The Eighth Species

Efrat is not an isolated incident, nor is it a coincidence that its expansion is occurring on so-called "state land." This kind of official reclassification of large tracts of land has become the major vehicle for allowing settlements to grow.

A few weeks ago, Efrat settlers woke up to discover that their town was in the headlines. The process of declaring "state land" 1300 dunams (330 acres) on what is called "Givat Eitam" (Eitam Hill), northeast of Efrat, had been successfully concluded by the Civil Administration, Israel's governing body in the West Bank. Efrat's municipal engineer, Moshe Ben-Elisha, was quoted in Efrat's local newspaper, the Efraton, as saying, "Now what's important is to keep the area clean of intrusions and cultivation by Arabs for a while."

The reclassification of the territory as state land means that the Civil Administration now possesses full authority to allocate it as it sees fit. Its intention is to add some 2,500 apartments and houses to Efrat's real estate. It's a worrisome development. Beyond our usual concern over settlement expansion, the Givat Eitam scheme incorporates two important truths: First, by allowing Efrat to build a new neighborhood some two kilometers away from the closest part of the existing town, Israel sheds some light on its cynical use of the state land imprimatur as a tool for supporting settlement expansion. Second, the fact that the planned neighborhood will in effect be an entirely new settlement is a development with serious consequences for the 140,000 Palestinian residents of the Bethlehem district.

Those of us in the field - activists and land experts - know Efrat is not an isolated incident, nor is it a coincidence that its expansion is occurring on so-called "state land." This kind of official reclassification of large tracts of land has become the major vehicle for allowing settlements to grow. It is a move almost never used for any other reason in the West Bank. To date, some 30 percent of the occupied West Bank - 1.6 million dunams - is classified as state land, upon which Palestinian development is almost totally forbidden.

As settlements have expanded, the Civil Administration has employed increasingly harsh methods to restrict the planning needs of Palestinian communities. For comparison's sake: In 1972, 97 percent of Palestinian building permit requests were approved; today, the Civil Administration approves only 5 percent of such requests.

By continuing to give free rein to its colonialist appetite for more land, Israel is grossly neglecting its obligations under international law. The 1907 Hague Convention, for example, demands that the occupying power safeguard public property in the territory it is administering, and ensure that it is not changed beyond recognition, unless there is a strict military need for such changes or it is for the benefit of the indigenous population. Clearly the addition of thousands of residential units for the exclusive use of Jewish residents will make any Palestinian use of this area of land impossible both in the short and long term.

Givat Eitam is actually much closer to Bethlehem than Efrat, as it exists today. Settlement construction there will accelerate the choking-off of Bethlehem, and encroach on the city's only remaining undeveloped area, on its southern side. To Bethlehem's north, Gilo and Har Homa make up Jerusalem's still-expanding southern boundary. To the east is the new Za'atra bypass road, which connects the 2,500 settlers who reside in the settlements of Tekoa and Nokdim with Jerusalem. To the west lies North-South Route 60 and a section of the separation fence.

Considering the demographic reality, the continuing appropriation of land in the Bethlehem area is especially cruel. Bethlehem and its satellite towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahur, with a combined population of some 75,000 people, cover an area of less than 26,000 dunams. Efrat, with its approximately 8,000 residents, is spread over nearly 6,500 dunams, making it one of the largest settlements in terms of municipal area (number 15 out of 121 settlements). This means that the population density of Bethlehem is three times that of Efrat. Yet it is Efrat whose area continues to expand.

Israeli planning policies have been disastrous for the Palestinians. While the majority of Palestinian villages rely on agriculture for income, most of them are no longer able to regularly cultivate their farmlands, due to land appropriation, lack of water resources and ongoing and changing restrictions of movement due to military policies or settler actions. The Bethlehem area - physically cut off on all sides, with limited access to agriculture - is just one example of a systematic policy on Israel's part that is being repeated across the West Bank. Efrat, which was established in 1980, today spreads out over seven hilltops, each bearing the name of one of the Bible's seven species. With the community's newly announced expansion plan - so blatant in its disregard for its neighbors, and yet so typical of Israeli behavior in the territories - it may be time to add an eighth species, "eitam," to the biblical list.

Dror Etkes is director of the Lands Project of Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights. Alon Cohen-Lifshitz is director of the Area C Planning Department of Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights.