In West Bank, Jewish Settlers Recruit Nature to Their Mission – With the High Court’s Consent

For decades, nature reserves have been used to keep Palestinians off their land while allowing settlers to build. This week, the High Court rubber-stamped the practice

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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“Uri’s Farm” in Umm Zuqa, in 2017.
“Uri’s Farm” in Umm Zuqa, in 2017. Credit: גיל אליהו
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

“What you’re doing is provocation,” Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz scolded attorney Eitay Mack this past Sunday. Mazuz was referring to a petition that seeks to annul the Umm Zuqa nature reserve and Firing Zone 903 in the northern Jordan Valley, due to discrimination against Palestinians in favor of Jewish settlers. Several people present at the hearing said the justice did not just scold, but actually shouted at the lawyer.

This hearing brought together – and not for the first time – three Israeli traditions. The first is creating nature reserves, national parks and firing zones as a sure method of narrowing the Palestinian expanse. The second is the High Court’s persistent disregard for this methodical dispossession. The third and youngest tradition, which is attempting to shake up the existing order, is activism in defense of the right of Palestinians to access their land.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56Credit: Haaretz

The hearing took place several days before Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced seven new nature reserves in the West Bank and the expansion of 12 others (including Umm Zuqa). The defense minister’s press release stated with typical bravado: “For the first time since the Oslo Accords, good news for the settlements in Judea and Samaria [as if settlement in the West Bank had remained stagnant since 1994].

Today we are giving great reinforcement to the Land of Israel and continuing to develop Jewish settlement in Area C. With actions, not words. In Judea and Samaria there are nature sites with incredible landscapes. We will expand the existing ones and also develop new sites. I invite all Israelis to go explore the land, to come to Judea and Samaria, to hike, to discover and to continue the Zionist project.”

Even without knowing about Bennett’s upcoming announcement, by labeling the petition a “provocation,” Mazuz gave his seal of approval to the Zionist project and the discrimination enacted through the use of nature reserves. Mazuz is no pioneer, however. The High Court justices have been doing this for decades by declining to address Israel’s discrimination in planning policies in the West Bank.

The “provocative” petition was filed on behalf of 40 Israeli activists who, on a regular basis, accompany Palestinian shepherds and farmers as they are threatened by the army and settlers. They hoped against hope to draw the attention of Justices Mazuz, Anat Baron and Hanan Melcer to the unequal treatment of Jews and Palestinians when it comes to Israeli declarations, on various pretexts, of closed areas and the ensuing dispossession of Palestinians.

It is forbidden to build in nature reserves, and yet Israeli Jews built “Uri’s Farm” in Umm Zuqa. Despite demolition orders, the outpost is expanding. Dror Etkes, who researches the Israeli policy of grabbing Palestinian land in the West Bank, estimates that this outpost stretches over 2,000 dunams within the nature reserve and firing zone. Not only is the outpost expanding, its residents also harass Palestinian shepherds and prevent them from bringing their sheep to the pastures they had used for years before the outpost appeared. Since the outpost was erected, IDF soldiers have also been chasing the shepherds and their sheep out of the area. The petition details dozens of incidents in which Palestinian shepherds were harassed by settlers and soldiers.

Dror Etkes, a researcher of Israeli policy of grabbing Palestinian land in the West Bank, in 2014.Credit: אייל טואג

Meanwhile, Jewish residents of the outpost or other Israeli jews go about working a 92-dunam plot unhindered, raising crops smack in the middle of the firing zone, which in some parts overlaps with the nature reserve. Palestinians who work their (private or leased) land in the firing zone are penalized: The Civil Administration and the army destroy their crops and confiscate their tractors. Just last week, the army confiscated four tractors in Wadi al-Maleh in the northern Jordan Valley.

In response to the Umm Zuqa petition, the state confirmed that the outpost was built illegally within a nature reserve and partially within Firing Zone 903. The attorney on behalf of the state also hinted that the state is not committed to evacuating the outpost, despite the demolition orders that were issued against the structures there.

