Israel Confiscates Nearly 1,000 Acres of Palestinian Land in the West Bank
September 1, 2014
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America & Peace Now
On August 31, Israel confiscated nearly 1,000 acres of privately owned Palestinian land near an Israeli settlement in the West Bank -- a move described by the Israeli rights group Peace Now as "unprecedented in its scope since the 1980s." Settlements built on Palestinian land occupied by Israel are deemed illegal by the United Nations. Israel's refusal to halt construction and expansion has repeatedly halted the peace process and increased resentment and distrust among the Palestinians.
Israel Confiscates Nearly 1,000 Acres of Palestinian Land in the West Bank
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
(August 31, 2014) -- Israel on Sunday confiscated nearly 1,000 acres of privately owned Palestinian land near an Israeli settlement south of Bethlehem in the West Bank -- a move described by Israeli rights group Peace Now as "unprecedented in its scope since the 1980s."
Settlements built on Palestinian land occupied by Israel, including East Jerusalem, are deemed illegal by the United Nations. Israel's refusal to halt their construction and expansion has at times arrested the peace process and increased resentment and distrust among Palestinians.
In a statement published on its website, Peace Now condemned the latest land confiscation and said it further damaged the chance of achieving a last peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on a two-state solution.
"Peace Now views this declaration as proof that Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu does not aspire for a new ‘Diplomatic Horizon' but rather, he continues to put obstacles to the two state vision and promote a one state solution," the group said.
Earlier this month, as Israel and Hamas exchanged blows in a deadly battle that devastated the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu expressed his hope that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would take part in the "new diplomatic horizon" the prime minister said had dawned on the region.
Sunday's confiscation of Palestinian territory is the latest and largest in a series of land grabs near the Israeli settlement of Gvaot, said Peace Now.
Palestinian landowners in the villages of Surif, Husan, Al-Jabaa, and the city of Bethlehem were given 45 days to submit formal objections to the announced confiscation in Israeli courts, Palestinian news website Maan reported. If the landowners do not contest the order, territories seized will be declared Israeli state-owned land.
In the past, Palestinians have complained that their objections were largely ignored or denied by Israeli authorities that seek to create facts on the ground to bolster claims on Palestinian territories in a future peace settlement.
"The intention of appropriating the land is to create territorial continuity between the Green Line and settlements of Beitar Illit, Kfar Etzion, and Gvaot," Haaretz reported. "The announcement is the latest in a series of plans designed to attach the Etzion settlement bloc to Jerusalem and its environs. Some (243 acres) in the area were declared state land last April."
The Green Line refers to the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank, territory Israel captured and occupied in 1967. Critics of Israeli land confiscations say they reveal that the current Israeli government is not interested in returning territory to Palestinians in order to realize a two-state solution as the parties envisioned it in 1993.
In July, Netanyahu said in a press conference that he would never accept Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank for security reasons.
"I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the river Jordan," he said.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Abbas, said Sunday that the latest land grab would "lead to more instability" and "inflame the situation after the war in Gaza," Haaretz reported.
Peace Now echoed the sentiment, saying, "By declaring another 4,000 dunams (990 acres) as state land, the Israeli government stabs President Abbas and the moderate Palestinian forces in the back, proving again that violent delivers Israeli concessions while nonviolence results in settlement expansion."
Israel has announced nearly 1,500 new settlement homes since mid-June, Maan reported, which could house more than 6,000 new settlers in the West Bank. Israeli settlement activity increased dramatically in April during the last round of failed peace negotiations.
Unprecedented Land Confiscation of
4,000 Dunams Near Bethlehem
(August 31, 2014) -- The Civil Administration declared 4,000 dunams (990 acres) as State Land near the settlement of Gva'ot west of Bethlehem. As far as we know, this declaration is unprecedented in its scope since the 1980's and can dramatically change the reality in the Gush Etzion and the Bethlehem area. [For an explanation about state land declaration see article below. -- EAW]
Gva'ot was established in 1984 as a Military Base between the Palestinian villages of Al Jab'a and Nahhalin. During the 90's, the soldiers were replaced by Yeshiva students that occupied the 30 caravans on site, and in 1998 the site was included within the official Municipal Borders of the settlement of Alon Shvut, which is located 3 km away. Recently, some 10 families moved in Gvaot and established an education institution on site.
