On Sunday, 15 January 2017, laborers began uprooting olive trees and leveling land near the Palestinian villages of ‘Azzun and a-Nabi Elyas in Qalqilya District, under the supervision of Civil Administration (CA) personnel. This work is being carried out as part of the decision made by the military and the CA to build a bypass road to replace the section of Route 55 that runs through a-Nabi Elyas. Route 55 originally served as the main link between Nablus and Qalqilya and was one of the major traffic arteries in the West Bank. Over time, as settlements expanded, it also became essential to settlers, as it connects several large settlements with Israel’s coastal plains and central region.
The decision to build the bypass road was first made in 1989, with the goal of sparing settlers the need to drive through the village of a-Nabi Elyas. However, it was not pursued until September 2013, when the Civil Administration planning institutions began the planning process. In October 2015, the project was expedited due to pressure by the settler leadership: According to Israeli media reports , Prime Minister Netanyahu promised the heads of the settlement local councils that the road would be built after they had set up a protest tent in October 2015, following the attack that killed Naama and Eitam Henkin.
On 21 December 2015, the head of the Civil Administration issued an expropriation order for 10.4 hectares of land earmarked for the bypass road. The order noted that the new road will “serve the public good” and improve mobility between Nablus and Qalqilya. In March 2016, the Palestinian village councils and landowners petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) against the expropriation, on the grounds that the road will not serve all residents of the area but only settlers. On 16 November 2016, the HCJ denied the petition after accepting the state’s claim that the road is intended to serve the entire population of the area.
The seizure of the land and uprooting of olive trees have severely harmed the landowners, who have lost a source of income and a major financial asset, as well as an open space that served all local residents for leisure and recreational activities.
Hussni Abu Haniyeh, 69, a married father of seven and resident of ‘Azzun, told B’Tselem in a testimony he gave field researcher Abdulkarim Sadi on 22 January 2017:
I inherited a plot of 0.4 hectares from my father, may he rest in peace. My father inherited it from my grandfather decades ago. Since 1990, I’ve been producing 15 cans of olive oil a year from the land. In summer, my wife and I take the children to spend time in the beautiful landscape there, which looks out over the Mediterranean Sea . We go there to picnic and the grandchildren play in nature.
At the end of 2015, the Israeli authorities decided to build a bypass road across our land. At the end of 2016, our petition was denied. Now, on 15 January 2017, Israeli bulldozers started razing the olive trees and working on the ground. They uprooted 26 olive trees from my plot, including three ancient trees. The others are fifty or sixty years old. Ten of the trees were replanted along a strip of land by the road, and I hope they come back to life. I lost something that was very dear to me. Whenever I encountered any difficulty in life, I would go to my land to sit and think, away from the troubles of daily life.
The state argued that the road is meant to serve Palestinians in the area, too, in order to comply with the provisions of international law, which allow the occupying power to expropriate land within the occupied area in two circumstances only. The first is a specific military need related to the occupied territory itself, and the second is promoting the wellbeing of the residents of the occupied territory.
This is not the first time Israeli authorities have claimed the requisitioning of Palestinian land was meant for building roads that would serve the Palestinian population as well, and therefore meets the obligation to serve “the public interest”. This argument was most famously made in the petition against the massive land expropriation undertaken to expand Route 443 north of Jerusalem. In 1983, the HCJ accepted the state’s declaration that the road was intended to serve Palestinians, too, and upheld the seizure. However, in 2002, after several shooting attacks against Israeli cars driving on the road, the military blocked access to it from the surrounding Palestinian villages, although the road was built on their land. Since then, Route 443 has functioned as an Israeli-only road, sanctioned by the HCJ’s permission to employ checkpoints in such a way as to render Palestinian access to it merely hypothetical. Route 443 is not the only road that Palestinians are barred from using in the West Bank. According to B’Tselem’s last check in January 2017, there are some 60 kilometers of roads in the West Bank that Israel dedicates exclusively for settlers and prohibits Palestinians from driving on.
While Israel professes to act for the benefit the occupied population, its policies routinely ignore this population’s needs. One example is the prohibition on construction and development in Area C along with incessant demolition of homes there, which peaked in 2016. These practices are based on the conception of Area C – which encompasses most of the West Bank – as an area to be used for Israeli interests only. These facts, when taken together with false statements about seizing Palestinian land “for the public good” and pressure from the settler lobby, attest yet again to Israel’s policy and aims, which all arms of the state – the planning authorities, the Civil Administration, the settlers, the government, and the HCJ – are working in conjunction to achieve.