Under the radar: Palestinian Authority builds a new illegal school in a Jordan Valley nature reserve
Over the past several weeks, the Palestinian Authority built a new illegal school at Hamam al Maliakh, in the Bazak Nature Reserve in the Jordan Valley. Regavim: “The PA builds, the EU funds, and the State of Israel ignores.”
he Palestinian Authority (PA) built a new school in the site of the historic Hamam al Maliakh hot springs, located in the heart of the Jordan Valley’s Bazak Nature Reserve. The site is in Area C, under full Israeli jurisdiction.
Some years ago, an Arab family took over the site, turning the historic structure into a private residence and making structural changes as if it were their personal property.
Now, aside from the illegal invasion and damage to the site, insult has been added to injury: A new school has sprung up at the site in recent weeks, complete with signage announcing that the construction was funded by the European Union and group of European countries – all of which have been playing an increasingly significant role in the PA’s quiet takeover of Area C in recent years.
The new school is adorned with colorful wall murals – as well as tarpaulin sheets that are meant to hide the illegal structure from the eyes of Civil Administration inspectors.
Regavim turned to the Civil Administration, seeking answers: How is it possible that a school was built in the heart of an historic site located in a national nature reserve – and no one did a thing to stop it?
Eitan Melet, Regavim’s Field Coordinator for Judea and Samaria, explains: “The Palestinian Authority is playing hide and seek with the Civil Administration. The PA builds “confrontation schools” – illegal schools in Area C – for the purpose of anchoring a network of outposts in Area C. The Palestinians come up with new, inventive ways of camouflaging their activities, and the Civil Administration, either intentionally or unintentionally, continues to fall into the very effective trap that the PA is using over and over again: Once these illegal schools are completed, they create a win-win public relations headache which the Civil Administration hasn’t learned to contend with. The PA appears to be the only team on the playing field.”
The Palestinian Authority (PA) took advantage of the Passover holiday recess for large-scale illegal construction, including sites already under court-issued work-stop orders. Regavim: “This pattern repeats itself over each holiday, and the Israeli authorities continue to do nothing to prevent it.”
While Israelis enjoyed the week-long Passover holiday, the PA used the Civil Administration’s vacation to full advantage, carrying out lightning-paced construction at a number of strategically-placed sites in Area C, the portion of Judea and Samaria under full Israeli jurisdiction.
One of the projects aimed at establishing facts on the ground during the inspectors’ vacation is on the outskirts of Rujeib, located between Shechem (Nablus) and the Jewish community of Itamar in Area C. Over the intermediate days of the Passover festival, new areas were leveled for construction and infrastructure was laid for an illegal construction project that broke ground in recent months.
In the vicinity of Duma, a village adjacent to the Alon Road in the eastern Binyamin section of Area C, three permanent structures were built over the holiday – part of an enormous illegal construction project that is doubling the size of the village.
At Khirbet Khurkosh, an archaeological site in central Samaria that has been subjected to large-scale invasion and destruction in recent months, a very large brick-and-mortar structure was built over Passover.
Under current Civil Administration operational guidelines, all field inspectors vacation for the duration of the Jewish high holidays in the fall and Passover in the spring. For a week or more, no oversight, inspection or enforcement activity is carried out in Judea and Samaria. The results have become depressingly predictable: an outbreak of illegal construction in Area C.
Several years ago, Regavim released a report titled “Festivals of Construction” (Hebrew) surveying this phenomenon. Among other recommendations, the report suggested that the Civil Administration hire Druse inspectors to carry out the necessary fieldwork on Jewish days of rest and festivals, paralleling the system used by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor to enforce Israel’s days-of-rest laws and the Ministry of Interior’s system for enforcing Passover Chametz laws.
“These are the tip of the iceberg of the systematic annexation-via-construction program that is carried out on Jewish holidays, which have become festivals of illegal construction in the Arab sector throughout Israel, and particularly in Judea and Samaria,” says Eitan Melet, Regavim’s Field Coordinator for Judea and Samaria. “The authorities know full well what will happen, but fail to take any preventative measures.”
Regavim launches a hard-hitting campaign, calling upon the Israeli government to stop the downward spiral and save the Negev – before it’s too late.