In the past, Peace Now has exposed that the Ministry of Housing had an initial plan to build 15,000 units to establish a city in Gvaot. This plan was never promoted, however smaller plans have been approved for promotion by the Minister of Defense to build 523 units (plan no. 418/2/1) and another 61 units (plan no. 418/2/2) on lands that have been declared as State Lands in the past.
The new declaration will allow to expand the settlement even further, it is possible that the current announcement will connect Gva'ot to the Green Line.
Peace Now views this declaration as proof that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not aspire for a new 'Diplomatic Horizon' but rather, he continues to put obstacles to the two state vision and promote a one state solution. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya'alon are directly responsible to the declaration, which cannot pass without their approval.
By declaring another 4,000 dunams as state land, the Israeli government stabs President Abbas and the moderate Palestinian forces in the back, proving again that violent delivers Israeli concessions while nonviolence results in settlement expansion.
Methods of Confiscation -- How Does Israel Justify and
Legalize Confiscation of Lands?
Over the years, Israel has used a number of legal and bureaucratic procedures in order to appropriate West Bank lands, with the primary objective of establishing settlements and providing land reserves for them.
Using primarily these five methods: seizure for military purposes; declaration of state lands; seizure of absentee property; confiscation for public needs; and initial registration, Israel has managed to take over about 50% of the lands in the West Bank, barring the local Palestinian public from using them.
Seizure for Military Purposes
The first and primary means used by the State in order to take hold of private lands was "seizure for military purposes." Between 1968-1979, Israeli military commanders issued dozens of such seizure orders, confiscating almost 47,000 dunams of private land.
In contrast to an "expropriation," in which ownership of the land is transferred to the State, "military seizure" leaves the official ownership of the land under the name of its original owners, but transfers total control of the land, for a designated period of time, to the military.
At the end of that period, the military must either relinquish control of the land to the owners -- something which has rarely happened in the West Bank -- or renew the seizure order. Furthermore, the owners of the land are entitled to compensation from the military.
Many of the settlements established during the first decade of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank were built on land that had been "seized for military purposes." However, a landmark High Court of Justice decision in 1979, known as the Elon More case, brought this abusive practice to an official end.
Elon More was initially constructed in June 1979 on lands seized for military purposes from the private lands belonging to the Palestinian village of Rujib. The owners of the land petitioned the High Court of Justice, arguing that the seizure was illegal, since the IDF based it on security needs, while the seized land was actually being used for a new settlement.
In its response, the State Attorney's office stated, as in many similar cases before, that the establishment of the settlement was indeed required for military purposes.
In response, settlers from the Elon More group submitted a memorandum rejecting the interpretation that the seizure was temporary and for military purposes. The settlers made clear that their intention was to establish a permanent civilian settlement, founded for ideological and political purposes. This, of course, contradicted the State's claim.
In view of the settlers' argument, the High Court ruled that the establishment of the settlement on this land was not consistent with the uses of land "seized for military purposes," and instructed that the seizure be cancelled. Based on the Elon More legal precedent, after 1979 the State refrained from using "seizure for military purposes" as a means of taking over privately-owned Palestinian land for the construction of settlements.
However, 33% of the settlements established before the Elon More case were built on private lands, and the percents are similar for settlements built after this precedents (read Peace Now's report "One offense begets another" for more information).
Furthermore, during the decade following the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel began once again to make regular use of seizure injunctions for military purposes, particularly in order to establish the bypass road system on the West Bank, intended to make it possible for troops and settlers to travel without having to cross Palestinian population centers.
Over the years, many additional seizure orders have been issued in order to create "secure zones" around the settlements, as well as to build the separation fence.
Declaration of State Lands
Once the procedure of military seizure was no longer valid for the purpose of acquiring lands for settlement, a new legal procedure, based on a local interpretation of Ottoman law, was implemented to declare extensive areas in the West Bank as "State Lands."
Over the years, Israel confiscated more than 900,000 dunams in the West Bank in this manner, and at least 90 settlements are built on lands declared as "state lands."
