East Jerusalem Land Owned by Palestinians May Be Seized

By GREG MYRE

New York Times

January 24, 2005

JERUSALEM, Jan. 24 - The Israeli government secretly approved a measure last summer that says it may seize land in East Jerusalem owned by Palestinians who live elsewhere, the government and a lawyer for the Palestinians said Monday.

The lawyer said the decision could affect hundreds of Palestinian property owners and thousands of acres of land.

"This is state theft, pure and simple," said Hanna Nasser, the mayor of neighboring Bethlehem, home to many of the Palestinians who could lose land they own in Jerusalem. The mayor linked the Israeli decision to the West Bank separation barrier that Israel is building in the same area. "When Israel started building this wall, they stopped letting people use this land," he said.

For many years Palestinian landowners living in the West Bank generally had access to their property inside the Jerusalem boundaries that Israel unilaterally established after capturing the eastern part of the city in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

In the last two years, access has become difficult if not impossible because of Israel's West Bank separation barrier, which includes walls and fences separating Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But until recently the Palestinians still believed that they retained ownership of the property, most of it olive groves and grape orchards that have been in the families for generations.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government approved the confiscation measure in July as a clarification of the Absentee Property Law, which has been on the books since 1950. Israel has invoked the law to seize thousands of homes and parcels of land that belonged to Palestinians who fled or were driven out during the 1948 war over the founding of the state of Israel.

The government did not announce the move, which requires no compensation for the land, when it was made, but acknowledged the new policy after a report last week in the daily Haaretz.

"All the government decisions on this issue are made secretly," said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer representing many of the landowners. "It is treated like a security issue, not a property issue." He said he intended to file suit unless the government rescinded its decision.

Jerusalem's fate is one of the most complex and incendiary issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, though its annexation of East Jerusalem has never been recognized internationally. The Palestinians seek the eastern sector for the capital of a future state.

In many cases the Palestinian landowners in the Bethlehem area live only a short distance from their Jerusalem property, and in some cases are right next to it.

Johnny Atik lives in a house next to his eight acres of olive trees. His house is in Bethlehem, while the olive grove is on land that is part of Jerusalem, according to Israel. The Israeli separation barrier runs through Mr. Atik's backyard, separating him from his olive trees, Mr. Seidemann said. In November the military sent a letter telling Mr. Atik that his grove now belonged to the Custodian of Absentee Properties in Israel, according to Mr. Seidemann.

Israeli officials declined to comment, though the prime minister's office issued a brief statement on Monday citing the action taken by the government's Ministerial Committee for Jerusalem Affairs.

In another development on Monday, the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, said he was close to arranging a truce with Palestinian militant groups.

"Differences have diminished, and I hope there will be a final agreement very soon," Mr. Abbas said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Despite the relative calm, there was one deadly confrontation on Monday. Israeli soldiers fatally shot a Palestinian who appeared to be preparing to plant a bomb near the Karni crossing point between Gaza and Israel, the military and the army radio said.

Meanwhile, Israeli bulldozers resumed construction on one of the most disputed sections of the separation barrier, around the West Bank settlement of Ariel, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Palestinian security officials.

Ariel is one of the larger settlements, with close to 20,000 Jewish settlers, and is deep inside the West Bank. Work on the barrier was halted last summer when Palestinians appealed to the Israeli courts.

Israel has said it will build individual fences around Ariel and several other nearby settlements and will decide later whether to connect them to the main barrier, which is closer to the West Bank boundary.

Israel credits the separation barrier with contributing to the sharp decline in Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks in the last two years.

The Palestinians say Israel is free to build a barrier along its 1967 borders but adamantly oppose its presence inside the occupied West Bank.