For years, the Israeli government has attempted to counter the loss of governance and the spread of illegal squatters’ camps in southern Israel by offering “compensation” payments and free land to the Bedouin of the Negev – who continue to reject any and all of the government’s increasingly generous offers, because they know that their hardball tactics will be rewarded with more attractive offers as time goes by.
The Regavim Movement has launched a new campaign to address this massive – and growing – problem. The first video clip of the campaign illustrates where the Negev is headed, and what Israel will look like when the Bedouin “country-within-a-country” is established. Regavim’s campaign is a response to a string of recent incidents that have highlighted the anarchy that continues to plague the Negev. The campaign calls upon the Israeli government to put a stop to the downward spiral, and to prevent the creation of a state-within-the-state in the Negev.
In recent years, the State of Israel seems to have lost its grip: Sovereignty in the southern region of Israel has been relinquished to the state that is slowly being built in the Negev. More and more illegal enclaves continue to spring up throughout the territory – and all the while, the Israeli government continues to turn a blind eye.
The takeover of the territory through the construction of tens of thousands of illegal structures has been accompanied by a complete breakdown of governance and the loss of personal security for all the residents of the area – Jews and Bedouin alike. Gangs of criminals continue to invade IDF bases and steal weapons and other equipment; they assault soldiers in broad daylight on main roads and snatch their weapons without fear. Adding insult to injury, the bandits record themselves in real time – marauding on IDF bases, smuggling drugs, shooting up residential neighborhoods with automatic weapons – and upload the videos to social media.
The constant stream of shocking news from the Negev led to the Regavim Movement’s decision to address the issues head on – before the loss of control reaches the point of no return.
Regavim CEO Meir Deutsch: “Ben-Gurion, who famously declared that the resolve of the People of Israel will be tested and proved in the Negev, must be turning over in his grave at the sight of the abandonment of the Negev and the devolution of southern Israel into an ex-territorial no man’s land. Instead of increasing enforcement and governance, instead of iron-fisted rule of law and the dissolution of the illegal squatters’ camps, the Israeli government is whitewashing and ‘legalizing’ them, perpetuating and enabling the Bedouin takeover.”
The Regavim Movement filed a petition against the Jerusalem Municipality, demanding law enforcement against an illegal subterranean tunnel dug by the Church of the Dormition on Mount Zion, in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City – an area dense with historical and archaeological treasures.
The Regavim Movement filed a petition yesterday (Tuesday) in the Jerusalem District Court, against the Jerusalem Municipality, which has been concealing the existence of an underground tunnel dug by the Church of the Dormition, one of the largest and most recognizable Catholic churches in Jerusalem. The Dormition, located just outside the Zion Gate, on the highest point in ancient Jerusalem, is included in the historic preservation compound known as “The Sovev Homot [Jerusalem Ramparts] National Park.”
As a result of Regavim’s legal pressure over the past two years, the Jerusalem Municipality was forced to measure and document the tunnel, which encroaches on public property in an area dense with archaeological remains. Since the completion of the mapping project, the municipality has ignored Regavim’s continued requests to release documentation of the tunnel and law enforcement at the site.
Mount Zion, one of the gateways to the Old City of Jerusalem, is well known for its unparalleled historic and archaeological importance to the three monotheistic faiths. The section of the mountain that is protected by the “Sovev Homot (Ancient Jerusalem Ramparts) National Park” contains numerous archaeological sites, including the site identified as King David’s tomb, the Hasmonean-era city walls, and the First Temple-era city wall.
Despite the national, religious, scientific and historical importance of the area as a whole, the Dormition Church dug an underground tunnel, more than 100 meters long, to connect the Church with “Beit Josef,” a dormitory/guest house it built nearby decades ago.
For years, the existence of the tunnel was nothing more than a rumor shared among local residents and Jewish institutions active on Mount Zion, until Regavim sent an official request to the Jerusalem Municipality in 2019 for confirmation of its existence and precise details of the tunnel’s location, in order to determine the extent to which it encroaches on public land as well as the extent to which priceless antiquities may have been harmed by the unsupervised digging.
Last year, as a result of Regavim’s demand and after the Jerusalem Municipality was forced to admit that the there is, in fact, an “old tunnel” at Beit Josef, official documentation was carried out on behalf of the Jerusalem Municipality; the illegal underground passage, measuring some 150 meters, was documented at last.
