In West Bank, 99.7 Percent of Public Land Grants by Israel Go to Settlers
Posted July 17, 2018 9:34 p.m. EDT
JERUSALEM — Over five decades in control of the West Bank, Israel has marked out hundreds of thousands of acres as public land, and it has allocated almost half of them for use.
But only 400 of those acres — 0.24 percent of the total allocated so far — have been earmarked for the use of Palestinians, according to official data obtained recently by an anti-settlement group after a freedom of information request. Palestinians make up about 88 percent of the West Bank’s population.
The group, Peace Now, said the other 99.76 percent of the land went to help Israeli settlements.
The lopsided allocation is hardly surprising. Israeli legal experts say the whole point of seeking out state lands, the bulk of which were designated in the 1980s, was to aid the growing settlement enterprise, which most of the world considers a violation of international law.
But the paucity of land allocated to the Palestinians shows the extent of competition over territory, and the effort Israel puts toward building the settlements.
“We took the most important and precious resource — the land — for our use only,” said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s settlement-watch unit.
“The protected population has nobody else to care for it,” she said, referring to the Palestinians, “so the occupier has to do that.”
Peace Now based its calculations on data obtained from the Civil Administration, the Israeli authority that carries out civilian policy in the West Bank, including land administration, under the command of the military.
The Civil Administration gave the numbers to Peace Now in mid-June, more than two years after the group submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act, together with the Israeli Movement for Freedom of Information.
Defending the land policies, the Civil Administration said Monday: “Applications for the allocation of state land are routinely submitted by all the population, both Palestinian and Israeli. It should be emphasized that the number of requests submitted by Palestinian residents is generally very low.”
“The Civil Administration evaluates every land allocation request submitted to it on an individual basis,” it added, “in accordance with the criteria determined in its regulations and the instructions of the political echelon.”
Ofran called the justification based on low numbers of Palestinian submissions “an excuse.”
Many opponents of the settlements argue that Israel has no right to use the land for its citizens in the first place.
“It’s not a technical matter, it’s beyond that,” said Shawan Jabarin, a Palestinian lawyer and director of Al Haq, an independent human rights organization based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “Settlers have no right to apply.”
The issue is a pressing one for the Palestinians in the 60 percent of the West Bank known as Area C, which remains under full Israeli security and civil control.
The fate of a tiny Bedouin community, Khan al-Ahmar, in dry, beige hills east of Jerusalem that Israel has declared as state land, now hangs in the balance. Bulldozers are at the ready to demolish the village’s makeshift shacks, tents and mud-and-tire school, erected without permits, and to forcibly relocate the residents. A settlement nearby has plans to expand.
But Israel’s Supreme Court has issued a temporary injunction to freeze the demolition orders after residents submitted a last-ditch application for permanent construction to the Civil Administration’s planning bureau. They have also raised claims that the village sits on private land. Since capturing the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war, Israel has declared as state land nearly 347,000 acres, or about 42 percent, of Area C, where the settlements are, and it has allocated 167,000 acres of that, ostensibly for public use. The vast majority of West Bank Palestinians live in Areas A and B, where the Palestinian Authority exercises civil and partial security control. Roughly 300,000 Palestinians reside in Area C, according to the United Nations, as do up to 400,000 Jewish settlers.
Israel began marking out state land in earnest in the 1980s, on the basis of old Ottoman land laws, after a Supreme Court ruling in 1979 against the seizing of privately owned Palestinian land for nonmilitary purposes like settlement building.
In 2013, in response to a court petition filed by two other groups, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Bimkom, the Civil Administration reported that 1.27 percent of allocated state land had gone to the Palestinians. This figure proved to include all land allocations, not only those of state land.
International conventions relating to such issues can be open to interpretation.
“I’m not certain you can say the administrator must allocate resources equally or without discrimination” under international rules on the government of occupied territory, said Eyal Benvenisti, an expert in international law at Cambridge University and Tel Aviv University.
But the administrator must promote goals that are legal according to the laws of occupation, he added. “Providing space for its own civilians is not among the goals the occupation must promote.”
The Israeli government considers the West Bank to be disputed, not occupied, territory, because it was not part of a sovereign Palestinian state before 1967. The settlers, it argues, were not deported or transferred there, in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, but went voluntarily.
“According to The Hague regulations, as long as the land is not privately owned, then the occupying power has got the right to enjoy it,” said Alan Baker, a retired Israeli diplomat and former legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Citing the rule of usufruct, he said, “You can enjoy the apples but can’t cut down the tree.”
It is on this basis that Israel approves settlement building. Baker, who lives in Har Adar in the West Bank, noted that his home, like all those in the settlements, is built on land lent from the Israel Lands Authority. “If any political arrangement requires us to leave, we are committed to returning the land,” he said.
He said it was “completely possible, and not a violation of the law” to allocate more land to Jews than to Palestinians.
But Talia Sasson, an Israeli lawyer who worked in the state attorney’s office and is now the president of the board of the New Israel Fund, a nonprofit group that promotes civil rights in Israel, said: “This is beyond the question of legality according to international law or Israeli law or any other law — the Palestinians’ right to suitable housing and income from the land cannot morally be negated.”
Xavier Abu Eid, an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiations department, said, “The fact is that Israel is a belligerent occupying power trying to turn a territory under occupation into part of its own county.”
“These figures bring you back to the big picture — that Area C and state land are being used by Israel as a reservoir for Israeli settlement,” he added. “That’s the reality.”