An ancient road crosses the length of the Land of Israel , running from South to North. It starts at Be’er Sheva in the northern Negev, climbs up to the Hebron Hills and continues north, via Halhul and Bethlehem, to Jerusalem. The road continues to Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin, and reaches its end in the vicinity of Afula. The “Cross Israel Highway” of those days served Second Temple era pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem from Be’er Sheva and Hebron and is also known as “The Patriarchs’ Route,” named after the forefathers of the nation who traveled it.
Silent witnesses stand by the sides of the segment that passes through Gush Etzion, reminders of the bustling life in this area, over 2000 years ago.
Among these are two ritual baths, mikvahs, which were used by pilgrims on their way to the Temple, that were filled with water as in ancient times, following the heavy rains recently. Another example is the Roman milestone that lies to the side of the path, the kind of stone the Romans used to deploy along the roads in order to mark the distance from the destination.
“The Patriarchs’ Route” in Gush Etzion also passes through an area known as Netzer, located between the Elazar and Alon Shvut communities. The Netzer area is built on terraces that assemble a spectacularly beautiful, green mosaic; green grapes twining alongside old olive trees in plots of varying shapes and sizes, and in the pre-Spring season the Νetzer space looks like a Claude Monet masterpiece: the green background is spotted with the pink and white of the almond trees at the peak of their bloom. But this pastoral bubble bursts the moment we ‘zoom-in’ on the photo, then we discover a real battle for this land and the future of the country, with the innocent plants often standing in as soldiers on the frontline.
The Oslo Accords divided the Judea, Samaria and Gaza Strip areas into three types of area: Area ‘A,’ where the major Palestinian cities are located, under full Palestinian Authority civilian and security control; Area ‘B,’ under P.A. civilian control and Israeli security control; and Area ‘C,’ under full Israeli civilian and security control.
A strategic change occurred in the P.A.’s attitude towards this division in 2010: Salam Fayyad’s government decided to ignore it and focus its efforts on Area ‘C.’ The logic behind this move is clear – Areas ‘A’ and ‘B’ are already “in their pockets,” and Area ‘C’ territories are known to be of significant value. Not only do they present 60% of Judea and Samaria, they also serve as buffers between the Palestinian population concentrations. Palestinian presence in ‘C’ Territories could advance an Arab territorial continuity and drive a wedge between the Jewish community blocs.
Fayyad began making statements in the spirit of the new plan, saying that he “does not know how to read the letter ‘C,’” and that all of Judea and Samaria belong to the Palestinian State. Fayyad declared that “the greatest challenge against the occupation and the settlements is to increase the investment and agriculture on the land of area ‘C.’”
The P.A. Prime Minister does not just talk the talk: the Palestinians began diverting economic support to agricultural endeavors in area ‘C’ Territories, and their representatives pressured foreign countries and organizations, who were initially reluctant to support projects in the ‘C’ Territories, into aligning themselves with the new policy. The story of the new strategy from the Salam Fayyad “school of thought” was investigated by Makor Rishon’s Legal Magazine, B’Tze’dek and explained at great length in the past in by Gil Bringer in Makor Rishon (in an article from 13/3/2012).
The ongoing battle for the lands of Netzer, Gush Etzion, is the entire story in miniature. The choice of the location is no less than perfect for the realization of Fayyad’s vision: the land is in ‘C’ Territories, in the very center of Gush Etzion, in the buffer zone between the Elazar and Alon Shvut communities. An Arab takeover of the land will “suffocate” the nearby Jewish communities and prevent them from future growth and expansion. More importantly, it will disrupt the Jewish territorial continuity in Gush Etzion – which is known as “the heart of the consensus,” regarding the land which Israel will retain in any future agreement. The foreign funding for the Arabs’ efforts in Netzer is known, and is even recorded by a sign placed in one of the plots, depicting the “redemption” of 123 acres, courtesy of Holland.
Unfortunately for those executing Fayyadism, their plan ran into a not-so-small snag, known as the Women in Green organization. At the head of the organization stand two tenacious women, Yehudit Katsover and Nadia Matar, who carry on the daily – and often Sisyphean – battle for the lands of Netzer. The organization, with the support of the Local Council and the assistance of people who hold the matter dear to their heart, plant as many trees as they can on the state lands of the area. The Jewish resistance, conducted by Katsover and Matar, is the novelty of our story.
Not privately owned land
In order to understand the activity in the area, a few basic concepts must be clarified briefly: the land in Judea and Samaria is divided into 3 main categories – survey lands, state lands, and privately owned land. Survey lands have no known claims of ownership over them and are therefore suitable to be declared state lands. In order to “upgrade” survey land to state land, the Civil Administration carries out a thorough examination, including inspection of aerial photos from different time periods, in order to confirm that the land had not been cultivated or settled upon in the past. If no such evidence has been found, the Administration turns to the local mukhtar (Arab mayor) and asks him to advertise the intention to declare the land as state land. Anyone with a claim to that land must turn to the appeals committee and provide testimonies to the claim that it is, in fact, privately owned land. In every case where an appeal is filed, the examination process is started all over again in order to double-check the facts.
Privately owned lands are lands regarding which some evidence of their having been cultivated has been found. According to the law, the examination is meant to check the last 3 years, but in realitythe Administration is rigorous and checks for cultivation up to 10 years back and more. If evidence of such cultivation is found, the land is immediately declared as privately owned Arab land.
