Peace Now has leaked an Israeli government report that claims that about 38% of settlement land in Judea and Samaria, AKA the West Bank, is privately owned by Palestinians. If true, and there seems to be some truth to the report even if ultimately the numbers are not as high as depicted here, this is a bombshell for a number of reasons.
First of all, it is entirely illegal to build outposts or settlements on somebody else’s privately owned land in a territory. Not only does this violate international law, but even if one subscribes to the Israeli government’s view that international laws such as the Geneva Convention don’t apply to the Territories, such construction is a violation of Israeli law. Peace Now claims it is a violation of a Basic Law and there is a High Court ruling from the ’70s that agrees with this view.
Second, not only are many outposts and settlements built on private Palestinian lands according to this report, but large sections of towns and settlements that most Israelis consider part of Israel, such as Giv’at Ze’ev (a Jerusalem suburb) are built on private Palestinian land. Giv’at Ze’ev’s area is built over land that is 44% private Palestinian land. In the NY Times article that came out tonight about this story, they describe a legal victory by a Palestinian over Giv’at Ze’ev over a building that was built on his land. The ruling, in his favor, has not been enforced in 7 years. A Giv’at Ze’ev town council member claims that the building is actually outside the town and its jurisdiction, although this seems to be a convenient fiction. The building is a synagogue.
Third, it turns out that over 40% of the area West of the Security Fence is privately owned by Palestinians including an incredible 86% of Ma’aleh Edumim, the huge town a few minutes away from the Jerusalem city line. This is an area that Israel assumed it would keep in any peace negotiation, just as it assumes that ultimately some parts of the West Bank will remain in its possession.
Fourth, while the claims do ring true that land has been purchased by Jews from Palestinians but the Palestinians wish to keep quiet about it, it is hard to believe that 40% of the land has been purchased. Another question mark is how this land came into private ownership and when it came into the possession of the Palestinians. Obviously, the past century has been a very active one in this area and there was no concept of private land ownership until the mid-1800s.
The definitions of private and state land are complicated, given different administrations of the West Bank going back to the Ottoman Empire, the British mandate, Jordan and now Israel. During the Ottoman Empire, only small areas of the West Bank were registered to specific owners, and often villagers would hold land in common to avoid taxes. The British began a more formal land registry based on land use, taxation or house ownership that continued through the Jordanian period.
Large areas of agricultural land are registered as state land; other areas were requisitioned or seized by the Israeli military after 1967 for security purposes, but such requisitions are meant to be temporary and must be renewed, and do not change the legal ownership of the land, Mr. Dror, the Civil Administration spokesman, said.
But the issue of property is one that Israeli officials are familiar with, even if the percentages here may come as a surprise and may be challenged after the publication of the report.
It may be that both of these issues minimize the 38% number somewhat, but will probably not come close to where it should be according to Israeli law which is 0%.
Fifth, while this is news that many will not wish to hear, it cannot be ignored. As long as Israel doesn’t annex Judea and Samaria, it is simply not permitted to build or have its citizens built communities and homes on private land. Needless to say, it also raises painful moral issues and it is not enough to brush them away by claiming that God gave Jews this land or that the state of Israel knew what was going on here. Ultimately, in case anybody hadn’t noticed yet, the Palestinians cannot be ignored and legitimate grievances must be addressed in a manner that is equitable to both sides.
This is not the end of the world, however (sorry, Evangelical Christians who are waiting for it), since there may be mechanisms to rectify this problem. Unfortunately for Israel’s current government, these solutions involve peace negotiations, eventual reparations and probably a serious land swap (Lieberman fans are probably salivating at the sound of that). In fact, it seems Olmert has given this some thought already:
Asked about Israeli seizure of private Palestinian land in an interview with The Times last summer, before these figures were available, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: “Now I don’t deny anything, I don’t ignore anything. I’m just ready to sit down and talk. And resolve it. And resolve it in a generous manner for all sides.”
He said the 1967 war was a one of self-defense. Later, he said: “Many things happened. Life is not frozen. Things occur. So many things happened, and as a result of this many innocent individuals on both sides suffered, were killed, lost their lives, became crippled for life, lost their family members, their loved ones, thousands of them. And also private property suffered. By the way, on all sides.”
Mr. Olmert says Israel will keep some 10 percent of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, possibly in a swap for land elsewhere. The area Israel intends to keep is roughly marked by the route of the unfinished separation barrier, which cuts through the West Bank…
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