The planned road connecting West Bank settlements will run through agricultural land, potentially hampering Palestinian farmers’ access to it

Zafrir Rinat Jun. 23, 2021

A view of Betar Illit from Wadi Fukin.
A view of Betar Illit from Wadi Fukin.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel is promoting the paving of a road near the West Bank settlement of Betar Ilit that would run through the agricultural lands of a Palestinian village and impact the access of farmers working these plots, as well as damaging the open landscape in the area.

This plan is an addition to other construction plans adjacent to the Wadi Fukin village, which could hamper the flow of water into the springs which enable agriculture in the area.

The plan is in the approval stage at the central planning bureau of Israel’s Civil Administration. The road will be eight kilometers (five miles) long, connecting Betar Ilit to another road going to the Etzion bloc, further south. The new road will be a parallel axis to the “tunnels road” which currently links the Etzion bloc to Jerusalem.

The planning bodies that presented this plan four months ago argued that the road would allow for development around Betar Ilit, as well as benefiting Palestinians in the area. The state has designated an area near Betar Ilit for another settlement called Gvaot. There is already a small settlement with this name in the area. West of this settlement is an area marked as the site of a future settlement, also to be called Gvaot.

In the discussions about paving this road, the head of the planning bureau, Natalia Averbuch, noted that the impact of this road on the access of Palestinian farmers to their land was unclear. It also turned out that there was no information on the environmental impact of paving this road, although it’s clear that it will pass through a mountainous area and require extensive work.

The planning bureau decided four months ago to officially file the proposal, a stage at which objections can be submitted. However, it demanded that planners submit further information on the environmental and landscape implications of this plan, as well as suggesting solutions for the problem of access to the agricultural plots.

The new road will pass through the northern neighborhoods of Betar Ilit and through the houses and fields of Wadi Fukin, in a very narrow strip. Wadi Fukin has a unique agricultural landscape, shaped through the villagers’ use of traditional agricultural methods, based on using spring water that’s fed into small pools, from which the plots are irrigated. Further along, the road will pass through a mountainous area with natural woodland, which so far has not been impacted by construction or infrastructure work. Paving a road through these woods will have a significant deleterious impact.

The residents of Wadi Fukin learned about this plan mainly through human rights organizations and from a group of residents in the adjacent community of Tzur Hadassah, with whom they have contacts. “No one from the Civil Administration talked to us or explained exactly where the road will pass,” says Mohammed Rabah Sukar, a village resident. “We don’t know to what extent this will damage our lands and people are very confused and frightened by this road.”

One farmer, working in a small plot located in the valley in which the village nestles, pointed with concern at the slopes of Betar Ilit, where the road will pass. He noted that earlier work done in constructing the settlement had caused great damage due to the excess of earth and rocks which now covered agricultural land. The new road may cause further damage. Moreover, sewage from Betar Ilit has polluted surrounding areas.

Dror Etkes, from the Kerem Navot non-profit organization which tracks Jewish settlements in the West Bank, says that the Civil Administration didn’t wait for the final approval of the plan and started to mark the course of the road at several locations. These markings can be seen, in one case, in the middle of one of the plots in Wadi Fukin. Etkes notes that the road will pass mainly through areas deemed to be state land, but some of it will pass through privately-owned Palestinian land in Wadi Fukin. “It’s obvious that there is no need for this road, and that this is merely preparation for the construction of a huge new settlement, Gvaot,” he adds.

Three weeks ago, the human rights group Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights asked the Civil Administration to freeze the plan until the residents of Wadi Fukin could be brought into the process. The group argued that it was impossible to make decisions on this plan without involving the villagers, noting that even the head of the planning bureau herself emphasized during discussions that the position of the residents and their relevant requirements should be addressed.

The group noted that the Civil Administration had seven years ago published a procedure for involving the public, stating that before a plan is approved for filing, a meeting with village representatives must be held, at which they will be presented with the plan. Before filing the plan, village representatives must be invited to submit their proposals for changes to the plan. Bimkom noted that the new road will impact other villages in the area, including Jab’a, Nahalin and Husan.

The Civil Administration said in response to this story that “the road is an important project which will significantly improve the wellbeing of the area’s Israeli and Palestinian residents. According to the decision of the planning bureau, the promotion of the plan and its opening up to objections included the addition of an environmental appendix, which analyzes the environmental impact of a plan. An environmental report was attached to the plan, including suggestions for solving landscape issues. It is currently being examined by professionals in this area. The Administration sees the involvement of the local population as very important, and will present the plan to residents in the next two weeks, getting their responses and incorporating them as much as possible into the plan.”

Two other construction plans are also threatening agricultural land in Wadi Fukin. One is a plan to erect an industrial zone near the village, close to the entrance to Betar Ilit. The second is a plan for expanding residential areas of Tzur Hadassah, which lies within the 1967 borders. These plans will reduce the area in which rainwater can percolate to the groundwater, a process that serves the springs which enable the existence of the village’s traditional agriculture system.