Settlements occupy Nature reserves too

by Jamil Husni
ABU AL-FIRAN, West Bank -

Up a rocky road, several hundred meters from the Jordan River, the Israeli Nature Authority has posted a sign delineating the borders of one of the largest nature reserves in the deserted area of Abu al-Firan.
Fearing Israeli military assaults during the Israeli invasion of the West
Bank, Palestinians evacuated al-Firan in 1967 - but the area remained
accessible to Israeli extremists.

The green sign warns Palestinians against entering the area, while at the
same time Israelis come and spend long days meditating in nature and
enjoying the beautiful scenery of the reserve.
From a distance, al-Firan seems quiet and empty. Accompanied by fierce dogs,
a group of settlers assemble on top of a rocky hill overlooking a tourist
resort. On a nearby hill stands Mohammad Mustafa, 22, the only Palestinian
who lives in al-Firan. He realizes the settlers will close the area for
several hours.
Israel controls large areas of the mountains and hills in the Jordan Valley,
which it has designated as “nature reserves.” Israel has warned Palestinians
not to enter the reserves.
Israeli settlements have spread across large areas of land, but their
borders remained open to the Jordan River. Demarcated by signs, the border
areas are known as “natural resorts” that surround thousands of acres with
hills, mountains and valleys of exquisite natural beauty.
Israeli settlements have expanded over the years to include more
“uncultivated” land. Settlements and military camps in the Jordan Valley
control much of the land, which the Israeli Nature Authority has supported
through its policy of nature reserves.
Indeed, Palestine Wildlife Society executive director Imad al-Atrash says
the Israeli Nature Authority’s first step in 1967 was to declare most
Palestinian land as nature reserves. Then, he says, the Israeli authorities
gradually took control of the land and built military training locations,
which later became settlements.
“This is occupation of our land,” says al-Atrash. Jabal Abu Ghneim, south of Jerusalem, where Har Homa settlement has been built, used to be a natural forest, says al-Atrash. “I myself saw the fire burning the trees of Jabal Abu Ghneim, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, to ashes [in 1997]. The fire was deliberate and it was done by the occupation. This does not show a serious understanding of natural protection of the environment.

“At the same time, the Israeli Nature Authority was watching the fire swallow up all the trees. The fire went on for several days.”
In al-Firan, vehicles belonging to the Israeli Nature Authority can be seen
chasing Palestinians. Israeli military maneuvers during the summer also
cause fires to break out. “They arrested some of the shepherds yesterday and
confiscated large amounts of artichoke,” says al-Atrash, adding that Israeli
settlers wander into the area as they please.
Peace Now, an Israeli organization, has reported a rapid expansion of
settlements in the West Bank. Comparing aerial pictures with maps of nature
reserves, the organization found that 21 settlements and 10 settlement sites
had expanded and taken over land classified by Israel as “nature reserves.”
The total area of nature reserves annexed to settlements amounted to 1,900
acres. According to the report, buildings were constructed and roads have
been opened in areas considered to be nature reserves.
In Karnei Shomron settlement in the Qalqilia district, about 73 fixed
housing units have been built in Wadi Qana - a natural valley in which
Palestinians still own land and farm. Twenty other units have been built in
the settlements of Beit Arieh and Negohot on nature reserves in the northern
West Bank.
According to data from Peace Now, four settlement sites have been set up on
nature reserves, including Aloni Shila in Nablus, which includes 44 homes,
and Skali settlement on Jabal al-Kabir to the south of Nablus.
“Officials in planning believe the natural reservations should be joined to
the population clusters - for political considerations,” writes Dror Etkes
in the Peace Now report, issued last month. “The needs of the settlements
have overridden all other considerations when the choice to preserve natural
reservations or expand settlements was made.”
But the Jordan Valley area seems to have witnessed this kind of settlement
expansion before. It began shortly after the Israeli occupation in 1967,
when several kibbutzim were established in areas where there was plenty of
land and water.
Studies by the Palestine Wildlife Society indicate several suggested nature
reserves in the West Bank that were affected by Israeli settlement policies,
such as Um Rayhan forest in Jenin and Nabi Saleh woods in Ramallah, and
Jabal Abu Ghneim in Bethlehem.

Leave a Reply