All eyes will be on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu come July 1, when his coalition agreement allows him to bring for Knesset approval annexation of parts of the West Bank. Likely, very few eyes will be on events that same day in Israel’s High Court of Justice, when the Court will hear arguments about Palestinians’ access to their farmlands across the Separation Barrier. But those concerned about annexation would be wise to pay attention to this case, as Israel’s approach to the lands behind the Barrier is a possible prototype for annexation.
The court case on July 1 concerns two Palestinians who own land in an area of the West Bank that is isolated by the Separation Barrier, the massive array of fences and walls Israel constructed almost two decades ago deep inside the occupied territories. Israel refers to the lands behind the Barrier as the “Seam Zone.” These lands are an integral part of the West Bank, their status has not been changed, but they have been declared a closed military zone for Palestinians. Israelis and internationals are allowed to access them without restriction, but Israel implements an extremely cumbersome bureaucracy for any Palestinian who wants a “Seam Zone permit”: people who own lands in these areas, or have businesses there, or live in communities inside these enclaves are forced to navigate the permit regime in order to live their daily lives.
In response to the initial criticism regarding construction of the Separation Barrier along a route that isolates Palestinians’ lands, Israel promised that all Palestinians who need to cross the Barrier would be able to do so. Security would be the only reason to deny permits, Israel assured the High Court of Justice and the international community. But over the years, as the issue of the Barrier has fallen off the international radar, Israel has imposed increasingly severe restrictions on permits, for reasons that have nothing to do with security. In 2017, Israel issued new regulations stating that owners of plots which the military deems “tiny,” and therefore “unsustainable,” will no longer receive permits. In 2019, new military regulations added that even those who receive permits for farming will only be able to access their land 40 times a year. It is against these two restrictions that HaMoked petitioned the High Court on behalf of the two Palestinian landowners.
The so-called Seam Zone is a potential model for what will happen to Palestinians and their lands in the event of an annexation. The prime minister has said Palestinians in the annexed areas will not acquire any Israeli legal status, so they will likely require some sort of permit to live in their own homes. Even if not a single Palestinian lives in the annexed area, any annexation will invariably include Palestinian land (both the Gush Etzion settlement bloc and the Jordan Valley, two of the likely areas to be annexed, are full of privately-owned Palestinian lands). Assuming Israel does not confiscate them outright, Palestinians will need a permit to enter what will now be Israel in order to reach their lands.
Israel will likely make all sorts of promises about how annexation will not adversely affect Palestinians. Here too, the creeping dispossession in the Seam Zone is instructive.
But this untenable reality warrants our attention not only as a potential model for annexation.
Anti-occupation activists are conflicted about how much effort to invest in preventing formal annexation. Does fighting annexation come at the cost of working against the ongoing occupation? In fact, much of the tangible effects of annexation have already happened, without grand declarations. The Seam Zone is one example — in a recent hearing in the district court, the judge said to HaMoked’s lawyer: “counselor claims that these lands are de jure part of the West Bank.” Back in our office after this hearing, we laughed at this judge’s ignorance, thinking that, de facto, these lands are part of Israel. But on second thought — is he wrong? Perhaps it is we who are naïve in thinking that there has been no change to the status of these areas, although they are physically severed from the West Bank and open to Israel.
The de facto annexation extends far beyond the Seam Zone. Israeli settlements in the West Bank, constituting 10 percent of the land, and the half a million settlers who live in them are already governed by Israeli law. This was accomplished by military orders, rather than Knesset legislation, but the effect is the same: children in settlements are governed by Israel’s mandatory education law, and entitled to Israel’s universal health care. Palestinians next door are not. A settler and a Palestinian who commit the same crime in the same place are governed by two different legal systems: the Palestinian will stand trial in military court; the Israeli in an Israel civil court.
In a recent interview in the New York Times, Head of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry Hussein a-Sheikh explained the PA’s decision to halt coordination with Israel in order to pressure Israel to refrain from annexation: “Either they backtrack on annexation and things go back to how they were, or they follow through with annexation and they go back to being the occupying power in the whole West Bank.”
Heaven help us if our goal is to keep things how they are! Three million Palestinians live under Israeli military rule with no political participation in the bodies that determine their fate. The Israeli permit bureaucracy governs all aspects of their lives, even their right to live in their own homes. Preventing annexation cannot be the goal in and of itself. Preventing formal annexation is only a stepping stone to ending the current, fundamentally unjust situation.