And back to Netzer. Large portions of the land there are defined as survey lands in the process of declaration. Meaning, there is no claim to private ownership of the land, but it has not yet been declared as state land. That is the background for the activities of Women in Green in the area, as Yehudit Katsover reminisces: “Before beginning to plant, we checked the maps for the state lands and worked only on those. We continuously made sure that we were not even brushing against the edge of land that was defined as privately owned by Arabs.” The goal of these two activists is one: “to prevent the Arabs from taking over the land. We’ve witnessed in the past how Arabs try to take over state lands that had not yet been planted on by us. Sometimes we caught on in time and rushed to plant in those plots, but some places we were too late and the Arabs were able to plant undisturbed on state lands, right next to the fences of the Jewish communities. We know beyond all doubt that if we do not plant on state lands, the Arabs will.”
Katsover and Matar tell of the many difficulties their plantings in Netzer have run into: “Despite the fact that we have only planted on state lands, the Arabs refuse to tolerate our presence in the area. They cut the watering pipes, destroy saplings and tear up Israeli flags that stand on state lands.”
Katsover and Matar tell of one case that truly illustrates the Sisyphean aspect of the job they have taken upon themselves: “We arrived about 3 years ago to plant olive trees in the area. After we finished planting and each went our separate ways, Arabs invaded the plot and tore up the olive saplings. We decided to plant larger trees in response, so that they wouldn’t be able to uproot them, and we did so that very night. Unfortunately, the Arabs somehow managed to uproot these plants as well.”
Nonetheless, the duo did not despair. “We ordered five very large olive trees from the Galilee, so that they would be harder to uproot. We planted them on Saturday night, deep in the ground, so that it would be very difficult to get them out. But on Sunday we discovered that these trees had also been uprooted, and we were back to square one. We came back to plant large trees in the area, this time covering almost the entire tree with earth. Today, five out of nine olive trees that we planted are still standing there.”
Demand for uprooting
In response to Katsover and Matar’s activities, the Civil Administration issued an eviction warrant against the plantings, despite the fact that it had stated that the land was in the process of being declared as state land. In response, Katsover and Matar, as well as Shaul Goldstein, then head of the Local Council, sent a commitment to the Administration, stating that they do not have and will not make any claim of ownership of the trees or the land. They clarified that the tree-planting was purely to preserve the land and not for personal use. They hoped that once the fear of them trying to privately take over state lands was removed, the eviction order would be removed, and the plants would be allowed to remain. But their hopes were dashed and the Administration stood fast.
One of the claims made by the Administration was that since it planned to declare the land as state land, it must be completely clear. Adv. Doron Nir-Zvi, representing Women in Green, rejects the claim: “The rule that land that is not clear, will not be declared as state land, has its logic. The Administration cannot declare that the land belongs to the state when there are others who claim ownership of the land. But the logic of this rule does not apply to Netzer: there is a clear and signed commitment by the Jewish planters, that they do not and will not have any claim of ownership, and that all their plantings are given as presents to the state. Why then can the land not be declared as state land without uprooting that which was planted?”
The matter of Netzer also kept the Lobby for the Land of Israel busy during the term of the last Knesset. In a letter from May, 2012, the heads of the Lobby, MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and former MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union), called on PM Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene immediately and stop the uprooting. Elkin and Eldad claimed that the Women in Green’s plantings were “an act of Zionism of the first degree, as the women heading the movement, along with the Gush Etzion Regional Council, have officially announced in writing that they have no intention of personally taking over the lands of Netzer. Their sole purpose is to preserve the national lands, and they give the trees to the state as gifts.” Elkin and Eldad added that the intention to uproot the trees is a clear sign of “governmental arbitrariness that opposes the Zionist principles and the official policy of the State of Israel. The state should be carrying out its own widespread plantings to prevent the Palestinian takeover of area ‘C,’ especially in an area that stands well within the national consensus.”
When the Administration did not rescind warrant, the Women in Green organization filed an appeal to the military appeals committee, located in the ‘Ofer’ camp, demanding to cancel the eviction orders. The deliberation on the appeal will March 17.
The Gush Etzion Council has also appealed against the eviction orders. Davidi Perl, head of the Council, joined Katsover and Matar’s claims and stated that “common sense must be used in order to prevent pointless procedures that could lead to unrest in the region and even undermine safety and security in the area.” Perl also warned that “the uprooting will deal a fatal blow to the ability to preserve the lands as survey lands and bring them to declaration status, seeing as immediately after the uprooting, the Palestinians will enter the area and begin working there.”
The Administration’s response to the heart of the matter was a repetition of the same old tune: “They have no right to the land, therefore their appeal has no basis.”
I attempted to get answers to the questions that arise from administration’s course of action: I asked why there was a need for uprooting, when the Jewish planters have no claim of ownership of the land or the trees; how does the Administration deal with the concern that the Arabs will take over state lands that will be cleared of plantings; why do the trees on the land present an obstacle for the declaration of the land as state land; and if the trees are uprooted, when is the declaration expected to happen.
The Administration only responded: “The plantings occurred illegally and without the required permits, therefore enforcement measures to be taken have been decided upon.”r
Originally published in Major Rishon, February 2, 2013. Translated from Hebrew by “Abayiss” on behalf of Women in Green.
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