Two weeks before Israel’s March 2 elections, then-defense minister Naftali Bennett announced the inauguration of seven new nature reserves in the portion of the West Bank that’s fully administered by Israel.
“Today we’ve given the Land of Israel a major boost and are continuing to develop the Jewish settlement enterprise in Area C, in deeds and not in words,” he said.
Using the biblical term for the West Bank often employed by Israelis on the right, the former minister — whose far-right Yamina party joined the political opposition to the new Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz-led government sworn in on May 17 — added that “in Judea and Samaria there are conservation areas with stunning vistas.”
“We will expand the existing ones and we will open new ones,” Bennett said. “I invite all Israeli citizens to rise up and stride around the land, to come to Judea and Samaria to hike, to discover, and to carry on the Zionist enterprise.”
As an Israeli citizen who loves nature and stunning views, Bennett’s call touched my heart. After the elections, therefore, (and before the pandemic-induced call to remain at home), I rose up early and turned my gaze and my feet eastward, to see, from up close, the new nature reserves designated by the then-defense minister — swaths of land that will, any day now, under US President Donald Trump’s Deal of the Century, be annexed by Israel.
My initial plan was to arrive at the new reserves accompanied by an Israel Nature and Parks Authority ranger. I had hoped to see these new natural assets through the eyes of the rangers entrusted with their preservation, and to hear firsthand about the challenges of preserving this most valuable tract of land.
But the Nature and Parks Authority representatives politely declined my request. They explained to me that Bennett had indeed issued a proclamation about nature reserves in the areas of Judea and Samaria, but the rangers who are to patrol and preserve such parks are under the jurisdiction of the Civil Administration. That body, which answers to the Defense Ministry’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), handles the administrative day-to-day in Area C.
But to my deep disappointment the Civil Administration also rejected my request to accompany a ranger.
A spokesperson explained to me that though Bennett had declared the areas’ new designation, and a ministerial declaration is not to be scoffed at and is undoubtedly a matter of national importance, implementation of such a declaration (“in deeds and not it words,” as the defense minister put it), is dependent upon the OC Central Command.
Only once that military officer, a Maj.-Gen. who is formally the sovereign in the West Bank, translates the declaration into a specific order does it become law. And until such an order is issued, they can’t put me in touch with a ranger for a visit to the nature reserves.
When, I asked, would the Maj.-Gen. be publicizing this long-awaited order?
“That remains unclear,” they said.
Dror the explorer
And that is how I found myself hurtling along a West Bank dirt road in a battered, Chinese-made Great Wall Motors vehicle driven by Dror Etkes, who agreed to help me identify the new nature conservation areas.
Etkes has been tracking the expansion of the settlement enterprise for almost 20 years. First as a Peace Now field coordinator, then with the volunteer-based humanitarian organization Yesh Din, and most recently as the head of Kerem Navot, an NGO that he established and runs nearly by himself.
Etkes is, depending on whom you ask, “a peace activist who fears for the future of Israel,” or an “extreme leftist who aims to undermine the Zionist enterprise with the aid of European money.” And yet he is also — and this is beyond dispute — one of the foremost world experts about the goings-on in Judea and Samaria.
With undisguised joy Etkes sped along the dirt roads of the West Bank without navigation and without a map, sailing through flooded parts of the road (“No point in living if you don’t take chances, right?”), chatting with Palestinians that we met on the way in fluent Arabic, and pointing out the best shawarma in Jericho.
Two Israeli men in sunglasses draw too much attention. Who knows what could happen
But at the entrance to the ancient city Etkes slid off his sunglasses and asked me to the same. “In spite of all my experience, I am not complacent when I travel in the areas of the Palestinian Authority. Two Israeli men in sunglasses draw too much attention. Who knows what could happen,” he said.
En route he pointed out buildings, fences, pipes, huts and waste drains and put them all in local, historical, military and political context.
