The military rejects requests for Seam Zone farming permits based on a new and far reaching claim that land records issued by the Palestinian Authority are invalid; following HaMoked’s petition, refused Palestinian farmer received the same permit he was given 19 times before המוקד להגנת הפרט
The military rejects requests for Seam Zone farming permits based on a new and far reaching claim that land records issued by the Palestinian Authority are invalid; following HaMoked’s petition, refused Palestinian farmer received the same permit he was given 19 times before
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For over 15 years now, the Israeli military has been enforcing, on alleged security grounds, a draconian permit regime in parts of the West Bank it dubs the “Seam Zone”. These are the lands that are trapped between the Green Line and the Separation Wall, built inside the West Bank, contrary to international law. Any Palestinian who lives in these areas or wishes to go there, must obtain in advance a permit for this purpose – Israelis and tourists can access these areas freely. Requests for permits to enter and stay in the Seam Zone are submitted and processed according to a convoluted set of regulations, called the “Seam Zone Standing Orders”. This document sets out numerous, restrictive conditions and criteria, mostly unconnected to security. Attempts to receive a permit or have it renewed often entail lengthy, cumbersome and exhausting dealings with the military, which require endurance and persistence, as well as intensive professional assistance. Recently, the military has exacerbated its policy, leading, among other things, to a drastic reduction in access of farmers to their lands inside the Seam Zone. All this, contrary to the state’s obligation prescribed in the case law of the High Court of Justice (HCJ) to do the utmost to minimize the harm caused to Palestinians and their relatives who have agricultural lands beyond the Separation Wall.

For years, HaMoked has been helping Palestinians, mostly farmers, who encounter various difficulties in obtaining a permit for the Seam Zone. From HaMoked’s considerable experience, it seems the military constantly seeks to come up with new pretexts for denying access to Seam Zone lands. Not only are the Standing Orders revised periodically (usually to the detriment of the applicants), capricious obstacles on behalf of the military pop up regularly. Thus, for example, in 2017 a new obstacle appeared whereby heirs of registered lands were required to transfer the land on their name, if they wanted to receive a new Seam Zone farming permit; in 2018, the military prevented more people than ever before from reaching their plots on the grounds of “tiny plot that does not require cultivation”, even when the plots were actually quite large. Recently a new and far reaching grounds for refusal came up in several cases handled by HaMoked: land registration records issued by the Palestinian Authority for lands in Area C (areas of the West Bank which, according to the Oslo Accords, remain under complete Israeli jurisdiction) are invalid, and therefore, applicants are required to apply to the Israeli District Coordination Office (DCO) to have them authenticated.

One of these cases concerns a Palestinian farmer in his sixties, whose livelihood depends on the yields of his plots in the Seam Zone. For many years, he received permits to enter the Seam Zone without difficulty, but for the past nine months the military had refused to give him a permit, each time for a different reason (as often happens in such refusal cases), including the claim that his land was not inside the Seam Zone. After lengthy and fruitless correspondence with the military, and given the outrageous handling of the man’s request, HaMoked petitioned the Jerusalem District Court on December 20, 2018, to compel the military to issue the man a permit without further delay and put a stop to the violation of his rights to property and freedom of movement.

But in its response to the petition, filed June 4, 2019, the military claimed that “the petition should be dismissed out of hand, due to failure to exhaust remedies”. The military maintained that “the petitioner filed requests for a permit of entry to the Seam Zone concerning lands located inside Area C and attached to these requests land ownership documents issued by the Palestinian Authority. As the Palestinian Authority is not authorized to manage land registry for Area C, its land ownership documents are without any status and without any legal validity. In the circumstances of the case… the petitioner was asked to undergo a procedure intended to authenticate the land ownership documents he furnished… [but] he has not yet completed the authentication procedure necessary for the examination of his request…” (emphasis added).

HaMoked argued in the court hearing held on June 12, 2019 that even according to the Standing Orders themselves, the military is only required to ascertain that the applicant has an affinity to the agricultural land he asks to cultivate, and that there is no security reason to deny his request. Over the years, the military issued the man 19 permits on the basis of these documents, as it did for others whose land is trapped inside the Seam Zone. This is an administrative procedure of checking a specific person’s affinity to his own plot of land which he cannot access directly because the military has restricted access to it strictly for “security reasons”. During the processing of the request, the military may authenticate and “certify” documents as its sees fit, but there is no justification to deny a request on these grounds, or to raise another bureaucratic obstacle before an elderly man who wishes to resume cultivation of his plot.

At the conclusion of the hearing, and following pressure from the court, the military agreed, to give the petitioner a permits for two years “beyond the letter of the law”. However the military clung to its outrageous position that a person may be denied access to his lands on the grounds that there is no legal validity to documents supplied from the PA’s land registry. It seems this is another trial balloon of the military in an effort to exhaust land owners and bring them to abandon their right to work their land, while maintaining the façade of good governance. However, on the substantive level, the military’s new position could call into question Palestinians’ ownership of land in Area C, given that ownership of private lands in the oPt is regulated in practice by the Palestinian land registry.

When the HCJ legitimized the permit regime, it clarified that its ruling was based “also on the statements of the state concerning measures continuously taken by it, which are designed to … ease access to the Seam Zone, and by so doing, to minimize the harm to the daily lives of the Palestinian inhabitants” (emphasis added). From the accumulation of cases handled by HaMoked, there is serious concern that in practice, the military treats its declarations before the HCJ as a dead letter.
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