Last week, the High Court of Justice heard seven petitions protesting the refusal of the civil administration to grant permits to Palestinian farmers who wish to cultivate their land on the “Israeli side” of the West Bank security barrier.
It marked the first time since part of the barrier were built and the army declared that all the Palestinian land on the Israeli side of the barrier was a closed military zone that individual Palestinians have challenged decisions made by the civil administration.
However, it is not the first time that the permit system introduced by Israel has been challenged in the High Court.
In 2003 and 2004, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Hamoked – Defense of the Individual filed petitions charging that the restrictions placed by Israel on Palestinian land were illegal and constituted apartheid since they created two kinds of individuals with unequal rights.
According to Hamoked, “The permit regime is a defilement of the law because it effectively creates two types of people in these areas. There are Israelis and tourists to whom the army declaration [regarding the closed military zone] does not apply and they are free to move about, and there are others (that is, Palestinians) to whom the declaration does apply and they must obtain permits to enter the area, to work in it, to sleep in it and to leave it.”
The state strongly rejected these allegations. The permit regime “has absolutely nothing to do with discrimination,” it wrote in one of its briefs to the court. “The regime constitutes a classic case of permissible distinction, based on security grounds, and has already been recognized as such by this court.”
According to the most recent data presented by the state, roughly 80,000 dunams (8,000 hectares) of Palestinian land is enclosed by the security barrier. Of these, about 50,000 dunams is privately owned Palestinian land. The rest were declared state land by Israel.
According to the army regulation, only three types of Palestinians are entitled to enter the area, which has been dubbed the “seam zone.”
Those whose homes are located within the area receive documents attesting to the fact that they live there. Those who live in the West Bank but own farms in the seam zone, or, as the military lingo goes, have a “linkage to the land” and those who have businesses in the area are eligible for permits. No other Palestinian may enter the seam zone.
In 2008, 41,283 Palestinians submitted requests for residential documents or permits to enter the seam zone. Of these, 29,048 (about 70 percent) were accepted while 10,786 (26%) were rejected and 2,576 were canceled. These proportions seem to be roughly the same for 2007 and the first half of 2009.
The actual percentage of accepted requests to enter the seam zone is probably lower. According to another figure presented by the state for 2008, 28,654 Palestinians were in possession of residential documents or permits for the seam zone. Of these, 5,496 had residential documents. Thus the number of Palestinians with permits was only 23,158. Assuming that most or all of the Palestinians who live in the seam zone received residential documents, the number of Palestinians who received permits would have constituted only 64% of all those who asked for them.
It has been seven years since the first of the two petitions challenging the legality of the permit regime was filed. Since then, the court has only held two hearings. In 2009, the petitioners and the state submitted their final updates. Now, it is up to the court to decide.
In the meantime, as the permit rejection figures imply, thousands of Palestinians who were dependent on the regime run into problems on a daily basis. Attorney Yadin Elam represents the first seven who decided to petition the High Court.
Elam told The Jerusalem Post that while he believed the permit regime should be eliminated altogether, the immediate problems of the Palestinians must be addressed in the meantime.
“The civil administration has created a bureaucratic monster, even for those Palestinians who clearly have the right to enter the seam zone,” he said. “The clerks demand one form after another and give applicants the runaround. It is no wonder that many Palestinians give up and stop cultivating their land.”
Elam also alleged that the civil administration refused too many applicants on security grounds. He said the state had originally told the court that only a small number of Palestinians were rejected for this reason, but in response to a request for more precise figures from the court, it turned out that thousands were rejected on these grounds. Furthermore, the state never explains the nature of the security risk.
Another problem is that the civil administration demands that
applicants prove their “linkage to the land,” even though it does not
contest the fact that the land is Palestinian-owned. Since most of the
land is not registered, many farmers have a hard time proving they own
In many cases, the civil administration allows Palestinians to enter
the seam zone for a limited period, depending on the crops they grow.
For example, an olive grower will be allowed in only for the harvest
season. “And what if he just wants to drink a cup of coffee under his
own trees?” asked Elam.
According to Elam, underlying the entire seam zone question is the fact
that the land belongs to the Palestinians, not to Israel. “The state
often seems to forget this fact,” he said.