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Military sanctions settlers’ illegal takeover of privately-owned Palestinian farmland

Throughout May and June 2013, several residents of ‘Awarta, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, received notice from the village council that a military order had been issued to requisition 6.34 hectares of land in the area, including plots that they own. The order, signed on 19 March 2013 by OC Central Command Nitzan Allon, states “security grounds” as justification for requisitioning the land.

Twenty-five families from the village of ‘Awarta and one family from the village of Rujeib own plots of land in the area demarcated by the order, all by inheritance. The families grow olives, almonds and other crops on the plots. The land is enclosed between a fence surrounding the nearby settlement of Itamar (built by the military in 1992), and a path that the settlers created, illegally, after the second intifada broke out in 2000. The path, which is partially fenced off, encircles the military fence at a distance of about 500 meters, effectively expanding the zone that is under the settlement’s control. After the path was created, the settlement’s security personnel began preventing the Palestinian farmers from accessing the land enclosed beyond it.

Salim Qawariq (born 1963), a resident of ‘Awarta, told B’Tselem of his thoughts upon learning that the military intended to requisition his land: Salim Qawariq

A few weeks ago, my nephew, who works in the village council, told me that there’s a requisition order for the land that’s behind the second fence of the settlement, where our plot is. That saddened me a lot. If my father were alive to hear that, he would have a heart attack, for sure. My father worked hard on that land. He worked it day and night, his whole life... That land has been passed down in the family for hundreds of years. We inherited it from our fathers and grandfathers...

Although the takeover of the land is illegal, the military took no action against it. According to testimonies given to B’Tselem, the settlers completely prohibited Palestinian access until 2007. That year, the Israeli and Palestinian DCOs reached an agreement whereby the farmers would be allowed to access their plots during the plowing and harvest seasons, contingent on coordination with the military. However, such sporadic access does not allow proper cultivation of land, as the plowing and harvest seasons are very short and do not leave enough time for weeding and pruning. Due to the ongoing neglect of the land, the quality and quantity of the crops have dropped, at a significant loss to the farmers, whose livelihood depends on agriculture.

The path created illegally by settlers and the lands seizure by the military requisition orders, marked in red. Aerial photo: Peace Now.
The path created illegally by settlers and the lands seizure by the military requisition orders, marked in red. Aerial photo: Peace Now.

 Muhammad 'Awwad (born 1935), a resident of ‘Awarta, described his situation: 

Muhammad 'Awwad. Photo: Salma a-Deb'i, B'TselemI inherited two plots of land, nine dunams in total, from my father (may God rest his soul). They’re in the northern part of the village, about two kilometers away from our houses, south of the Itamar settlement...  We have about 150 olive trees and 30 almond trees there... When the second intifada began, the settlers put up an iron fence about 300-500 meters away from the first fence. Their path encloses the settlement on all sides, and my land, too...

In 2007, we were told that we could enter the land if we coordinated it first... I was very glad to hear that finally, after all those years, I would be able to see my land. I went there with my sons, on the date they set for us... The land was in bad shape. It was full of thistles and weeds, and the trees hadn’t been pruned for years... Two days weren’t enough time to pick the olives. We used to plow the land about four times a year, so that weeds couldn’t grow and the trees would bear fruit. The more we worked the land, the better the crop was. The crop has been really damaged, and our olive production is down by about 50%.

Approximately two months ago – around the time that the intended requisition was announced – the village council informed the farmers that the trees on their plots had been vandalised. The Israeli DCO offered them the option of filing a complaint with the police. On 10 July 2013, at night, the Israeli DCO arranged a tour of the land the next morning, so that the landowners could survey the damage to their trees. Although many of ‘Awarta’s residents own plots on the land, only a handful could attend the hastily-arranged visit. As a result, the total number of trees that were damaged was not counted; however, the farmers who took part in the visit reported that all the trees on the land had been damaged. The total number of trees that used to be there is estimated at 1,000.

As the farmers are not allowed access to their land for most of the year, none of them witnessed the vandalism, and they do not know when it was carried out and by whom. They informed B’Tselem that they intend to file a group complaint with the Israel Police in the next few days.

Fawazan ‘Awwad (born 1959), a resident of ‘Awarta, related what he saw on the tour:

On 11 July 2013, my brother Fawaz and I went to the south-western entrance to the Itamar settlement for the tour. At around 5:30 A.M., some army jeeps and Israeli DCO cars drove up and we went into the settlement... A lot of the villagers own land in the area, but there were only four of us, probably because the tour was a surprise and because it was the second day of the Ramadan fast.

We went into the settlement and started walking, accompanied by some soldiers and people from the Israeli DCO. They didn’t let us get as far as our plots of land, which are next to the first fence of the settlement, near the settlers’ houses. They said that they didn’t want us to clash with the settlers. When I saw my land totally empty, I thought I’d go mad. All the trees had been chopped down. My brothers and I inherited 50 dunams of land with 150 olive trees and 300 almond trees from my father (may God rest his soul). Our trees weren’t the only ones that were destroyed. The trees on the plots next to ours had also been chopped down. More than 1,000 olive trees and almond trees were chopped down.

A vandalized Olive grove on 'Awarta's lands. Photo taken during the tour arranged by the DCO. The settlement of Itamar can be seen in the Background.
A vandalized Olive grove on 'Awarta's lands. Photo taken during the tour arranged by the DCO. The settlement of Itamar can be seen in the background.

Although the settlers’ takeover of the land is illegal, the military has taken no action against it; in fact, the military has assisted the unlawful enterprise by requiring Palestinian farmers to obtain approval for accessing their land. In doing so, the military is breaching its duty to uphold the landowners’ right to their property, contributing to their loss of livelihood. By requisitioning the land after the fact, rather than demanding that the settlers vacate it, the military is retroactively whitewashing the illegal takeover and sanctioning the theft. If the authorities have, until this point, given their silent consent to the settlers’ unlawful activity, they are now explicitly lending it legal credence.

Officially, the military claims that requisitioning the land is necessary “on security grounds”. The authenticity of this claim is questionable, however, given that the requisitioning order spans almost all the land taken over by the settlers, and that this act will retroactively sanction the settlers’ illegal activity. If requisitioning the land is indeed crucial to security, why did the military not issue the order years ago?

If additional security measures do need to be put in place around the settlement of Itamar, the military must find an alternative way of doing so, rather than requisitioning the Palestinian-owned lands and adding to the farmers’ loss of livelihood.

B’Tselem has extensively documented the military’s policy of declaring “special security areas” (SSA’s) around settlements (see report Access Denied). This policy blatantly violates the rights of the Palestinian public, as the land is expropriated both from private owners and from the public at large and is effectively annexed to settlements. As the case at hand demonstrates, the policy entails whitewashing offenses committed by Israeli citizens that were, at the very least, ignored by the authorities at the time. As part of this policy, Israel requires Palestinian landowners to meet a long list of conditions before they are granted access to their land, including an exhausting and humiliating bureaucratic process in order to arrange each visit. This attitude is indicative of a distorted perception of the facts, as though enabling Palestinian civilians to enter their own land is a privilege granted by the state, rather than Israel’s duty as occupying power in the West Bank.