Today (11 September), Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem is publishing a report on Israel's blocking of Palestinian access to land around settlements lying east of the Separation Barrier. The report reveals that state authorities and settlers have de-facto annexed rings of land amounting to tens of thousands of dunams to these settlements.
Control of these lands is seized by a variety of means, but two modus operandi stand out: 1) settlers, and sometimes members of Israel's security forces, violently attack and harass Palestinians who venture near settlements; and 2) erecting fences and other physical and electronic devices around the lands, blocking Palestinian access to them. In many cases, the authorities turn a blind eye to unlicensed closure of lands, systemically avoiding their duty to enforce the law on criminal settlers.
The total amount of lands thus attached to settlements can only be roughly estimated, as most of the takeovers were not documented or officially sanctioned in orders. In recent years, however, Israel began to formalize the closing of lands by issuing military orders in the framework of the “Special Security Area” (SSA) plan. As part of this plan, Israel has fenced off 12 settlements east of the Separation Barrier, unofficially annexing 4,558 dunams (4 dunums = 1 acre) and thus increasing the overall area of these settlements by a factor of 2.4. Half of the closed off lands are privately owned by Palestinians.
The closing of lands around settlements primarily harms Palestinian farmers, who face almost impassable bureaucratic obstacles when attempting to access their lands. As a result, many are forced to stop cultivating their land.
Israeli officials seek to justify the closing by citing the security need for a warning space around the settlements, to help protect settlers. Indeed, in 2002-2004, Palestinians killed 31 Israeli civilians in settlements in the West Bank, and wounded many others. However, B'Tselem's research has demonstrated that the authorities permit settlers to access these purported “warning areas”. B'Tselem has documented settlers living on, and tending to, closed off Palestinian lands. This contradicts the security logic cited by the army and defies the closure orders issued by the military commander.
In the report's conclusion, B'Tselem provides a number of alternative measures that Israel can take to protect settlers while reducing infringement of Palestinians' rights. However, the organization emphasizes that, given the illegality of the entire settlement enterprise, Israel is obligated to evacuate all settlements and must not work to perpetuate them. Therefore, the only lawful way to protect the settlers is by evacuating them and returning them to Israel.