Sometimes when Etkes felt the need to expand on something or refresh his memory, he pulled out his laptop containing maps of the West Bank upon which are imposed layers of aerial photos from 1997 onward, enabling him to expose the layers of historical records beneath what one sees on the surface today. Processes, trends, unilateral facts on the ground were all laid bare.
We set off for Jordan River South, one of the seven parks proclaimed by Bennett. The preserve is adjacent to a wide-open space where an Israeli organization called Midbaran had planned, before the coronavirus pandemic, to hold a Burning Man-like festival over Passover, aiming to attract some 15,000 participants.
But the new nature reserve, it turns out, is unreachable. It is situated in a fenced-off, closed military area. An Israeli army vehicle, with a reservist driver at the wheel and an amiable captain in the commander’s seat, signaled us to stop and asked what we were doing here, in the middle of nowhere, alongside a closed military zone.
“The defense minister invited the citizens of Israel to visit this nature reserve and I decided to accept his invitation,” I explained to the captain, and asked for permission to enter. Turns out that’s not possible. Firstly, the captain has no key for the locked gate. And secondly, even if he had a key, entry is forbidden, he said, “without advance coordination with brigade headquarters.”
Bitronot Wadi Tirza brought more of the same, though it did become clear that a superfluous comma in the minister’s proclamation severed this preserve into two separate units: Bitronot and Wadi Tirza. This was how the proclamation was subsequently written up in right-wing news sites such as Srugim, Kippa, and Arutz Sheva, indicating, perhaps, that even the Greater Israel faithful, who delighted in the new nature reserve, haven’t got a clue as to what’s going on.
If they do want to get a closer look at the new reserve, they too are bound for disappointment. A female soldier on duty at the entrance gate informed us, yet again, that entry without advance coordination with the brigade headquarters was not allowed. And so not only is Bitronot Wadi Tirza — freely translated as the Badlands of Tirza Canyon — one reserve and not two, but it is also part of a closed military zone, impassable to civilians as per Order 151.
Out of order
Order 151, issued in November 1967, designated 237,000 dunams (approximately 60,000 acres) between the Jordan River and Highway 90 a closed military area. The order was urgently issued after the Six Day War to stop movement between the two sides of the Jordan.
After Order 151 made that swath of territory a closed military zone, the Palestinian villagers who lived there were banished. Since then, tens of thousands of dunams of land within the closed area have been given to Jewish settlers, who cultivate the land east of the highway and west of the river.
The area delineated by Order 151 was trimmed in 2002 with the completion of the electric border fence along the northern part of the Jordan Valley. But even after the reduction, there are still thousands of dunams of land that are being cultivated by settlers who have received these lands incrementally since the 1980s.
With the aid of the aerial maps, Etkes identified nearly 10,000 dunams of land that are today cultivated by Israeli farmers within the closed area. More than half of that area was once privately owned Palestinian land, but since 1967 the landowners have not been able to access it.
Welcome to paradise. There’s land, water, date orchards, a fence against thieves — the only thing they don’t have are Palestinians
The settlers and their hired field workers — most of whom come from Thailand and Nepal — are given special permits allowing them to enter and exit the closed areas. The majority of the lands being cultivated today (primarily date orchards, which have grown tremendously in recent years in the Jordan Valley) have been given over to the settlers in the last decade.
“Welcome to paradise,” Etkes said. “There’s land, there’s desalinated water that Israel supplies, there are date orchards, there’s an electric fence against thieves — the only thing they don’t have are Palestinians.”
The desalinated water is worth further contemplation. It is brought to the area via purple pipes that are popping up left and right. This is a mass water-purification project which takes wastewater from East Jerusalem and from the settlements in the southern West Bank, and purifies it near the drainage at Bet Ha’arava, from where it is pumped to Majhool date plantations, the big economic star of the region.
“There is no longer any water shortage here,” Etkes said. “The water problem has been solved and there will be even more water when the southern section of the purple pipes is built.”
Asked if the water purification project will also benefit the Palestinians, Etkes responded evenhandedly.
