For many Palestinians ‘nature reserves’ means ‘reserved for Israeli settlements.’
By Zafrir Rinat | Dec. 18, 2013

Can Palestinians be recruited to fight for the environment? Not as long as preserving nature effectively means settlement expansion, as the case of the Nahal Kaneh nature reserve suggests.

Palestinian farmers planted olive trees on part of the reserve in the northern West Bank. For the last year and a half the Israel Defense Force’s Civil Administration in the West Bank and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority have been busy uprooting the trees after the Palestinian farmers lost their legal battle to halt the action. The Israeli authorities say the olive trees are being removed in order to prevent damage to the nature reserve.

Tree-planting can indeed harm the reserve, but when it comes to farming on West Bank nature reserves there is no uniform policy. Instead Jews are given preferential treatment. So, for example, the Civil Administration permitted the expansion of the settlement of Yakir into a portion of Nahal Kaneh. Aviv Tatrasky, a human rights activist who monitors the reserve, has noted that the expansion of the Natan outpost was approved at the expense of a smaller piece of the reserve. In the case of Yakir, the Civil Administration claimed that the settlement’s construction plans were approved after it was decided that it would not harm the reserve. Such a differential policy only deepens the Palestinians’ distrust in the intentions of Israeli authorities. It also prevents a discussion on the merits of preserving a reserve like Nahal Kaneh, where for many years there has been a delicate, complex balance between the operation of a nature reserve and traditional cultivation of the land by area farmers.

Nahal Kaneh is just one example of the phenomenon of one policy for Palestinians and another for Jewish settlers. Beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders, there are currently about 30 official nature reserves, cumulatively taking up a tenth of the total area of the West Bank. A study carried out by Dror Ektes, who monitors Jewish settlement construction, showed that Jewish farmers cultivate land in six nature reserves in the northern West Bank and in the Jordan Valley. Sources with the IDF Civil Administration said in response that there have been instances in which agricultural cultivation has been approved on condition that it not harm the nature reserve. Unauthorized incursions by farmers into the reserves is handled by the Civil Administration’s supervisory unit.

The Civil Administration approved farming at the Beit Hamelah nature reserve. A plan to adjust the boundaries of the reserve, which would zone a portion of the site for agriculture, is currently in the final stages of approval. In addition, at the Umm Reihan reserve, the installation of chicken coops was approved. The master plan for the adjacent Jewish settlement of Reihan was amended accordingly. It’s not clear how the operation of a chicken coop is squared with the aims of a nature reserve.

When it comes to the Har Kabir nature reserve east of Nablus, the Civil Administration has acknowledged that Israeli farmers have been making use of land there without permission and that the issue is being handled by the administration’s supervisory unit. A look at the Haaretz archives reveals that the Civil Administration provided a similar response 10 years ago when asked about intruders in that same reserve and in other nature reserves.

It’s not clear how construction in a nature reserve could do anything but harm the site. It’s worth citing comments by Amos Sabach, an ecologist from the West Bank district of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, in an environmental report last year. “The price of the race to create facts [on the ground] through Israeli settlement activity is being paid by nature,” Sabach wrote in the report published by the Municipal Environmental Associations of Judea and Samaria. “Some of the construction and expansion that has been carried out through Israeli settlement activity has encroached into the boundaries of the nature reserves. An example of this is the settling of the neighborhoods of Karnei Shomron, which ate into the Nahal Kaneh nature reserve.”

The settlers contend that the major threat to nature in the West Bank is from the Palestinians, who permit widespread hunting of wild animals and systematically pollute the nature reserves. Hunting is indeed a very serious problem. It is the most grave threat to the wild animal population of the area, but it’s hard to see how Palestinian support can be mobilized for nature preservation when policy frequently involves preferential treatment for Jews and assistance in settlement expansion.

Add to this the various obstacles that Israel places in the way of Palestinians who wish to access nature preservation sites, and it’s understandable why they would show limited interest in nature conservation. So for example, at the Ein Fara reserve, Palestinians who live nearby have been required to pay a full admission fee while their Jewish neighbors get a substantial discount. According to a 2011 report from the B’Tselem human rights organization, Israel has placed limitations on Palestinian access to the nature reserves in the Jordan Valley including limits on livestock grazing. In the village of Walaja, south of Jerusalem, the residents only have access to their fields via a special crossing point under army control. Their view of nearby land designated as a national park is mainly from afar.

Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer and writer, noted in one of his books that when Israeli military rule over the West Bank first began, he viewed the designation of nature reserves as a positive development, but his illusions were dispelled after he found that nature reserves have become another means of keeping Palestinians away from certain areas.