Los Angeles Times
November 22, 2006
JERUSALEM — An Israeli peace group said Tuesday that it had obtained government data showing that nearly 40% of land covered by Jewish settlements in the West Bank is privately owned by Palestinians, including big portions of blocs that Israel intends to keep under any future peace agreement.
Activists from Peace Now said digital mapping data it obtained indirectly from a government source showed a wide-scale land theft by Israel, which has long asserted that it respects private landownership in the West Bank.
"What we have here is a mess," said Dror Etkes, a coauthor who heads a Peace Now team that monitors the growth of settlements and their less-formal annexes, known as outposts. He said the data had been compiled by the civil administration, the Israeli military authority that deals with Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and passed to Peace Now through a third party.
Etkes said the findings could bolster the group's efforts to challenge the legality of settlement and outpost construction and could complicate any future peace talks involving the fate of the settlements. The group on Tuesday urged the state attorney to investigate possible official wrongdoing and said it would look for ways to employ the findings in its legal battles.
Peace Now is co-plaintiff in a petition before Israel's Supreme Court demanding that the government dismantle a 4-year-old outpost known as Migron, in the northern West Bank, on grounds it was built on land owned by Palestinians.
In February, Israeli authorities demolished nine houses in an outpost called Amona after the high court ruled that they were built illegally on private land.
Although Palestinians have long argued that settlers have taken over their land, the Peace Now report marks the first time activists have had such extensive access to government data to make their case. The group said it obtained the data after the government resisted its request for access under freedom-of-information laws.
Israel has said it respects private ownership in the West Bank and has used its authority to declare property as "state land" in cases where it was deemed abandoned or never formally registered. The government also seizes land, on a temporary basis, for security purposes.
Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the civil administration, said he had not seen the report and could not comment in detail. But he said the Israeli government had two committees looking into questions related to landownership in the West Bank, including defining the boundaries of settlements.
Dror said that it had been known that some settlement construction took place on private land, but that the practice had stopped. "In the last few years there is a decision not to build settlements on private Palestinian land," he said.
Emily Amrousi, a spokeswoman for the Yesha Council, the main settlers group in the West Bank, said the government was bound by a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that barred settlement construction on private property that had been seized temporarily for security reasons.
Amrousi said every Israeli government during the last 40 years had supported settlements to one degree or another, and had made the decisions on where to build. "The government of Israel is not a big criminal. It is a legal state, and the state built these settlements," she said.
The Peace Now report relied on mapping data showing the boundaries of areas that were deemed by the government to be privately owned because they were registered before 1968 or recognized by Israel as private under earlier Ottoman law. The group then determined the outlines of each settlement, based on where houses, fences and roads had been built, and calculated the share that overlapped with the private land.
Overall, the group determined that 15,271 acres, or 39% of the land covered by settlements and outposts, were privately owned by Palestinians. The largest portion, 54%, is state land, and 1% is Jewish-owned. About 6% is classified as "survey land," whose ownership is unclear.
The report asserts that substantial portions of the largest settlement blocs, which fall inside the barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank, are on private land. For example, the group calculates that 86% of Maale Adumim, a Jewish suburb of Jerusalem, sits on private land. In Ariel, a key settlement in the northern West Bank, the figure is 35%.
The group's findings, first reported Tuesday by the New York Times, add a new dimension to the debate over settlements, which are considered illegal by much of the world and long viewed by activists and the U.S. government as an impediment to any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The U.S.-backed diplomatic initiative known as the road map calls for a freeze on settlement activity and the dismantling of unauthorized outposts built since March 2001.
Israeli authorities have taken down some outposts, but settlers often rebuild them quickly. The government has continued issuing bids for construction of hundreds of apartments in the West Bank, arguing that the units are meant to "thicken" established communities, not expand them.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert campaigned in the spring on a pledge to set Israel's permanent borders — unilaterally, if necessary — by removing settlements from isolated sections of the West Bank while holding major blocs. But Olmert, weakened politically by the war in Lebanon in the summer, has shelved the proposal.
His predecessor, Ariel Sharon, created shock waves in 2005 by withdrawing settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and a tiny portion of the northern West Bank, a major reversal for one of the settlement movement's biggest backers.
Establishing landownership in the West Bank is complicated by a host of laws and practices going back to Ottoman rule more than a century ago, when few registered their properties. Farmers increasingly registered their holdings under the British during the 1920s. But the practice was halted after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.
Israel declared large portions of uncultivated land as "state land." The government seized other areas for military purposes, although it can do so only temporarily and legal ownership does not change.