Forty-six years after the West Bank Land Registry was marked classified and closed off to the public, the Jerusalem District Court has ordered the state to give settlers information on the identities of Palestinians who own land near settlements. The dramatic June 26 decision will likely ease settlement expansion.
Inside the Green Line, one can learn the identity of owners of housing units or land for a NIS 10 fee. But in the West Bank, outside the Green Line, this information has been secret and classified. Only a person with a “link to the land” could make a request from the Civil Administration in Beit El, and obtain the needed information from the Land Registry. Those without such a “link” had to get the information from people in the Palestinian villages or sources in the Civil Administration.
The Civil Administration had a policy of keeping the Land Registry classified for several reasons. First, it allowed them to learn whether a Palestinian had sold his land to an Israeli, which is a capital offense in the Palestinian Authority. Also, there is a widespread phenomenon of forged land transactions in the West Bank. Taking advantage of the partial listings and the fact that many Palestinians are in Jordan or the United States, the offenders forge the owners’ signatures.
Last year, the settlement of Psagot and the non-profit organization Regavim, whose stated mission is to protect Israel’s lands and properties, petitioned the court for information on the identities of landowners in the settlement and the hill adjacent to it. The petitioners claimed that they wanted the information so they could “buy more land near the settlement for development and expansion. The land is wilderness that has no value aside from being included in the settlement.” They claimed that they had a “link to the land” because they lived in close proximity to it.
Psagot was founded in 1978 on Palestinian land that was seized “for military purposes.” This was outlawed in the Elon Moreh High Court ruling of October 22, 1979, when the High Court of Justice ruled that land could not be seized for military purposes and settlements built on it. There are tracts of Palestinian-owned land in Psagot on which settlers have built homes illegally, and tracts owned by Palestinians that have been included inside the settlement’s fence, though nothing has been built on them.
Psagot requested information about tracts of land outside the settlement's jurisdiction. State officials turned down the request for information with standard justifications, saying that close proximity to land and the desire to buy it making you an interested party are not enough. But Jerusalem District Court Judge Dr. Yigal Mersel accepted Psagot’s petition, writing that the state’s interpretation was unacceptable.
“Even if I assume that in the region (Judea and Samaria) special circumstances exist that differ from those in Israel, the state still had to show that the interpretation it adopted for the procedure is reasonable and proportionate. It still had to show that there was reason, from the start, not to discuss an individual request for information about land that bordered [on the settlement] and the wish to purchase it.”
This decision has a dramatic effect on the expansion of settlements, since currently the state enforces only the prohibition against building on privately-owned Palestinian land. In the area of Ramallah, the Jordan Valley and Tul Karm, most of the Palestinian-owned land is registered in the Land Registry. Without buying it, the settlements will have difficulty expanding. In settlements such as Psagot, Kochav Hashachar, Ofra, Beit El and Kochav Ya’akov, information may now be obtained that will enable the start of the process by which the land will be transferred to them. Knowing who owns the land will facilitate land purchases.
Dror Etkes, an activist who keeps track of settlement policy in the West Bank, said, “This is land that the settlers already took control over for all practical purposes, with help from the state, by construction, farming, fencing and the use of violence.”
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