Palestinian farmers from several villages north of the security barrier have been unable to tend their fields in the seam zone since the beginning of the year, after the civil administration suddenly changed its procedures and ordered them to apply for entry permits to cross the barrier.
The seam zone is defined as an area of land in the West Bank but on the "Israeli" side of the security barrier.
In this case, the seam zone includes some 2,500 dunams (250 hectares) of Palestinian-owned farmland and parts of the Jewish settlement of Har Adar, which straddles the Green Line. There are no fences or guards to prevent Palestinians who enter the seam zone from reaching Israel proper.
For several years after the barrier was built in the area, farmers owning land in the seam zone were able to pass through a gate in the barrier as long as their names were included in a list kept by IDF guards at the gate.
The names were supplied by the Palestinian liaison office.
Abu Fares, head of the local council in Beit Surik, 12 km. northwest of Jerusalem, said on Tuesday that immediately after Operation Cast Lead, the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria informed the local Palestinians that they would no longer have free access to the seam zone.
Instead, it ordered them to apply for entry permits from the civil administration, a long and tedious bureaucratic process. The farmers refused to do so.
Abu Fares explained that since there is no official land registration in the area, they would not be able to meet the demands of the civil administration to show proof that the land belongs to them. Among themselves, the Palestinian villagers know who inherited what land from their fathers or grandfathers.
The stalemate has been going on for eight months. The army will not let the Palestinians enter the seam zone and tend their land unless they obtain permits, and the farmers refuse to do so.
The problem has become acute because olive harvesting season has begun and the villagers must harvest their crops in the next few weeks or lose them altogether.
A few months ago, the farmers turned to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. ACRI and another human rights organization, Moked for the Defense of the Individual, have argued ever since the permit regime, as it is called, was introduced into seam zones in the northern West Bank that the arrangement is illegal.
In fact, the organizations petitioned the High Court of Justice as early as 2003 to declare that the permit regime was illegal and order the army to cancel it. More than six years later, the High Court has still not ruled on the petitions.
In a letter to former OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni, ACRI attorney Limor Yehuda wrote that "international law which applies to occupied territory forbids the military commander to act in a discriminatory manner.
"International humanitarian law says the same thing. Furthermore, the military commander is obliged to safeguard the traditions of the civilian population, not to cause injury to private property, and to respect and protect the human rights of the protected inhabitants."
Yehuda also charged that the system is discriminatory because while no Palestinian is allowed into the seam zone without a permit, any Israeli may enter it without hindrance.
Yehuda also described in detail the arduous bureaucratic hurdles that a Palestinian must surmount to obtain a permit.
"Every Palestinian who wants to reach his land must submit a detailed request and attach documents explaining why he thinks the military commander should grant his request," she wrote.
"The regime and the regulations that have been established in that context impose a high burden of proof on the applicant, sometimes an impossible burden. For example, a farmer who wishes to continue cultivating the land he has been working until now, and which was trapped on the other side of the barrier, will have to provide documentary proof of his right to the land.
"This is no simple job given the lack of proper registration of land in the West Bank and in view of the various customs according to which the various Palestinian communities deal with this matter.
"The consequence of failure to meet the bureaucratic demands and the burden of proof required, which have nothing to do with security considerations, is denial of rights and the loss of livelihood."
Even if the farmer receives a permit, it will only be for a short time, at the end of which he will have to go through the entire procedure from the beginning, Yehuda added.
Simultaneously with the letter to Shamni, ACRI sent an appeal to the High Court to rule on the petition against the permit regime and pointed out that the olive harvest season was beginning and there was an urgent need to decide whether the regime was legal or not.
Meanwhile, Shamni, in a brief letter to Yehuda, said, "Our view of the issue differs from yours... At any rate, we must wait for the High Court to decide."
Until then, he added, the farmers will not be allowed to tend to their land without a permit.
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