In order to understand this mechanism, we must understand the situation of land ownership in the West Bank in 1967. According to the Ottoman law code, which Israel makes use of in the West Bank, all lands are considered "State Land" unless proven otherwise.
To formally register land as private property, one must cultivate it for at least ten years. If the land is not registered, one would be considered the owner as long as he cultivates it and pays taxes on it. If the land is not cultivated for three successive years, it may become the property of the Ottoman State, i.e. "State Land".
Israel has also exploited the fact that during the Ottoman period only small parts of the land of the West Bank were formally registered to a specific owner. During the 1920's, the British began a process of registering the land to the farmers who cultivated it or residents who owned houses that were built on it. This process continued throughout the Jordanian period.
In 1968, the State of Israel stopped the land registration process by virtue of an injunction issued by the military governor in the occupied territories. It was claimed that the injunction was intended to protect the owners of land that had been abandoned (from other Palestinians who might try to register ownership of it in their absence), and to prevent the rights of these owners from being discriminated against.
However, in reality, this injunction left thousands of square kilometers of agricultural land unregistered, where it eventually was declared "State Land" and used for the sole benefit of Israel.
As it becomes more difficult for Palestinian farmers to reach and cultivate their private lands that are located in proximity to settlements, these lands too face the danger of being declared "State Lands" and turned over to the use of the settlements. It should be marked that Israel may be following the Ottoman law code to the letter, but it is doing it in an improper and discriminatory manner.
State Lands are public property and should benefit the entire local population, yet since 1967, the State has completely denied the Palestinians their right to use these lands, and has allocated them only for the establishment and expansion of settlements.
For further details and analysis read the report by Btselem about Declaration of State Lands
Among the registered private lands in the West Bank, there is a special category of Absentee Land, belonging to people who fled the West Bank in 1967. A special order gives the State the power to manage these properties and actually to occupy them until the owners' return (which, since Israeli stopped the policy of family reunification, can happen only in extremely rare cases). The total area of such land is estimated at 43,000 hectares.
As many of these lands were uncultivated for years, they were later declared State Lands. The order allows the Commissioner of Governmental and Abandoned property to lease and even sell the land. As far as we know such properties were used for settlements mainly in the Jordan Valley area, but we do not know on what scale and where.
Confiscation for Public Needs
According to the applicable law in the West Bank, the government is entitled to confiscate private land for public needs (roads, public gardens, etc.). However, unlike in the case of confiscation for military purposes, these confiscations should benefit the entire population, Palestinians as well, and not only the occupying powers.
Therefore these lands cannot be used for the establishment of settlements. Nevertheless, in at least one case -- that of Ma'ale Adummim -- 1,000 hectares of Palestinian land were confiscated for the settlement.
Extensive additional Palestinian land has been confiscated for the construction of roads to the settlements, on the grounds that these also serve Palestinians, and for the construction of bypass roads established after the signing of the interim agreement (1995).
The last procedure available to the State is to begin a process of registering the land under its name in the land registry. The process of land registration can take a long time since it allows other parties to claim their ownership, which they have to provide proof for -- a long and drawn out process.
The only case Peace Now knows of in which the procedure of initial registration of land was used as a means to turn land into state land is the case of the three orders issued in July 2008 for the purpose of expanding the settlement of Efrat. It is possible that the authorities chose the registration procedure instead of the declaration procedure to try to avoid what could be perceived as a "confiscation," and to claim that it was "merely" a standard administrative procedure to register the land.
Private Jewish parties who purchase land in the West Bank also have to undergo a process of Initial Registration in the land registry, before initiating construction of settlements. A practice known as "Circular Deals", involving government bodies and private entrepreneurs, came into shape in the early 1980s, probably in order to avoid the difficulties of the registration process, which requires revealing the name of the seller and involves an extensive inspection for forgery and frauds.
Circular Deals involve the declaration of a given area as State Land, while concealing the fact that an Israeli developer claims that he has already purchased the land from its Palestinian owner on the private market.
After the declaration procedures are completed, the Custodian of Government Property allocates the land to the developer in return for reduced lease fees. This is apparently how a private settler organization got hold of the lands of Matityahu East in Modi'in Illit.
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