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High Court of Justice rejected HaMoked’s petition: the military can demand that inheritors of plots trapped in the Seam Zone formally register as owners as a condition for getting a permit to cultivate their lands. The petition prompted the state to reduce the land registration fee from 1% of the land’s value to a fixed fee of 160 NIS

For years HaMoked has been battling against the military permit regime enforced in the West Bank areas trapped between the separation wall and the Green Line (the armistice line between Israel and the West Bank) – areas Israel calls "the Seam Zone". This discriminatory regime applies only to the Palestinian population of the oPt, bars most of them from entering the Seam Zone, and compels those who seek to go there to obtain a military permit in advance, subject to the military’s draconian bureaucracy, antagonistic to their rights and traditions. The Seam Zone permit regime was approved by the High Court of Justice (HCJ) despite the severe violation of Palestinians’ rights to dignity and freedom of movement inside one’s own country as well as the rights to property and freedom of occupation. Moreover, over the years the permit regime has become steadily more restrictive, deteriorating into de facto dispossession. It seems its purpose is to reduce to the minimum access to the agricultural lands inside the Seam Zone, regardless of any security needs – the purported single purpose of the separation wall and all of the restrictions. Consequently, fewer and fewer farmers manage to obtain from the military the required permit to access their lands regularly and frequently as they wish.

As part of the exacerbation of the permit regime, in the first half of 2017, the Israeli military suddenly stopped approving permit requests by inheritors of lands registered in the Tabu (the land registry) – or by farmers leasing land from them. The military no longer allowed them to prove their “ties to the land” as before – by presenting a land deed in the deceased owner’s name along with an inheritance order – and instead demanded that they register the lands in their own names in the Israeli military’s land registry, if they wish to continue receiving the regular two-year agricultural permit. Those that did not do so either received a short-term permit or were denied a permit entirely.

On May 14, 2020, HaMoked filed the first of a series of principled petitions to the HCJ on behalf of farmers – both inheritors and those leasing land – banned from accessing their trapped lands due to the military’s demand that inheritors register as the owners. In the petition, HaMoked demanded that the military resume issuing long-term agricultural permits to enter the Seam Zone as before. This given the disproportionate harm to the petitioners’ rights, the fact that there was no security rationale for the new registration demand and based on the domestic law regarding the automatic transfer of land rights to inheritors without need for formal registration.

HaMoked also argued that the petitioners and many other Palestinians follow local agrarian traditions and value joint family ownership, rather than separate registration of each inheritor (HaMoked also provided the court with an anthropological expert opinion on this matter). HaMoked raised its concern that the demand was intended to bring about the formal division of plots to enable the military to ban farmers’ access to them on the grounds they owned a “tiny plot not justifying cultivation” (a matter challenged by HaMoked in another petition still pending in which the HCJ issued an order nisi). Additionally, HaMoked argued against the fact that registration entailed the payment of a costly fee amounting to one percent of the land's value, in addition to legal expenses.

On April 22, 2021, following the justices’ questions to the state during the first hearing, the state announced that the registration fee had been reduced to a fixed sum of 160 NIS, similar to the fee charged in Israel. The state also clarified that a farmer who began the procedure to update the land ownership registration would be entitled to a permit until the registration request is decided upon.

On July 12, 2021, the HCJ rejected the petitions, ruling that the military’s demand did not cause disproportionate harm to the farmers, given the fee reduction and the state’s clarification. The court held that “there is no cause to intervene in the [military’s] policy whereby even a person who does not pose a concrete security threat must get a Seam Zone entry permit and prove their tie to the registered land by presenting a Tabu deed… the proper venue for raising arguments about a specific harm to rights is in the framework of an individual petition”. Whereas in the first hearing the justices expressed reservations about the state’s claim that registration in the Tabu could prevent illegal entry into Israel, in the judgment, the HCJ unreservedly adopted this odd claim, holding that “the decision to enforce the demand of presenting an [updated] registry deed indeed directly emanated from the security purpose underlying the permit regime”.

Court President Hayut noted, however, that the petition clearly contributed to clarification of the issue and the decision to reduce the fee.

HaMoked will continue its efforts to curb the permit regime’s ever-growing bureaucracy of dispossession and help farmers access their trapped plots. (02) 627 1698   (02) 627 6317

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