Palestinian farmers say discrimination, not a concern for the land, are at the root of an order to uproot olive trees in a northern nature reserve.
By Zafrir Rinat | Jun.28, 2012

One of the most complex challenges facing the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is finding the balance between protecting the nature in its reserves and allowing agriculture to flourish. This has become a particularly complicated issue in the Wadi Kana nature reserve in the northern West Bank, where the debate is not only focused on land, nature and the environment, but as is often the case in this country, it has become a question of politics.

Last week, residents of the Palestinian village of Deir Istya, including village council head Nazmi Salman, asked the High Court of Justice to halt an order to remove 1,400 olive trees from the nature reserve. In response to their petition, submitted through Attorney Alaa Mahajna, the court ordered that the removal be put on hold until justices have a chance to discuss the petition.

The Wadi Kana Nature Reserve, one of the largest reserves in the region, features typical Mediterranean woodlands, unique habitats centered on natural pools and privately-owned Palestinian farmland on which Palestinians have worked for generations. According to the bylaws of the reserve, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority must allow the continuation of all farming that was practiced on the site before it was declared a nature reserve in 1983.

Despite this, two months ago, the INPA and the Civil Administration ordered the Palestinians to remove their trees, because the authority said the trees represent a creeping expansion of cultivation at the expense of natural growth, which is being destroyed. In addition, the authority claimed that the Palestinians have built farming terraces and water diverting ditches.

“This type of damage, to the tune of millions of shekels, is being financed by special interest groups in the area,” wrote Yossi Wurtzberger, an aide to the director general of the INPA, in a letter addressed to Mahajna. He did not specify which interest groups were funding the work, but it seems he was likely referring to the Palestinian Authority.

The Civil Administration, in its response to Mahajna’s request to halt the removal order, claimed that the planting of the olive trees caused heavy damage to the reserve, as it entailed clearing the ground for farming and installing irrigation systems. “The rules of conduct for nature reserves state that one cannot bring any plant into reserves that is likely to propagate, in order to protect existing natural values.” The director general also said that INPA inspectors do not keep owners of agricultural land from farming species that existed in the reserve prior to 1983. “This arrangement is not unique to Judea and Samaria. It is the law of every nature reserve in Israel where there is privately owned land,” he added.

In the petition he submitted to the High Court after receiving these official responses, Mahajna notes that the INPA failed to provide any factual basis that proved the olive trees had caused environmental damage. According to him, installing irrigation systems and constructing terraces have nothing to do with planting olive trees.

“Throughout the reserve there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of acres of orchards and cultivated land preserving the authentic landscape of the wadi and the natural values of this place,” Mahajna wrote in the petition. “The only reason that the olive trees were ordered removed and other cultivated species were not is that these are relatively new and their owners decided to reassign usage of their farmland from one species to another. “In other words, the heavy damage to the reserve is not the least bit heavy.” On the other hand, according to Mahajna, uprooting the trees represents unwarranted harm to private Palestinian property.

The High Court of Justice will have to address the political aspect of managing the reserve, since it was brought up by both sides. The INPA referred to it when it hinted that special interest groups connected to the Palestinian Authority were funding the planting, whereas Mahajna’s petition accused the Civil Administration and the INPA of discriminating against Palestinians.

“Within the Wadi Kana Nature Reserve there are dozens of permanent structures built without permits, not to mention other encroachments on reserve land perpetrated by settlers on a daily basis, and no steps are taken against them,” the petition stated. “The order issued represents illegitimate discrimination on the grounds of nationality. When compared to the Jewish settlers living in the settlements and outposts near the reserve, there is no equality in the application of various means of enforcement against Palestinians.”

In addition to the olive tree issue, there is a seemingly symbolic matter that has yet to be addressed by the Civil Administration and the INPA, which prompts questions about their claim that the Wadi Kana Nature Reserve is meant to be “a meeting place in the midst of nature for the whole population, both Jews and Arabs.” The sign at the entrance to the reserve is written in Hebrew and English, but not in Arabic.

In response to a query about the sign posed by Haaretz about six months ago, the Civil Administration promised that Arabic would be added. Since then, administration personnel and INPA inspectors have found plenty of time to monitor Palestinian plantings closely, but they still have not managed to keep their pledge to add Arabic to the sign.

“This was a mistake, and we will fix it,” promised Moti Shefer of the INPA this week. “All the nature reserves in Judea and Samaria having signs in all three languages.”