The State of Israel Versus the Hyssop Pickers

Park rangers in the territories have a new enforcement goal: they ambush elderly Palestinian women at checkpoints and confiscate their herbs.

Whoever said there is no law and order in Judea and that in Samaria everyone does as he sees fit? Ask the Palestinian woman who arrived at the checkpoint on her way to the market, carrying her modest wares on her head, a large bunch of hyssop, (za'atar) which she had gathered from a field in the heat of the day. The Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA) ranger's sharp eyes followed the woman. Arguments and explanations were to no avail. Even the old woman's tears did not distract the Israeli agent of the law from his mission. The merchandise was confiscated and the offender was sent home. Perhaps she thought, silly woman, that the checkpoints were intended only for security inspections, to stop terrorists carrying explosive belts on their way to the Carmel market, not women carrying herbs.

Volunteers from Machsom Watch, which monitors soldiers' actions at the checkpoints, have in recent months photographed several shocking encounters between elderly Palestinian women and Israeli rangers and officials from the Nature and National Parks Protection department of the Civil Administration, who confiscated bunches of hyssop and sage from them. The story reached attorney Michael Sfard. "I hope you realize that anyone who can allow himself to eat at a restaurant doesn't gather sprigs from the hilltops," Sfard wrote to the legal adviser of the Judea and Samaria region, and accused the INNPPA of actions intended to make the already difficult lives of those who pass through the checkpoints even harder.

His comments angered Ariel Yosefi, of the civil and economic department in the office of the legal adviser of the Judea and Samaria region. He wrote to Sfard that the hyssop and sage plants have been declared protected species "in the entire area of Judea and Samaria." In other words, Israel controls the flora and fauna in Area A as well, which according to the Oslo Accords, was released from Israeli military and civil occupation. Yosefi vigorously rejected Sfard's arguments and claimed that "enforcing the order regarding nature protection is carried out without discrimination or distinguishing between Jews, Muslims or Christians." He even saw fit to report that Israel "at one time worked to establish plots for the cultivation of herbs in the vicinity of Jenin."

Sfard writes that given the poor quality of enforcement of nature protection laws among Jews in the West Bank, who build permanent structures without permits and pave illegal roads unhindered, the efficient action against the Palestinian hyssop gatherers raises suspicions of selective law enforcement. In response to a question from Haaretz, the INNPPA spokesman said that unlike the regulations for protecting nature, the regulations for preserving open spaces do not apply in the West Bank. In other words, a Palestinian woman who picked a bunch of hyssop sprigs in a field is likely to be punished. A Jewish resident who uprooted an entire field to build an illegal outpost, will get free water for the grass.

The Itamar resident killed and disappeared

All of this is going on more than six months after the government decided to rely on the opinion of Talia Sasson, whereby it should be ensured that the procedures for allocation, planning, building and populating existing and new communities in the West Bank adhere to the law and cabinet decisions. The ministerial committee headed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, which was then appointed to enforce the decision, was given 90 days to complete its work.

Due to Livni's intense involvement in the disengagement plan, she received a two-month extension, but thus far has not resumed her activities in this area. Sasson said several days ago at a supplementary course for state prosecutors that nothing has been done in the matter of land allocations in the West Bank and addressing the issue of illegal construction. Even her recommendation to remove the defense minister's adviser on settlement issues, Ron Shachner, which received official approval from Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, remains on paper alone.

And when it comes to law enforcement in the West Bank, there is more. In the summer of 2004, Yehoshua Elitzur, a resident of Itamar in the northern West Bank, used a gun to stop a taxi driven by Sa'al Jabara, 46. When Jabara veered toward the shoulder, Elitzur shot at him and killed him. Jabara left behind a wife and six children, including two who were born blind. The court refused at the time to extend Elitzur's detention until the end of the proceedings and ordered that he be released to house arrest the next morning. He was released to his home even after Tel Aviv District Court decided three weeks ago to convict him of manslaughter (and not murder). Two weeks ago, Elitzur did not show up for the reading of the verdict and the hearing was postponed for four days. Since then, he has disappeared without a trace.

How we fooled the Egyptians

Two weeks ago a map was published here that showed that in exchange for the Netiv Ha'asara complex, which the Palestinians claim Israel annexed, in violation of the Rhodes Agreement of February 1949, Israel at the time gave Egypt alternate lands in the south of the Gaza Strip. Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli surveyed the area and even found that the Egyptians had received an extra 34 sq. kilometers, almost the size of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The alternate lands included the villages of Absan al-Zarir, Absan al-Kabir and al-Hirbet Hizah.

Colonel (res.) Amos Horev, who was a member of the Israeli delegation to the Israel-Egypt armistice committee, volunteered to explain the Israelis' generosity. It turns out that geological surveys found that the dunes north of the Gaza Strip contain subterranean reservoirs of fresh water (apparently, the Egyptians did not have this information). This water was vital for the development of the new communities that Israel set up in the northern Negev. The Israeli delegation to the armistice committee therefore waited for an opportunity to annex the area of the dunes. And the opportunity did indeed arise. Yeroham Cohen, who in those days was the attache to the southern front commander and the liaison officer to the talks with Egypt, related in an article published in July 1984 in the IDF journal, Ma'arakhot, that at the time of the demarcation of the border along the route outlined in the Rhodes Agreement, it became clear beyond a shadow of doubt that the village of Absan al-Zarir lies in sovereign Israeli territory.

For residents of the village this meant the abandonment of their homes, fields and orchards and their transformation into refugees with nothing. When they saw the jeep convoy of the armistice committee members, women and children gathered around it and created a big stir. Some mothers placed their babies in the jeeps as they wept and wailed. Egyptian soldiers rescued the delegation and the convoy left the village.

Cohen says the head of the Egyptian delegation, Colonel Mahmoud Riad, asked what Israel intended to do. The Egyptian officer did not know the Israelis were waiting impatiently for this question.Because the Egyptian government feared the opposition would exploit the agreement to bring it down, it was decided to settle for a local agreement in the framework of the Rhodes Agreement ("modus vivendi"). Despite hesitations of the chairman of the committee, a senior UN officer, who argued that the Rhodes Agreement did not include a section on territorial exchange, the representatives of the parties signed the agreement and the map attached to it.

According to a legal review conducted prior to the disengagement, the deal is legitimate even though Egypt never claimed sovereignty over the Gaza Strip and ostensibly did not have the right to waive territory that was not its own. According to international law, this is possible when the status of the country receiving the territory, in this case, the State of Israel, is "a country in formation."

National Security Adviser Giora Eiland, who managed the contacts with the Palestinians, among other things, following their claims that the fence of the Gaza Strip should be moved north, reiterates that this information and the maps were always at his disposal.