. The Palestinian liaison committees apparently didn’t immediately grasp how ominous it was.
New unwritten rule
But here is the trick: an interpretation that doesn’t appear in the booklet. In the second half of 2016, someone in the Israeli liaison office (part of the Civil Administration) seemingly decided that a plot of less than five dunams doesn’t need more than one person working it – therefore, entry permits will be given only to the registered landowner, even if he’s elderly, ill or has another job.
Since late 2016, both Haaretz and human rights organizations have received numerous reports about this practice.
As with any unwritten rule, it was initially possible to think that these were isolated incidents, perhaps stemming from a misunderstanding. But the testimonies kept coming. And in response to Haaretz’s query, a spokesperson for Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories didn’t deny that this is indeed the interpretation used.
Since 2014, the Civil Administration has also refused to recognize the owner’s spouse and children as having property rights to the land. Instead, they are granted entry permits to their land as “employees.” The number of employees depends on the size of the plot, the type of produce and the season. This restriction on permits for family members is the third problem.
According to Civil Administration data, 5,075 permits were given to farmers in the seam area in April 2016. This April, there were 5,218 (all registered landowners). The increase presumably stems from people who obeyed the order and split their land among their heirs.
In contrast, the number of permits for “agricultural employment” fell from 12,282 in April 2016 to 9,856 this April. That decline might be partially attributable to the strike. But it also supports what the farmers have told Haaretz and the Machsom Watch anti-occupation NGO: Fewer and fewer family members are getting permits as “employees.”
The rule that intensified the sound of the alarm appeared for the first time in the latest rule book. It said no permits would be granted for plots smaller than 330 square meters, because there is no “sustainable agricultural need” for such plots. So, while the Civil Administration is forcing families to divide their land, it also says there is no “sustainable agricultural need” for small plots. How long before many families discover they have a collection of small, “unsustainable” plots and therefore aren’t entitled to enter their land and work it?
For all these reasons, the Palestinian liaison committees declared the partial strike. Thus, anyone whose permit had lapsed (they’re good for one to two years) couldn’t renew it.
A week ago, on Saturday – before Ben Hur’s meeting with Qandil – COGAT’s spokesperson told Haaretz that Ben Hur had authorized Israeli liaison offices to receive permit requests directly from “farmers with plots of five dunams or more.” Lawyer Alaa Mahajna, who is representing several farmers from Qalqilyah on the PA’s behalf, said the five-dunam threshold in this decision confirmed that plot size, rather than property rights, had become the decisive factor in issuing permits.
Human rights organization Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual has been helping farmers who were denied permits to access their land since 2002. Usually, the Civil Administration (subordinate to COGAT) retracts its refusal following Hamoked’s intervention (including petitions to the High Court of Justice). But not everyone knows about Hamoked; it lacks the resources to handle tens of thousands of cases; and it is not Hamoked’s job to do others’ duties for them.
Lawyer Yadin Elam has handled all of Hamoked’s High Court petitions on the issue. Back in January, he wrote to Ben Hur about the problems in a draft of the latest standing orders booklet and its interpretations. He warned of a “slippery slope” of harsher rules for granting permits and harsher implementation, contrary to the state’s promise to the High Court that the harm caused to farmers would be minimal.
Seven years after the first rule book was issued, “it seems someone decided to reread the rule book and interpret every rule in the most harmful way he could imagine,” Elam wrote. He cited the five-dunam threshold, as well as the petty bureaucratic foot-dragging that getting a permit entails, resulting in lost days of cultivation.
Even for an Israeli lawyer, the rules are very hard to understand, Elam wrote. Moreover, the rule book is published only in Hebrew, so those whose living depends on it can’t actually read it.
His letter was also sent to the legal adviser for the West Bank, Col. Eyal Toledano, and the Civil Administration’s ombudsman, Lt. Bar Naorani. He was promised an answer, which hasn’t yet arrived.
Last month, as a preliminary to petitioning the High Court, Mahajna asked the state prosecution to cancel the new rules. He termed the 330-square-meter rule “draconian, with no legal basis,” adding that it “contradicts the basic concept of property law and rights,” because “property rights in a plot whose size doesn’t exceed 330 square meters aren’t considered rights and aren’t worth protecting.”
“De facto, this rule creates a new, fundamentally different property system that applies to two different national groups under the same regime, with all that implies,” he wrote.
The answer he received was similar to COGAT’s response to Haaretz last Saturday: “Due to clear security considerations, it’s necessary to restrict freedom of movement on the side of the security barrier facing Israel. The Civil Administration ascribes importance to realizing Palestinian farmers’ property right of accessing their land.”
COGAT also told Haaretz the new rule book “is meant to provide an optimal solution for residents who need entry permits to the seam area, while upholding security needs and preventing abuse of permits. There’s no barrier to one family member working several agricultural plots for his relatives, whether because the latter are abroad or in order to create agricultural need by combining plots. But to do so, the application must present a power of attorney from the landowner.”
Criteria for determining the number of employees based on plot size and type of produce were already included in the 2014 rule book, it continued, with the proviso that requests to bring in more relatives than the allotted quota would be considered by the head of the district liaison office. The 2017 rule book “defined the term ‘agricultural need’ based on the agricultural staff officer’s professional opinion, to ensure uniformity in considering these requests.
“The rule book states that as a rule, ‘agricultural’ permits won’t be given for small plots not exceeding 330 square meters. This rule can be broken if evidence is presented that despite the plot’s smallness, there is a real agricultural need. In cases where there is no agricultural need, landowners can request a permit for ‘personal use.’”
“Personal use” permits, however, are one-time and can’t be automatically renewed.
Hundreds of farmers are now waiting in line at Palestinian liaison offices with permit renewal requests to be forwarded to Israeli bureaucrats. Have the reasons for the strike really disappeared? Time will tell.