Palestinians say settlers are taking over their springs and using them to develop tourist sites;settlers say they are merely preserving nature after decades of neglect.
By Zafrir Rinat

The settlers have been investing special efforts of late to persuade the Israeli public to make its way to numerous tourism sites on the other side of the Green Line. Internet sites of regional councils in the territories and advertisements placed by various nonprofit groups are replete with stories about the wonders of gourmet restaurants, boutique wineries, farms producing high-quality cheeses, and especially the many springs in the region. Most of these springs have been used by Palestinian farmers over the years, but according to a new UN report, settlers are increasingly gaining control over them.

The report, released last month by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories, says settlers in the West Bank have taken over dozens of springs in the past few years, sometimes using threats and intimidation to prevent the Palestinians from using them. The report notes that springs are the single largest source of water for irrigation in the West Bank and an important coping mechanism for communities not connected to a water network, or poorly supplied, to meet domestic and livelihood needs.

The report is based on a survey of springs conducted by Dror Etkes, former head of the Peace Now settlement-tracking project. According to the data, 30 springs are now under full settler control; another 26 are the target of settler activities that have put Palestinian access to the springs at risk. The highest concentration of springs are in the Mateh Benjamin regional council. Most of them are situated on privately owned Palestinian land in Area C, based on the Israeli Civil Administration’s land ownership data.

Renaming and reconstructing

Settlers have taken a variety of actions to develop tourism and leisure sites at 40 springs, in order to attract visitors. These activities include marking the spring with a new Hebrew name that, of course, bears symbolic importance by attributing the site to the Jewish heritage. After naming them, facilities are constructed, such as benches, picnic tables, and new pools for spring water collection. The report charges that this construction is being carried out without permits. There was one instance in which the Israeli Civil Administration demolished an unlawful pool at a spring near Elon Moreh, but it was later reconstructed.

Palestinians are quoted in the report as saying they are scared to get too close to the springs, because settlers use violence against them. The report also says security coordinators in the settlements have deterred Palestinians from accessing the springs.

OCHA representative Yehezkel Lein says the activity of the settlers prevents the Palestinians from using springs for their agricultural needs, and even from drinking, calling it part of an attempt to take over rural areas in the West Bank. He adds that converting the springs into tourism attractions is an attempt to normalize the settlements in the eyes of the Israeli public.

The Mateh Benjamin regional council has responded to these allegations, saying the activity at the springs is development, as well as reclamation and preservation of nature and heritage sites. “As part of this process, several stopped-up springs have been reclaimed and made into well-cared-for springs that are accessible to the public at large. An irrigation system has been built at some of them for herds of sheep.” The council also says springs constitute active tourism sites for both Palestinian and Jewish visitors, adding that “after decades of neglect, it is now possible to see the development of tourism sites, which preserve nature and ensures environmental quality.”

Still, the regional council does not forget to warn would-be visitors of the presence of Palestinians. The council’s website features a list of springs that have become tourism sites, but directions for reaching one site includes this advisory: “Attention! Arab farmers are in the area. Please keep your eyes open!” In the signs it posted near the springs, the council did not see fit to note their names in Arabic or the traditional Arab names of the springs.

Two tales of one spring

One spring near the settlement of Eli provides a glimpse at the different versions offered by settlers and Palestinians. OCHA staffers recently visited the spring, called Ein Al Ariq by Palestinians, but renamed Ein Hagvura (Spring of Heroism ) by the settlers. Palestinians who joined the OCHA tour spoke of their fears at the settlers’ presence at the spring, and how even the army forbids them from gaining access to the spring. “It is permitted to come here and pick olives only a few days a year,” said Jamal Daraghmeh, head of the village council of Luban al-Sharqiya.

Eli security coordinator Amiad Cohen denies this claim, insisting, “I have never banished or prevented access to any Palestinian, and I have no control over the army’s directives. You can see the olives here are well cared for, because the Palestinians come here. Jews like to look after things and make them beautiful. The Palestinians interpret this as a declaration of ownership over the area, and that is why they burn and destroy.”

A response submitted by the Israeli Civil Administration to OCHA following the release of the organization’s report stated, “All of the construction activity in Area C lands, such as improvement and betterment work on sites – including springs – necessitates construction permits. Any and every deviation is dealt with by us. As opposed to what is stated in the report, enforcement activity recently took place to counter unlawful construction at a spring near Elon Moreh, and to counter such construction at a spring near the settlement of Bracha. The right to reach springs in public lands is given to every individual. If there is any allegation of prevention of access by any person or agency, a complaint should be lodged with the police.”

Meanwhile it looks like settlers will be getting aid from the government for their activities at these springs. At a meeting with the head of the Beit El local council three weeks ago, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan agreed in principle to transfer financial aid for the purpose of “development of water springs” from the ministry’s approved river reclamation budget.