I met a Palestinian who told me, ‘Us, without Israelis, we wouldn’t have what to eat’
“It’s a question of how you view the Palestinian interest,” he said. “If you think it is beneficial for the Palestinians that there be settlers here, then the answer is yes. And there are Palestinians who will agree with you. I met a Palestinian who told me, ‘Us, without Israelis, we wouldn’t have what to eat.’ This is part of the reality.
“Between 2008 and 2017, I mapped out in an organized manner all the Israeli agricultural activity in the area. We have more than 10,000 dunams of Israeli agriculture under Order 151. It’s all dates, and who do you think is working those lands? Thais and Nepalis.
“There are gates on Order 151 lands, which, as noted, open onto closed military zones accessible only to settlers. The keys are found in the possession of these Thai and Nepali workers and also, of course, in the hands of their employers. Just as there are Palestinian date barons, there is today a new class of Israeli date baron,” Ekes said.
A natural mystery
In this way, the absurdities of this trip begin to accumulate. It’s not merely the fact that some of the nature reserves are situated in closed military zones, areas to which the public is denied access (rather negating the very notion of a national park); and not merely the fact that two of the parks are really a single park; and not the fact that much of the land slated for preservation is actually agricultural land long since given to Israeli farmers and today cultivated by foreign workers; nor, finally, that the lands adjacent to one of the reserves were, pre-coronavirus pandemic, supposed to host thousands of Israeli hipsters dancing themselves into oblivion over Passover.
Instead, it’s the more mundane absurdity that stands out: these nature reserves aren’t even new.
They were authorized as nature reserves many years ago and are specified as such on the Israel Nature and Parks Authority website. Indeed, the local ecosystems in these reserves are rather healthy, not least, it seems, because they are so infrequently visited. So why was it so urgent for the defense minister to announce the alleged new preservation status two weeks before elections?
The answer is folded into the question. The announcement would certainly sound good to the ears of right-leaning voters who yearn for sovereignty over the this part of the land. In addition, there is a difference between a “certified” reserve and a “declared” reserve. Once a nature reserve is upgraded in status from certified to declared, the rangers patrolling the region (the ones who didn’t let us accompany them) are given law enforcement authority within the realm of the park.
According to Peace Now, Bennett’s proclamation included thousands of dunams of privately owned Palestinian land. The Wadi Malcha reserve is, in its entirety, privately owned (some 15,000 dunams). In the badlands reserve there are 200 dunams of privately owned land, and in Wadi Og some 5,700 dunams.
Once the OC Central Command publishes the much-anticipated declaration, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority rangers will be granted police-like authority within the parks, and one may assume that Israeli and Palestinian violators of the law will be treated rather differently.
“Israeli agriculture is creeping into the nature reserves,” Etkes said. “And there is a more severe phenomenon of Israeli construction within the nature reserves. Just in the ‘new nature reserves’ alone there are 800 dunams of land cultivated by Israeli farmers. All told, there are 1,200 dunams of Israeli-cultivated land within the West Bank’s nature reserves. And there are 21 settlements and at least 10 outposts that are situated, at least in part, within nature reserves and national parks.”
Israeli agriculture is creeping into the nature reserves
In other words, said Etkes, the declaration of land as a nature reserve has nothing to do with the conservation of nature — though it does have much to do with which violations will be prosecuted going forward, and which will be ignored.
“For example, in the Wadi Kana reserve, which is one of the largest and most beautiful reserves in the West Bank and which lies west of Nablus, there, in 2002, they built an outpost called El Matan, which was situated within a nature reserve,” Etkes said. “Do you know what they did to legitimize it? They just reduced the reserve, taking the outpost out of it. The declaration of an area as a nature reserve is a political tool. No doubt about it. It’s a political tool and a work tool that enables control over the area.”
According to Etkes, “very few” visitors are interested in coming to the reserves, which “are not a magnet for hikers” — not even ones who live in the settlements.
“The nature reserves which Bennett spoke about have no springs and nothing particularly attractive about them,” he said. “The story here is not tourism. It’s just declarations.”
A version of this article originally appeared on Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.