Israel is stealing Palestinian land, private or not

By Amira Hass

Not long ago the greengrocer in Ramallah recalled – between weighing locally grown zucchini and stripped hyssop leaves – that his family owns the land on which the gas station at the old entrance to the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the West Bank is located. He would not be surprised by the figure that the Peace Now movement has succeeded in officially extracting from the defense establishment, after more than a year of fighting for the freedom of information: About one-third of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank (44 out of 120) were built on privately owned Palestinian land that was seized, by means of confiscation orders, for “security needs.”

From the data it emerges that at least 19 of the 44 settlements were built on private land, even after prime minister Menachem Begin decided in 1979 that the construction and expansion of settlements would take place only on state-owned land.

Peace Now has revealed here another act of hypocrisy, even though the Supreme Court is no longer impressed even by this: It did, after all, legitimize the construction of the settlement of Matityahu on land owned by inhabitants of Bil’in.

The known fact that settlements are built on private Palestinian lands combines all too well with the general civic and institutional Israeli perception to the effect that Palestinian lands that are not privately owned, or that lack proof of private ownership, belong to the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.

Under the Israeli approach, which has expanded further since the Oslo Accords, any land that is not private was and remains suitable for Israeli development – for the benefit of the Jewish citizens of the state and for those who have the right to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. These are exactly the lands that constitute a considerable part of Area C (which is under Israeli military and administrative responsibility, and holds 60 percent of the area of the West Bank) and prohibited for any Palestinian development. It is on these lands, which are denominated “state lands,” that two-thirds of the settlements are built. No less illegally.

The discussion of whether West Bank lands are privately owned or not reverberates far more loudly than the discussion of Israel’s takeover of the Palestinian expanse by means of the closure policy. For example, since February 5, the army has once again severed the towns of the northern West Bank from the rest of the territory by means of roadblocks, and has forbidden males between the ages of 16 and 35 from leaving their towns. The media don’t report on this.

The discussion of private land reverberates well in the Israeli (and American) media because of the exaggerated sanctification of private property. And now, Peace Now must correct its initial report of October 2006, in which it was stated that 86 percent of the area of Ma’aleh Adumim is private Palestinian land. It emerges that only .05 percent of Ma’aleh Adumim is private land.

Nonetheless, this non-ideological Jewish settlement is among the most damaging to the Palestinians, and it reinforces the regime of apartheid roads: It cuts the northern part of the West Bank off from the southern part, and prevents Palestinian territorial contiguity. The road that leads to Ma’aleh Adumim will soon be closed to Palestinians, who will be diverted to a separate, narrow and winding road. This Jewish settlement has caused the banishment of many Bedouin from their lands and their ways of life. Together with the adjacent Jewish settlements and the separation barrier, it has taken over lands that had served the Palestinian towns and villages in the area, their natural reserve for development and expansion.

And so what if this is land that was not registered as private? Because of this robbery, these villages and towns have become crowded, choking neighborhoods that are cut off from the larger expanse.

The extensive work that Peace Now has invested in exposing the private ownership of lands is a mirror image of the extensive and systematic effort of Civil Administration experts to prevent inhabitants of the villages from cultivating their lands beyond the separation barrier. They measure out for each individual his part in an inheritance and in accordance with this, they allot him the hours during which he may pass through the gate to harvest olives or to plow the land. They prevent shared cultivation of the land and calculate which of the siblings in a family is abroad so that, heaven forfend, his share of the land will not be cultivated by others.

All of this is a preliminary step to expropriate land that remains “without owners” and its transformation in the future into state land – that is, Jews’ land.

The exaggerated concentration on private ownership feeds into the Israeli denial of the fact that the Palestinians’ right is to all of the territory that has been occupied. Not as private individuals, but rather because they constitute an indigenous national group in this land.