Israeli soldiers stop a Palestinian man after Israel settlers attacked two Palestinian villages near the West Bank city of Nablus, 15 September 2008. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)
For years, Israeli authorities have both barred Palestinian access to rings of land surrounding settlements, and have not acted to eliminate settlers’ piratical closing of lands adjacent to settlements and blocking of Palestinian access to them. Blocking access is one of the many ways used to expand settlements. In recent years, Israel has institutionalized the closing of such lands in an attempt to retroactively sanction the unauthorized placement of barriers far from the houses at the edge of the settlements.
Settlers pave patrol roads and place physical obstructions on Palestinian lands adjacent to settlements, at times with the authorities’ approval, at others not. Settlers also forcibly remove Palestinians, primarily farmers, from their lands. B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, has documented cases of gunfire, threats of gunfire and killing, beatings, stone throwing, use of attack dogs, attempts to run over Palestinians, destruction of farming equipment and crops, theft of crops, killing and theft of livestock and animals used in farming, unauthorized demands to see identification cards, and theft of documents.
The authorities entrusted with enforcing the law not only fail to take sufficient action to end the violence and prosecute lawbreakers, they join them and block Palestinian access themselves. Soldiers regularly expel Palestinians from their farmland, often under the direction of settlers. Israel has also established a physical system of barriers — barbed-wire fences, patrol roads, illumination and electronic sensory devices — far from the homes at the edge of the settlements, in effect annexing large swaths of land to the settlements.
Especially blatant in this context is the “Special Security Area” (SSA) plan, in which framework Israel surrounded 12 settlements east of the Separation Barrier with rings of land that are closed as a rule to Palestinian entry. As a result of the plan, the overall area of these settlements is 2.4 times larger, having increased from 3,325 dunams (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) to 7,793 dunams. More than half of this ring land is under private Palestinian ownership. The amount of land attached to settlements other than through the SSA plan is much larger, given there are no official limitations and less supervision of the piratical closing of land by settlers. B’Tselem estimates that such piratical closing has blocked Palestinian entry to tens of thousands of dunams, thus annexing them de facto to the settlements. Experience shows that this land grab will be perpetuated and become part of official policy to the extent that the plan is implemented at additional settlements.
Palestinian farmers seeking access to their lands must cope with a complex bureaucracy and meet a number of conditions. First and foremost, they must prove ownership of the land. They also have to “pressure” the Civil Administration time and again to set times for them to enter. Also, the defense establishment subjects Palestinian access to the good will and caprice of the settlers. On this background, many farmers give up and stop trying to gain access and to work their land.
Official spokespersons justify some of the closing of land, primarily the land closed as a result of the SSA plan, on security needs. They contend that, after Israel’s wall was built in the West Bank, settlements east of it were left exposed to violent attacks by Palestinians, and that rings of land could provide a warning area. Indeed, in 2002-2004, Palestinians killed 31 Israeli citizens and injured many others inside settlements in the West Bank. But Israel allows settlers to enter freely, without supervision, the land, which ostensibly was meant to serve as a warning area free of people, but is, in effect, closed only to Palestinians. As a result, settlers move about on the Palestinian land regularly, steal their crops, and even live on and work the land. This practice breaches both the logic of a “warning zone” and the military orders closing the area.
The land adjacent to the settlement is part of a long list of areas that Israel closes to Palestinians in the West Bank: the Jordan Valley, East Jerusalem, military-training areas, the settlement areas themselves, and others. Every piece of land that Israel closes to Palestinians joins those areas previously taken, and together they limit the possibilities of millions of persons, principal harm being suffered by farmers and those who rely of farming for a living. In this context, it should be recalled that the poverty level of Palestinians in the West Bank is extremely high, and that agriculture is the main sector of the Palestinian economy. Blocking access also impedes urban development and limits recreation in the form of nature hikes and enjoyment of land resources.
Blocking Palestinian access to land adjacent to settlements is the direct result, and an integral part, of the illegal settlement enterprise. This enterprise continuously violates the absolute prohibition specified in international humanitarian law on settlements in occupied territory. Consequently, Israel is obligated to evacuate the settlers and return them to sovereign Israeli soil. If the settlers are not evacuated, there are ways, which are presented in the report, to protect them in ways that will harm Palestinians to a lesser extent. But the government of Israel is obligated to evacuate them in any case, and evacuation is the only legal way to meet the security need that stands, according to official spokespersons, at the basis of the regulated closing of the land.