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Lessons for Judea and Samaria from land managers in the US

Israel should not remain in management limbo.

The Judea and Samaria hills where Shiloh Winery is located. Credit: Wine on the Vine.
The Judea and Samaria hills where Shiloh Winery is located. Credit: Wine on the Vine.
Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based resource consultant and guide connecting Israel and the United States.

Watching the uprooting of a vineyard or the destruction of communities in Judea and Samaria is terribly unsettling. It is simply gut-wrenching to witness. Does it have to happen? Are there lessons Israel can learn from public land managers in the U.S. about how to deal with these difficult land ownership situations?

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are managing over one-third of the continental U.S. land base. Public land managers in the U.S. are charged with protecting the “federal estate” and enforcing its boundaries. They also have law enforcement personnel. There are thousands of encroachments on public land to address, and more arise every day. Israeli public land managers might find their American counterparts’ experience useful.

There are, however, significant differences between the situations in Israel and the U.S.

Certainly, U.S. land managers do not have to deal with the complications that their Israeli counterparts do, such as coordinated efforts, funded by European Union NGOs, to encourage the takeover of land in Judea and Samaria; Western governments’ pressure to maintain the status quo in the name of a “two-state solution”; Jews living nearby with a biblical imperative to settle the land; and the need to resolve complex ownership issues involving British, Ottoman and other legal traditions.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of land management in the U.S. that could be helpful to Israel.

U.S. public land managers have a variety of means to deal with complicated situations of public and private ownership. First, if an encroachment was unintentional and the owner can show that they didn’t build or farm on public land without first trying to verify ownership, the public agency can forgive the adjacent land owner and sell them the land. Can such a process be created in Israel?

Second, a community or an individual can apply for a special use permit. Permits are granted for many reasons, such as cemeteries, roads, schools and economic development. Federal agencies grant and manage thousands of such permits. In Israel, can vineyards or orchards be seen as economic development opportunities and receive special use permits?

Third, if there is long-standing encroachment, the local congressman will often seek legislation that will allow the community to purchase or be granted the land. In Israel, despite political pressure, it might be helpful to let the political process run its course. Solutions might be found in the Knesset, much as they sometimes are in the U.S. Congress.

Fourth, U.S. agencies can sell entire tracts of land that were identified for sale in a preapproved plan and then utilize the funds for other purposes. Are there enough areas appropriately identified for sale by the Israel Land Authority in preapproved plans?

Fifth, there are occasions in which U.S. agencies enter into management agreements with local communities, especially when the local community makes significant use of the land to the exclusion of other parties. Could that work in Israel?

Sixth, public lands generally have management plans that were developed with significant input from local citizens and are updated with additional input on a regular basis. That is, the plans were not developed by foreign governments trying to “help” a nation, such as Israel, with its management challenges.

Public involvement can include initial meetings to hear concerns and opportunities, open houses, meetings with local councils, etc., even before a proposal is unveiled. Zoning plans have indeed been developed for Area C, which constitutes two-thirds of Judea and Samaria and is under full Israeli control per the Oslo Accords. However, there was no extensive public involvement in these plans.

Israeli land managers have admitted that community involvement in public land management is not given significant emphasis and local citizens suffer the consequences of plans that don’t address or may even be counter to their needs.

Seventh, in the U.S., the situation on the ground is consistently tracked in order to protect the integrity of public lands. Thus, issues can be addressed as soon as they appear. This is dependent on adequate funding and the use of new technology—as it likely is in Israel as well.

If, after exhausting all remedies, a violation is detected that requires removal, the adjacent owner is notified and fined, then expected to pay for the removal himself. If he doesn’t, law enforcement gets involved. Because of these deterrents, physical enforcement is relatively rare.

It often seems the entire world is trying to dictate solutions to Israel’s land management challenges in Judea and Samaria. It could take years for a post-Oslo plan to come to fruition. Nevertheless, Israel should not remain in management limbo. Even in a challenging political climate, Israel needs to seek greater involvement from local communities in the long-term plan for Area C of Judea and Samaria and consider some of the authorities exercised by public land managers in the U.S.

The world can learn much from Israeli innovation and expertise. In this instance, however, Israel can learn from years of public land management in the U.S. God willing, the result will be less trauma for local communities and a more law-abiding and peaceful path forward.

Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based resource consultant connecting Israel and the U.S., and a former field manager and national assistant director of lands for the U.S. Forest Service.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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