Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Akiva Eldar: The Great Land Robbery

5 June 2009

By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz – 5 June 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama says that Israel has to end its settlement activity. Does he have the power to force Defense Minister Ehud Barak to evacuate 24 outposts, in keeping with the promise made by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush? Does the president have any chance of forcing the Israel Police to implement the decision to evacuate the settlers of Hebron who squatted in that city’s abandoned market? Can the leader of the free world really order the Civil Administration to dismantle the new house in the outpost of Elmatan, under the noses of Israel Defense Forces soldiers, or to return to Ahmed Abdel Khader the land that settlers from Kedumim stole from him?

Assistance from people with economic interests, the use of violence and weapons, and the cooperation of the establishment – all of these typify the settlement enterprise. Connections in the political, military and economic leadership, and the increasingly widespread view that theft of lands in the occupied territories is a noble ideological act – these, too, are a source of support for the settlers. Indeed, for their movement to be stopped, a revolution is required in all the echelons: political, legal and military.

The minutes of a hearing held in February of last year by the military appeals committee in the Judea and Samaria district illustrates the special trilateral relationship between the settler-squatters and the local authority (which represents the executive authority), and the high-ranking legal-military body that rules on land-related issues. Everything is conducted in broad daylight, according to proper legal procedures. Before the appeals committee was an appeal by a resident of the settlement of Kedumim, who 12 years ago squatted on the land of Abdel Khader, a 42-year-old farmer from the village of Kadum, the sole breadwinner for a household of nine people. The squatter began to cultivate the land, installed an irrigation system on it and surrounded it with a fence. The Civil Administration responded to a request by Abdel Khader, and issued an evacuation order against the settler, but the latter wouldn’t give in, and petitioned the appeals committee to have the order cancelled.

At first the person in charge of land-related issues for Kedumim, Ze’ev Moshinsky, who earns his living from the public coffers, admitted that he had taken over the property of Abdel Khader. Michael Ben Neder, who was the security officer of the local council in the late 1990s and received his salary from the IDF, confirmed that during that period, Moshinsky acted with the backing of the council. The security officer said frankly that after years of cultivating land, it is permissible to annex it to a settlement.

One appeals committee member, Capt. (res.) Uri Keidar, ruled to leave the evacuation order in effect, but he was in the minority. The head of the panel, Lt. Col. (res.) Eyal Nun, and Capt. (res.) Moshe Ben David, found an article in the Ottoman Land Law of 1858, which according to their interpretation, does not permit the evacuation of a squatter if he made use of the stolen land for at least three years before issuance of the evacuation order. The two even expressed dissatisfaction over the fact that evacuation orders are given only to Jewish squatters.

Abdel Khader says that he inherited the 45-dunam (approximately 11-acre) plot of land from his father, who inherited it in turn from his mother. On half the plot he planted olive and fig trees 12 years ago; on the other half, he planted wheat.

“The children of Kedumim threw stones at us every time we entered the area,” he said. “I submitted a complaint to the police and they arranged an escort for me, so that we would be able to work there once a week. Afterward the settlers came in and planted trees on the wheat field. My lawyers, Michael Sfard and Shlomi Zecharia, got an injunction from the Civil Administration to have my land returned. But in the end, your court [referring to the military appeals committee] ruled that the land belongs to them.”

The person who oversees all the military appeals committees, Military Judge Major Adrian Agassi, lives in the settlement of Givat Ze’ev outside Jerusalem. Agassi clerked under the late Plia Albeck, the attorney who made a name for herself, while holding a senior position in the Justice Ministry, by freeing up land for settlements. Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Paz, who was the head of the Civil Administration up until a few years ago, says that he was aware that the appeals committee had adopted Albeck’s interpretation, which left almost no chance for petitioners like Abdel Khader.

The law firm of Capt. Nun, the man who ruled in favor of the Kedumim settlers, has represented extreme right-wingers Zvi Hendel, Uri Ariel and Orit Struck. In 2001, committee member Shmuel Lavi represented Prof. Hillel Weiss, who petitioned the High Court of Justice regarding the authority of Ehud Barak’s transition government to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians. Included on the list of judges dealing with appeals committees is the name of Prof. Haim Zandberg, who in his book “Mekarke’ay Yisrael, Tzionut u’Post-Tzionut” (“Israeli Lands, Zionism and Post-Zionism”) claimed that the lands expropriated from Israeli Arabs after the War of Independence should not be considered expropriated, since Israel is not responsible for the results of a war that it did not start.

‘Salt of the earth’

Additional evidence of the special relationship between settlers and the law-enforcement authorities in the territories came this week from the outgoing commander of the Judea and Samaria Police, Shlomi Katabi. In an interview with Army Radio, Katabi said: “I like the settlers, they’re the salt of the earth. The unbearable lightness with which they are slandered, harmed and undermined by statements against them is just disgusting.” He also attacked the residents of Tel Aviv, “who come out against the settlers, including those whose willingness to give to the country is one big zero. They sit there in Tel Aviv, park their jeep on the sidewalks in Sheinkin, drink espresso with their legs crossed and permit themselves to level criticism.”

A year ago an appeals committee headed by Zandberg discussed the case of Hebron resident Maki Sultan, who asked that land he had inherited from his family be returned to him. The Kiryat Arba local council wanted to build 360 residential units on the property, and had already invested quite a bit of money to promote a master plan. The committee was not impressed with a Turkish kushan (land deed) from 1896, registered in the name of his great-great-grandfather, which Sultan presented. The committee claimed that the petitioner had not proved the history of the kushan rights in the 110 years that had since passed. Shlomo Lacker, the lawyer who represented Sultan, has been following the committee’s decisions for years. “As in Sultan’s case, they almost always know how to interpret the kushan in a manner that suits the interests of the settlers,” he says.

