Recently outlined Israeli plans to establish seven new nature reserves in the occupied West Bank have been swiftly and vehemently denounced by Palestine authorities, who have pledged to take the issue to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Defence Minister and leader of the right-wing New Right Party, announced on Wednesday the creation of new nature reserves – land which includes the strategic Jordan Valley – and the expansion of existing ones. They will all be situated in the Israeli-controlled Area C, which makes up 60% of the West Bank. In Bennett’s statement, he lyrically invited Israeli citizens “to come to Judea and Samaria, go on hikes there, and discover for yourselves the beauty of our continuously expanding Zionist enterprise.” This is the first time such a move has been made since the Oslo agreement was signed in the 1990s. It has drawn widespread criticism from rights groups as well as the Palestinian government as a step backwards in attempts at peaceful resolution of long-standing tensions between Israel and Palestine.
While the decision was praised in Israel as “a lifeline to the ecological continuum of the Jordan River and the Jordan Valley”, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry rejected it as a barely veiled proxy for further silent annexation. They condemned Bennett’s “colonialist and expansionist decisions” and stated that the “so-called nature reserves are just another scheme for the appropriation and seizure of Palestinian land”. According to Peace Now, a rights group which collects data on Israeli expansion into the West Bank, 38% of the area covered by the new nature reserves is under private Palestinian ownership. Palestinian landowners would then be unable to cultivate or build on this land. Brian Reeves, a spokesperson for Peace Now, described the common function of these reserves as “keeping land off-limits to Palestinians” and “to prevent Palestinian construction”.
It is clear that Bennett’s statement is centred around much more than simply ecological or cultural concerns, and Palestine’s immediate denunciation of yet further encroachment on their land is unsurprising. As stories abound of Palestinian farmers being fined or even having their animals seized by Israeli soldiers for grazing on land protected by nature reserve status, the news is extremely worrying for Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank. Livelihoods, imperative sources of income, and any construction plans will all be lost. The knowledge that ICC Prosector, Fatou Bensuda, has recently announced an investigation into illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank encourages Palestinian officials, but could be too little too late for people living in land that will be soon seized.
The move takes on a conspicuously political shade when the impending March elections are considered. After an unsuccessful result in autumn, Benjamin Netanyahu will be courting electoral popularity by bringing home the Jordan River; similarly, Naftali Bennett looks to consolidate the position of his New Right party. The wider international context, too, was quickly raised by Hanan Ashwari, of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), as a potential underlying actor in the seeming acceleration of the Greater Israel agenda. She linked increased territorial aggression to the “partnership and blind ideological support of the current American Administration”. The Trump administration notably overturned American foreign policy in November, stating that Israeli settlements in the West Bank would no longer be considered as illegal in the United States. The expansion by means of the nature reserves announced on Wednesday, then, could have their root in the changing state of the international community as America takes less of a prominent role.
Palestine suffers from the longevity of its cause, and its rightful indignity risks being drowned out and going unheard by a world with a lot on its plate, especially in the wake of Suleimani’s assassination. Both the short-term plight for Palestinians landowners in Area C, as well as the ominously intensifying nature of (in Bennett’s words) the “continuously expanding Zionist enterprise”, mean that the Israel-Palestine situation looks bleak. The ICC’s investigation may well begin to uncover the means of addressing the latter; hope of resolution and international consensus should be thus maintained. However, Bennett has already alerted the Civil Administration of the decision, and enactment will likely be quick. For the landowners and farmers that stand to see their land seized, then, it is probably too late for concrete help. They, undoubtedly, will not have the time or resources to “go on hikes” and “discover…the beauty” of Judea and Samaria, and they instead face the prospect of seriously disrupted livelihoods.
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