The investigation revealed that along the path of the tunnel there are underground rooms containing ancient artifacts, and the tunnel itself encroaches to a significant extent on public property. This illegal passageway was dug without a permit, violating existing planning codes and Israel’s Archeological Protection Law, without any oversight by engineers or archaeologists, as required by law, and may have damaged antiquities and other artifacts.
Despite its findings, the Municipality has not charged the Church arnona (municipal land taxes) for the illegal tunnel, while all other residents of the city are expected to pay these and other taxes and tariffs or face heavy penalties.
“When the details began to come into focus, we demanded over and over that the Jerusalem Municipality publicize the documentation of its findings, as required by the Freedom of Information Law. We further demanded that oversight, inspection and law enforcement procedures be taken immediately, to restore the site to its previous condition either by sealing off or demolishing the tunnel,” said Attorneys Avi Segal and Yael Cinnamon of the Regavim Movement. “We filed this petition only when our repeated requests to the Jerusalem Municipality were not answered.”
Freedom of Information Petition: Who is providing electricity to illegal Palestinian construction?
The Regavim Movement has petitioned the Jerusalem District Court, after the Civil Administration refused to provide data on the extent of electricity connections apparently supplied by the East Jerusalem Electric Company, an Israeli subsidiary of the Israel Electric Company which is subject to Israeli law, for thousands of illegal Palestinian structures in Judea and Samaria.
Tens of thousands of illegal structures have been built in the last decade in Area C, the section of Judea and Samaria under full Israeli jurisdiction. Most of these structures are connected to the electricity grid operated by the East Jerusalem Electric Company, an Israeli company supervised by the Public Services Authority. Other than the Israel Electric Company, the East Jerusalem Electric Company is the only company in Israel licensed to distribute electricity throughout the country.
To ascertain the extent of this phenomenon, Regavim submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Civil Administration last August. The request focused on electrical connections provided for illegal structures located a few meters from the entrance gate to Efrat in Gush Etzion. These structures, built illegally by Arabs with the encouragement and support of the Palestinian Authority, are connected to the East Jerusalem Electric Company network.
Regavim wanted to understand how the East Jerusalem Electric Company received permission to connect the illegal structures to the grid, and precisely how the electricity pillars were placed: Is there an approved masterplan for the area? Were these structures given permits, or perhaps granted permit exemptions which allowed for their connection to the grid?
The Civil Administration did not respond; after Regavim’s second request for information, the Civil Administration’s official response was that “staff members are working vigorously to formulate a response to this query;” although these structures had been hooked up to the electrical supply only a few months before the query was submitted, the Civil Administration explained that the structures in question are “old,” and that “in-depth examination of the archives is required.”
Months after this puzzling response, no substantive reply was received from the Civil Administration to the Freedom of Information request, so Regavim petitioned the court to compel the Civil Administration to provide satisfactory answers about this absurd situation.
“Aside from the safety hazards posed by unauthorized, unsupervised electrical connections, this situation lends permanence to the illegal structures,” says Yakhin Zik, Director of Operations at Regavim. “It is inconceivable that a company subject to Israeli law should provide unauthorized electrical connections to structures built illegally. It is inconceivable that while on the one hand the Israeli government has vowed to fight and win “the battle for Area C,” on the other hand it is allowing this phenomenon to entrench and reward the illegal construction that is the primary tool for the hostile Palestinian takeover of Area C.”
Earlier this year, a Bedouin man invaded into agricultural lands that belong to the Moshav Nevatim, appropriated a piece of land for himself, and put up an illegal hut. The hut was small, but its impact was huge: the intruder decided to stay there and prevent the Moshav’s workers from entering their fields to work the land. He also threatened whoever made such attempts.
Moshav Nevatim in the central Negev, near Be’er Sheva, is surrounded by clusters of illegal Bedouin squatters’ camps, and has suffered for many years from crime, vandalism, burglary and agricultural theft. Nevatim was recently in the headlines following the shocking desecration of Jewish graves in the Moshav cemetery.
The frustrated farmers of Nevatim asked Regavim for help. We went to the National Enforcement Unit, the Israel Police, and the Israel Land Authority to demand a stop to this illegal land seizure. We explained that threats on farmers are not acceptable, and urged that the invader be kicked out and held accountable.
