Seizure of stray West Bank livestock prompts annexation claims in High Court hearing

Palestinian shepherds lodge petition after Jordan Valley Regional Council detains hundreds of animals under municipal bylaws, demands hundreds of thousands of shekels to release them

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Illustrative - Sheep cross a road in the Jordan valley, in the West Bank on June 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative - Sheep cross a road in the Jordan valley, in the West Bank on June 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice last week heard a petition against the allegedly unlawful seizure of Palestinian-owned livestock by settlement authorities in the West Bank, which despite its seemingly prosaic nature may have an outsized impact on whether Israel’s tightening control of the contested territory is deemed legal.

On Wednesday, the court heard details of the case, which involves the seizure of hundreds of allegedly stray cows and sheep belonging to Palestinian herders in the Jordan Valley region of the West Bank by the Jordan Valley Regional Council, on the demand that the owners pay tens of thousands of shekels in costs for the release of their livestock.

The fact that the settlement regional council carried out its seizures under municipal bylaws makes the case highly political.

According to the petition, the application of Israeli municipal council bylaws to Palestinians, who are not citizens of Israel, violates international law regarding the rights of people subject to a formal military occupation, and would constitute a form of annexation since Israel would be applying its own civil law, instead of military law, to a foreign civilian population.

The petitioners are the Palestinian herders whose livestock was seized. They are residents of small communities in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has full civilian and security control. The herders graze their livestock in open areas of the territory within the extensive legal boundaries of the regional council.

The Jordan Valley Regional Council, alleges the petition, “is posing as a governing agent for those who are not its residents [and] do not vote in, or cannot be elected to, its institutions.”

A Palestinian shepherd herds his sheep in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank on January 7, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

To allow this practice to continue would effectively grant all other Israeli regional councils in the West Bank authority over Palestinians in Area C, thus massively expanding the scope of Israeli civil law applied to the Palestinian population, the petitioners argue.

Since Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, it has never annexed the territory or applied its own civil law to the Palestinian residents there. It instead rules through military law as is customary under the international law for belligerent occupations.

Applying Israeli civil law, whether national or local, to the Palestinian population in the West Bank would, the petition points out, also entail significant legal problems. Those Palestinians would be subject to laws in which they had no democratic input or ability to influence, since they cannot vote in the Knesset or Israeli regional councils, or be elected to them.

Critically, the Israel Defense Forces and the State Attorney’s Office agree with the petition that Israeli regional councils have no authority to enforce their bylaws on Palestinian residents of the area.

The case also comes against the background of an ongoing campaign of harassment and violence by extremist settlers against Palestinian herders in the South Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley, especially since war erupted in Gaza with Hamas’s October 7 massacre in southern Israel.

The settler attacks have led some 1,500 residents of 18 herding communities to abandon their villages and land, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

The case before the court

In three separate incidents, officials from the regional council seized and removed cows and sheep belonging to the petitioners from areas where they said the livestock were either grazing without a grazing license or endangering public safety. In one case, livestock had allegedly strayed onto a road and in another one, the animals approached a local school.

In the first seizure, the council charged the owners NIS 49,000 ($13,000) for trapping, transporting, and maintaining 19 confiscated cows, in order to release their livestock. In the second incident, the council charged NIS 144,000 ($39,000) for the seizure and maintenance of 200 cows. In the third incident, the council charged two owners NIS 75,000 ($20,000) each for the release of some 600 sheep.

The petitioners, represented by the Yesh Din organization which campaigns against the settlements, strongly dispute the circumstances of the livestock seizures, and argue that in the first incident, extremists settlers stole cattle and took them to an area where they could call the council official to seize them. The petitioners said that in the second seizure Palestinian herders were deceived into taking their cattle into an area they were not authorized to graze in. In the third incident, they said, the sheep were at least half a kilometer away from the settlement boundary.

An undated photo provided by the Jordan Valley Regional Council in response to a petition against it filed to the High Court of Justice of an ostensibly stray cow on a road within the council’s boundaries in 2023 or 2024. (Courtesy Jordan Valley Regional Council)

During Wednesday’s hearing, the justices of the High Court focused, however, not on the details of the seizure itself but on the Jordan Valley Regional Council’s decision to begin enforcing its bylaws on the local Palestinian herding community.