“Why didn’t you petition to dismantle the outpost?” Mazuz angrily asked Mack, who replied that it is not his job to ask the state to enforce its laws. “Maybe the settlers’ cows ate all the irises, so it’s no longer a nature reserve,” said Mack, continuing to rile up the justice.

Attorney Roy Shweika of the State Prosecutor’s Office said that the training drills carried out in the firing zone “are integral to preparing the army for an emergency,” arguing that Zone 903 had become more important in recent years. “If there are such intensive drills going on in the firing zone, how are settlers allowed to live and grow crops there unhindered?” Mack asked. His arguments made no difference. The justices rejected the petition and the petitioners were forced to pay 10,000 shekels in court costs.

The outpost known as “Uri’s Farm” was built three years ago. The State’s response to the petition mentioned that the outpost had already been moved once and that the residents dismantled some of the structures themselves after the petition was filed. There is no explanation for the fact that the outpost, which maintains a large flock of sheep and cows, still exists and is expanding. Israeli official sources told Haaretz in the past that the IDF brigade in the area protects the outpost from obeying the demolition orders.

This isn’t the only Israeli outpost located in a nature reserve, which, like other West Bank reserves, contains both public and private Palestinian land. At the start of the last decade, the Alonei Shiloh outpost was illegally built in the Wadi Qana reserve and later authorized as a part of the Karnei Shomron settlement. A few years later, the Civil Administration approved removing area from the same nature reserve to retroactively authorize another outpost, El Matan. The residents of the Palestinian village of Dir Astiya, whose agricultural lands became part of the reserve, are restricted from working their plots.

The Havat Skali outpost, an outgrowth of the Elon Moreh settlement, was erected in the Har Kabir reserve and the road that leads to the Nahalat Yosef outpost passes through the same reserve. Residents of the villages of Salem, Dir al-Khatab and Azmut have extremely limited access to their own lands in the same area. A small part of the Tekoa D outpost is within the planned Nahal Tekoa nature reserve.

An Israeli official source who wished to remain anonymous says there are 51 nature reserves under Israeli authority in Area C (62 percent of the West Bank), and their total area is 500 thousand dunams. The new nature reserves announced by Bennett cover about 130 thousand dunams, says the same source.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett in October, 2019.

But, as Dror Etkes found, at least three of the seven “new” reserves were previously declared as such: Nahal Og, Wadi Malha and the Southern Jordan Valley reserve. Rotem-Maskiyot has already been proposed but is being presented as new, said Etkes. He added that Bennett is playing with the names of the reserves and thinks that, “despite Google, he’ll be able to conceal from right-wing voters the fact that these are nature reserves that were already declared decades ago.” Etkes calls this “a provocative and meaningless PR election stunt, meant only for Bennett’s personal gain, rather than an initiative with any significant ramifications in the field.”

New or old, the goal of the nature reserves – to dispossess Palestinians – remains the same. Shweika, from the State Prosecutor’s Office, refuted the claim of discrimination. But his answer unwittingly revealed the mechanism involved: He said that entry to the nature reserve is permitted equally to all populations, but since a substantial part of the reserve overlaps with the firing zone, entry to those areas is only permitted after prior coordination with the army.

The justices, who were satisfied with this answer, apparently believe that a Palestinian who lives in a tent threatened with demolition and an Israeli veteran of an elite army unit can coordinate their entry into the area with the military on equal terms, and both requests will be handled equally without bias.

Grazing herds in the nature reserve also requires permission from the authorities, Shweika wrote. In other words – what the petitioners call harassment and discrimination is just strict enforcement of the rules of conduct in the nature reserves. Shweika says that when military drills are not taking place, the closure orders are not strictly enforced, but that this is not the case when there is a risk of friction between the two populations. “Friction,” in military jargon, is settlers harassing Palestinians.

Based on evidence recorded by the petitioners, and on the experience of the past decades, closure orders are imposed on the Palestinians and their Israeli activist escorts. The ones who initiate the friction are the settlers, but the orders do not apply to them and they are allowed to continue expanding their outposts.

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