The lack of effective governance in the Negev is what led to this episode in the first place. For years, the State hasn’t exercised its authority and responsibilities in the Negev properly, rendering it Israel’s Wild South. This has allowed people to take the law into their own hands, which causes major distress and damage for regular, law-abiding residents of the Negev.
Thanks to Regavim’s pressure in this case, the invader was kicked out, the hut was dismantled, and the threats on the farmers were lifted. In March, finally, the farmers returned to work their lands.
We don’t always see the fruits of our efforts immediately, but in cases like these it’s clear how important and significant our work is. We’re hopeful that the Moshav’s workers will never again find themselves under threat; never again will their lands be seized illegally in broad daylight. If they seek our assistance, we will do whatever we can to help.
Israel’s High Court of Justice denies appeal of landowners whose property has been overtaken by thousands of Bedouin squatters: “This case does not justify judicial interference.”
After a decade of legal proceedings, yesterday (Monday) Israel’s High Court of Justice denied an appeal by owners of private property who sought a court-mandated deadline for the removal of squatters from their land – land located on the outskirts of Bir Hadaj, the crime capital of the Negev. “An outrageous miscarriage of justice.”
Yestrday (Monday), Israel’s High Court of Justice rejected a petition filed by individual land owners whose property has been overrun by Bedouin squatters. Over the past number of years, more than 1,000 Bedouin families invaded state land and private properties on the outskirts of Kibbutz Revivim, while rejecting a series of increasingly generous relocation-compensation packages offered by the Israeli government. The owners of the property took their case to court ten years ago, and in their most recent appeal, they sought a court-mandated timetable for the restoration of their property.
In stark contrast to a well-established record of High Court judgements that required the state to remove Jewish homes built on privately-owned Arab property according to non-negotiable deadlines, in the case of the Jewish landowners of Bir Hadaj, Justices Groskopf, Mazuz and Wilner decided that “the rights of ownership of the appellants regarding their private property are not absolute, and do not exist in a vacuum,” and that this “is not among those exceptional and extreme cases that justify judicial intervention in the policy of the authorities responsible for enforcing planning and construction laws.”
The squatters’ camps near Bir Hadaj began to take shape in the early 2000s, after the Israeli government temporarily relocated 15 families from the Ramat Beka area to state land near Kibbutz Revivim. This set off a massive movement of families from the Al Azazmeh tribe, who quickly covered thousands of dunams of state land in the vicinity, as well as some 2000 dunams of land owned privately by Jews, with hundreds of illegal structures.
This sprawling squatters’ camp has grown into the crime capital of southern Israel, an exterritorial no man’s land where Israeli law enforcement is virtually nonexistent. Residents of the squatters’ camp have been in the news recently: The suspects in the rape of a 10-year old girl in the course of a home invasion, the massive drug production plantations on the nearby Tzeelim firing zone, large-scale plunder of IDF ammunition and harassment of IDF trainees and reservists are all “credited” to residents of the Bir Hadaj hinterland.
In 2003, the Israeli government decided to create a new, legal alternative for the squatters: an all-Bedouin town, built on state land. Each of the squatter families was offered a “compensation” package of hundreds of thousands of shekels as well as a 5 dunam plot of land (!) – but this wasn’t enough to convince the squatters to relocate.
The owners of the stolen land, together with the Regavim Movement, petitioned the Beer Sheva District Court, asking that the state be required to provide a timetable for the evacuation of the squatters, but the government responded that it was carrying out negotiations with the squatters with the aim of achieving a mutually-acceptable evacuation – and the petition was dismissed. When the much-awaited agreement didn’t materialize, a second petition was filed in 2015 – which the court denied without explanation.
A third petition was filed after the Director of the Bedouin Authority, Yair Maayan, released an official announcement that all attempts to achieve a mutually-accepted evacuation agreement had failed.
The owners of the purloined property returned to court, proving that from the time they had first petitioned, the squatters had built hundreds of additional illegal structures on their property. To make matters worse, what meager law enforcement activity had taken place in the interim (6 relocation agreements were signed with squatters, out of over 1000) had focused on clearing state-owned land, and the private owners were left ‘high and dry.’