At one stage of the proceedings, Justice Daphna Barak Erez, who headed the three-member panel presiding over the case, strongly challenged the notion that the regional council could demand payment from the Palestinian owners for expenses incurred when seizing the livestock.

Justice Yechiel Kasher zoned in on the stated reason for the seizure and continued detainment of the animals, which alleged stray livestock endangered public safety.

“You’re saying that there is a need to carry out these seizures to free up Route 90 for example. [But] as soon as the need is addressed there’s no longer any authority,” said Kasher, implying that the ongoing detention of the livestock and the demand for payment to release them exceeds the boundaries of the regional council’s authority with regard to ensuring public safety.

Case for the defense: an obligation to protect public safety

Attorney Avi Segal, who is representing the Jordan Valley Regional Council, contended however that municipal bylaw passed by the council in 2010 applies specifically to the territory within the council’s jurisdiction and that it is therefore empowered to take enforcement measures against stray livestock over public safety concerns.

He said that the livestock in the first two incidents had no identifying markings and was therefore impossible to determine that their owners are Palestinian. He said that the council was nevertheless obligated to enforce the law and protect public safety.

Segal repeatedly insisted that the Palestinian owners had violated the law since they were grazing their livestock without grazing licenses. He noted the costs incurred by the council to feed and vaccinate the seized animals.

The petitioners contended that they have no way to obtain grazing licenses since the Jordan Valley Regional Council does not issue a public tender for such licenses.

Segal also underlined the safety problems posed by ongoing incidents of stray livestock wandering onto the roads, stating in the written response to the court that there had been 112 such incidents in the last 12 months which resulted in “dozens” of road accidents.

Illustrative: Daphne Barak-Erez presides at a court hearing at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem, January 13, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The entire purpose of the petition is to legitimize the criminal acts of the petitioners, so that they will be able to continue to conduct themselves in the jurisdiction of the respondent [the regional council] as they wish and, in effect, endanger the safety and security of the residents who live in the council’s territory,” Segal claimed in the petition.

“The petitioners are asking you to give permission for their criminality. You wouldn’t have thought that a criminal could petition the High Court to authorize his criminality.”

On questionable authority

The justices however did not appear convinced of the regional council’s authority over the Palestinian herders. Barak-Erez asked the council chairman David Elhayani pointedly why the council does not simply call the Civil Administration to deal with such problems.

The Civil Administration is a department of the Defense Ministry which handles Palestinian civilian affairs in the West Bank, and has an agricultural department whose tasks include dealing with stray livestock.

The justices asked to hear from an officer of the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration unit dealing with agricultural affairs in the Jordan Valley area, who told the court that he carries out enforcement against stray livestock and is readily available to deal with stray livestock.

Toward the end of the hearing, Barak-Erez asked Segal whether the regional council would agree to hand over the seized livestock to the Civil Administration officer without having to incur transportation costs, indicating a possible way to resolve the case.

However, the officer was hesitant to immediately commit to the plan, saying he would need to check his capabilities in that regard.

The petitioners are also seeking a broader interim injunction against the Jordan Valley Regional Council that would prohibit it from seizing Palestinian livestock, except in emergency cases of public safety.

Illustrative: Palestinian shepherd Fawzy Daraghmeh herds his flock of sheep at an area designated as military zone in Um Zuka town, north of the Jordan Valley, on February 19, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND/ AFP)

“The petitioners are part of a vulnerable, poor and downtrodden community of Palestinian shepherds in the Jordan Valley,” wrote Israeli human rights attorney Michael Sfard in the petition. He is representing the livestock owners and Yesh Din.

“Their families have lived in the Jordan Valley for many generations and maintain an almost biblical lifestyle of shepherding sheep. Herding is part of their culture, it is their occupation, it is their livelihood and it is part of their identity.”

All of this would be endangered, Sfard told the court, if the regional council’s new practice of seizing Palestinian livestock and demanding payment for their release is allowed to stand.

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