During the olive harvest season that officially started this month, Palestinian farmers belonging to seven Bedouin tribes in eastern Bethlehem were permitted to reach their olive groves in the vicinity of Israeli settlements for the first time in over a decade. These farmers live in various nearby localities, including Bethlehem city and the villages of Al A’uqban, Al ‘Asakira and Rakhme. They own land (reportedly about 700 dunums) located in the vicinity of the settlement of Noqedim and the adjacent outposts of El David, Kfar Eldad, Sde Bar and Ma’ale Rehav’am.
This land was cultivated in the past with olive trees and seasonal crops such as wheat and barley and constituted the main source of income for the owners’ families. Since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, these farmers were subjected to systematic violence and intimidation by Israeli settlers that reduced, and then prevented, them from accessing these areas.
Following a legal intervention this year by the Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights, the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) declared a number of the affected plots as closed military areas. This prohibits access by Israeli settlers to the area and requires landowners to obtain a special authorization (known as ‘prior coordination’) to enter it. Subsequently, the ICA allocated two periods (29 September to 2 October, and 13 to 19 October) to the farmers for coordinated access under the protection of Israeli forces.
The access took place as planned, except for one occasion on which farmers were ordered to leave the area earlier than agreed following threats by Israeli settlers, and another occasion when settlers blocked access to a tractor. Overall, the quantity and quality of the produce was extremely poor as the trees had been unattended for long periods. However, some of the farmers used the opportunity to plough the land and prepare it for planting additional trees. “We are optimistic that the legal aid will help us regain our land despite settler attacks and intimidation,” said Sa’ed Salameh al Asakreh, aged 60 from Al ‘Asakira village.
For the past few years, access by Palestinian farmers to their private land within the outer limits of settlements or in areas where settler violence and intimidation is recurrent, has been subjected to this ‘prior coordination’ regime. This regime is enforced irrespective of the legality of the settlement/outpost in question under Israeli law or the fencing off of surrounding private Palestinian land by settlers. To obtain approval, farmers must submit a request to the Palestinian District Coordination Liaison (DCL) office in their area, including ownership documents, which are then transferred to the Israeli DCL for consideration.
By the start of the current olive harvest season, the ‘prior coordination’ regime was in place to access land within, or in the vicinity of, 56 Israeli settlements and settlement outposts, and affecting farmers residing in over 90 Palestinian communities and villages. The implementation of the system this year was delayed for about two weeks after the start of the harvest season due to the Jewish holidays. Apart from that, initial reports suggest that, in most areas, the system has functioned smoothly and farmers were generally able to access their olive groves at the coordinated times with relatively few incidents.
On the other hand, there is evidence of numerous cases of farmers who, like those in the eastern Bethlehem communities prior to the recent developments, do not benefit from the limited access provided under the prior coordination regime. The reasons range from lack of awareness, lack of access to legal assistance, and cost-benefit considerations, among others.
Despite its benefits, prior coordination has some shortcomings in practice and in principle. The system not only puts the onus on Palestinian farmers to adapt to access restrictions rather than on Israeli settlers (who in many cases engage in violent and otherwise illegal behaviour), but has also proven largely ineffective in preventing attacks on trees and crops because most of the attacks occur outside the times allocated through the coordination process.
The Israeli system in place to investigate complaints about settler violence and acts of vandalism affecting Palestinian-owned trees is largely ineffective. Between 2005 and September 2014, the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din documented 246 incidents in which complaints regarding deliberate damage to fruit trees in the West Bank led to the opening of a police investigation. Of these investigations, just four ended in an indictment.