This third petition was also denied, despite the government’s response to the court that it could not predict when enforcement activity would be completed in the squatters camp as a whole, and in the privately-owned sections in particular. The property owners turned to the High Court of Justice to appeal the District Court decision.
Yesterday (Monday), the High Court of Justice denied their appeal. “The situation in Bir Hadaj as a whole, and in the privately-owned section in particular, is unacceptable,” wrote Justice Groskopf in the opening words of the judgement. “The state must not accept a situation in which there are areas under its jurisdiction that are beyond the law,” and even after a decade has passed, “it is unclear when the owners of the property will be able to exercise their rights to it.”
Nonetheless, the judges refused to require the state to adhere to a deadline for evacuation of the property. “The appellants’ ownership rights to the privately-owned land, which undoubtedly and undeniably been harmed, are not absolute and do not exist in a vacuum. They are to be weighed against the state’s policy of creating appropriate regulation solutions for the illegal compound at Bir Hadaj, in the larger context of efforts to regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev.”
Meir Deutsch, Director General of Regavim, reacted to the judgement: “This is a miscarriage of justice that cries out to the very heavens. In inverse cases, the High Court ordered the wholesale evacuation of Jewish communities and the destruction of Jewish homes according to draconian, non-negotiable timetables. In this case, it has become clear that the government itself is creating the cesspool of lawlessness that is exploding on us all. The squatters’ camps have become an exterritorial incubator for the horrors that continue to befall Israeli citizens of the Negev and beyond. The unthinkable has become the norm; the rape of a child in her own home, the invasion and looting of IDF bases, and the terrorizing of law abiding Israelis speak for themselves.”
Chaim Goloventsis, one of the owners of the land, added: “We must not accept a reality in which the High Court of Justice once again denies us the right to our property. I am convinced that if our land had been located in the 03 area code (i.e., greater Tel Aviv), the judgement would have been totally different. This is just one more pathetic, embarrassing instance of the breakdown of the state’s institutions in southern Israel.”
As a result of our petition, a massive junkyard that was blighting the countryside and polluting the groundwater in the Binyamin region was cleared. Countless wrecks had been piling up for years at an illegal automotive scrapyard near Bir Zeit, polluting topsoil and groundwater with untreated effluents and automotive waste.
About eight months ago, we turned to the Civil Administration to demand the clearance of the illegal junkyard. But the Civil Administration tried to shirk their responsibilities, claiming that enforcement can’t be carried out at “junkyards on private lands”. This was a ridiculous claim and defies the law that explicitly gives the Civil Administration the authority to remove vehicle wrecks from “the public or private domain”. So we had to submit a petition to the Jerusalem District Court to give them a nudge.
And indeed, recently, the Civil Administration issued orders for the owner to clear all the vehicles and to restore the area within 30 days. In recent weeks, the owner removed hundreds, if not thousands, of the old cars and dismantled the illegal garage. We are hopeful that in the coming days and weeks the rest of the area will be cleared, and this environmental hazard will be lifted.
Automotive waste and untreated effluents that pollute the groundwater don’t distinguish between Jewish and Arab lands. Environmental abuse is not a right- or left-wing issue, and doesn’t stop at the Green Line. We shall continue to push for equal law enforcement throughout the Land of Israel, the protection of Israel’s land resources and the environment.
Ignoring a small problem allows it to turn into a big problem.
Last night’s case in point: Bedouin bandits infiltrated the Israel Air Force base at Nevatim; IAF helicopters engaged in an hours-long chase.
The State of Israel has been ignoring the cracks in law and order in the Negev for so long, they’ve become a “grand canyon” – and tonight’s events in the Negev prove the point.
In the last two weeks alone the Negev has seen horrific and varied forms of criminal behavior: The shocking sexual assault of a little girl in her home, the break-in at the Israel Air Force base at Sde Teiman that included a stun grenade attack on our soldiers, a string of robberies in Be’er Sheva that were caught on film and uploaded to social media, the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, a massive ammunition heist, and now, a break-in at the Nevatim base, where Israel’s top-secret aeronautical technology is housed.
It’s time for the State of Israel to draw a line in the sand. For the sake of each and every citizen of Israel, we demand that the government formulate a comprehensive, non-negotiable solution to the problem of Bedouin crime in the Negev.