Support for Lacker’s claim can be found in the opinion of the appeals committee written four years ago by law professor Eyal Zamir: “The picture we saw of the committee, its composition, its discussions and its decisions, is quite gloomy. We heard claims of proceedings being conducted without the parties involved being invited, about bias in favor of the Israeli purchasers and about the exaggerated tendency of the agent in charge of state and abandoned property to help Israeli buyers – a problem that according to those involved has been taken care of recently and no longer exists.”

Several months ago, again on the basis of the 1858 Ottoman law, the committee in question decided to approve the request of a settlers association called the Fund for Midreshet Eretz Israel, to register it as the owner of thousands of acres of land near Nebi Samuel and the village of Thulth. The decision seemed bizarre even in the eyes of the military advocate general and its representative in the IDF Central Command, Col. Sharon Afek. In a rare petition they submitted to the High Court, against a committee appointed by the head of the IDF Central Command, they claimed that if the interpretation of the law by the appeals committee was accepted, this would constitute an incentive to lawbreakers and would encourage an unacceptable practice that has developed recently: the takeover of private land of law-abiding citizens. Attorney Lacker, who represents Palestinians in the Hebron Hills region, says that if the High Court does not stop the committee, thousands of acres in the area will be registered in the names of residents of the outposts who chased out the landowners from their land by force, in full view of the defense forces.

The Ottoman Land Law, the local council, the security officer and the appeals committee go into action in cases where the settlers associations have been unable to get bills of sale to prove their ownership of land. The task has become more difficult since the arrest and trial of two Civil Administration officers, who are accused of receiving bribes in return for helping to discover Palestinian landowners who have passed away or left the country.

A pair of Jerusalem real-estate dealers are accused of forging owners’ signatures and selling lands to settlers, and even to Himnuta – a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund. The investigators of the police National Fraud Unit went all the way to California to collect evidence from a notary public whose signature was on the contract of deal for the land used to build the outpost Migron. The police claim that the investigators discovered that in 2004, when the landowner ostensibly signed the proxy, he was 112 years old. The police have also been investigating for over two years suspicions of shady deals for the purchase of lands from the residents of the village of Bil’in, which are designated for the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modi’in Ilit.

Lawyers who specialize in issues related to land in the territories discovered recently that 1966 was a wonderful year for real-estate deals on the West Bank. According to documents that settlers are presenting to the courts, in that year thousands of acres changed hands.

“What they don’t know,” says attorney Sfard with a smile, “is that among the spoils of war is also the property archives of the Jordanian Justice Ministry in Ramallah.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who repeatedly emphasizes the authority of the state and the government over its citizens, is the recipient of a letter from Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights, outlining how the army enforces the law vis-a-vis residents of the outposts. It includes a description of the construction, excavation and quarrying being conducted in several locations at the outpost of Elmatan and environs. Everything is on private land belonging to the village of Thulth. Due to army efforts to prevent transportation of entire trailers, the settlers in Elmatan and other outposts transfer walls and other building materials around the West Bank that are produced in a factory which they established in the outpost of Havat Gilad.

Construction continues

Residents of Thulth submitted their initial complaint to the police over two months ago, when construction was just beginning. At the same time, a complaint was submitted to the Civil Administration. Afterward, other messages were sent to the administration, but the construction continues. The more it progresses, the slimmer the chance that the land will return to its owners. One morning neighbors in the Palestinian village will discover that the house next door has been occupied and another demolition order will join 3,000 other ones sitting on the desk of the defense minister.

A current example of the failure to enforce laws and procedures in the settlements: In November 2008, the Amana association that works to build and develop settlements, in cooperation with the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, began to build a new neighborhood of private homes in the settlement of Halamish north of Ramallah, without building permits or a master plan. Hagit Ofran, the head of the Peace Now team keeping track of settlements, immediately turned to the head of the Civil Administration with a demand that he exercise his authority and stop the work. Three months later, she discovered on the site the infrastructure for new buildings, and once again turned to the administration. By April of this year, construction was in its final stages. When all the appeals to the authorities regarding Elmatan and Halamish remained unanswered, Peace Now turned to the High Court, which issued injunctions to stop the work. On the right, they claim that the High Court is running the country.

Almost nothing written here should be news to any of the recent residents of the White House. Barack Obama is not the first president who has called for a stop to the settlements, and continued to witness their growth from afar. Will he be the last?

The response of the defense minister’s media adviser: “A situation that has gone on for 41 years cannot be solved in a year or two. The defense establishment and the IDF frequently keep track of the deviations and the changes in construction in Judea and Samaria. Depending on the deviations that are discovered, ongoing work to maintain law and order is carried out, in accordance with government policy and the procedures of the forces on the ground. The defense establishment has not permitted the construction of new outposts in the past two years, and three outposts have been evacuated as well. The settlement of Migron is in the midst of a process of voluntary evacuation, which is supposed to end in about two years. In 2008 over 100 demolitions of illegal construction were carried out, against a Jewish and a Palestinian population, including Havat Federman and Yad Yair, as well as the ‘Brown House’ [Beit Hameriva] in Hebron.”

The spokesman of the Civil Administration said that the response of the minister’s office would hold for his organization as well.

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