Reihan - Hagai Frid
A street in Reihan. Photo by Hagai Frid
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An officer in the Civil Administration who lives in the settlement of Reihan was given a 25-year lease on 50 dunams in the northern West Bank by the World Zionist Organization's Settlement Division, at a price of one shekel per year. This information surfaced during a petition to the High Court of Justice filed by a Palestinian who claims ownership of around 16 dunams of the land.

The 50 dunams in question are among the 3,500 dunams that the Civil Administration's custodian of abandoned and government property transferred in 1994 to the WZO, which in turn granted Reihan permission to use it. But these are the land reserves of Palestinian villages in the area.

The officer (in an interview with Haaretz) and his lawyer (in his response to the petition) said that other residents of Reihan and of other nearby communities received similar allocations, under the mandate Israel granted the WZO's Settlement Division to allocate land for rural communities. Israelis who study Israel's land policies agreed that neither the allocation nor the process behind it is unusual.

In March 2010, a "special agreement" to allocate land for agriculture was signed between the WZO's Settlement Division, headed by Ofer Laufman, and Yitzhak Buchnik, a resident of Reihan. These 50 dunams are part of the 3,500 dunams leased to the WZO for 49 years in 1994, "for purposes of planning, developing and establishing the community." In 1995, the Settlement Division granted the Reihan Residents' Association permission to use the land. According to former Defense Ministry official Baruch Spiegel's database on land allocations, approximately 7,000 dunams were allocated to Reihan in three separate contracts.

Discriminatory planning

The detailed, approved master plan for Reihan covers 1,209 dunams located entirely within a British Mandate-era nature reserve. Approximately 100 dunams were allocated for housing - 159 units for some 200 residents. By comparison, the Palestinian village of Umm Rihan, which was established by residents of Yabed as a seasonal agricultural settlement in the late 19th century and became a permanent settlement in 1922, has 930 dunams, of which 630 are registered in the Land Registry (known by its Hebrew acronym Tabu ) in the name of private individuals.

Ever since 1967, Israel has refused to issue building permits to Umm Rihan, claiming that building there would violate the land's designation as a nature reserve - the same reserve on which Reihan was built. In 2008, after a long campaign by residents with help from the Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights organization, the Civil Administration presented a master plan covering 56 dunams, of which all but a few dunams are residents' private lands. Of this, 39 dunams were allocated for 200 housing units, meaning a density several times higher than that of Reihan.

After the residents (who number around 420 ) objected, the Civil Administration extended the master plan to 122 dunams, of which 85 dunams are allocated for 200 housing units. But the residents objected again, as the plan still did not meet their needs.

Nir Shalev of Bimkom said these figures clearly show Israel's discriminatory planning policy - "and that's without considering the fact that Umm Rihan residents cannot receive allocations of state lands as Reihan residents can."

Buchnik moved to Reihan in 2000. In 2002, he asked the WZO to lease him land for agriculture, but the agreement was signed only in March 2011, four years after he began working at the Civil Administration as the head of the computerization department.

In response to the High Court petition, Buchnik's attorney, Amir Fisher wrote that "the WZO allocated extensive additional areas to various residents of Reihan and other nearby communities," and that Buchnik's allocation is unconnected to his client's work at the Civil Administration. Fisher also frequently represents Regavim, an organization set up to preserve "the lands and assets of the Jewish people in Israel," in which capacity he submits petitions against the Civil Administration, demanding that it raze Palestinian buildings in Area C (the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control ).

On July 25, the High Court held a hearing on the petition of the man who claims ownership of the land, Abd al Khader Qabaha. His lawyer, Tawfique Jabareen, asked the court to order a halt to all work on the land of which his client claims ownership until a ruling is issued. The court asked Jabareen to withdraw the petition because it does not rule on land disputes, but first it asked the state to explain within 30 days why no tender was issued for allocating the land.

Based on notes Jabareen wrote down from memory after the hearing, the justices expressed surprise that the land was allocated to a Civil Administration worker. "We take a very serious view of this case, in which an army officer has seemingly taken over state land," Justice Hanan Melcer said.

Qabaha, who was born in 1924, lives in Khirbet Abdullah Yonas. He, his sons and his nephews say that on part of the land allocated to Buchnik, they used to make charcoal, as indicated by the black earth; on another part, they planted wheat and barley. Sometimes, the land was used to graze sheep.

Fisher, the attorney, claims there is no sign that the petitioner or anyone delegated by him worked, planted or grazed on the land for at least the last 10 years. The Qabaha family claims that after the second intifada erupted in 2000, the army and the settlers did not let the landowners get to their lands. In 2002 or 2003, Israel took over a wide road in the wadi where the land is located. Soldiers and settlers drove there frequently, while blocking access to the Palestinians. In other part of the West Bank, a similar process of exploiting the security situation to keep Palestinians from their lands has also been documented.

Recently, Jabareen has been trying to obtain documents from Jordan and complete the process of registering the land in his clients' names. But Fisher claims the petition is based on forged documents. "The issue of canceling the allocation and holding a tender should be reviewed through a separate petition that will deal with the principle at stake," he argued, according to Jabareen's notes. But Melcer replied that "this specific case is actually very appropriate for a discussion of these issues."

Dror Etkes, an independent researcher of Israel's land policy in the West Bank, told Haaretz that this one agreement, which was uncovered by chance because of the petition, reveals the systematic way in which Israel takes over Palestinian lands.

In a phone conversation with Haaretz last week, Buchnik said he contacted the head of the Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, who told him, after consulting the Civil Administration's legal adviser, that the land allocation did not entail any conflict of interests. "I am a resident of the community of Reihan, and I received land just as many other area residents did," added Buchnik, who is originally from Pardes Hannah. "Many residents, some of whom are also employees of the Civil Administration, received land as part of an agricultural venture. All of it was under the same conditions; it's a standard contract drawn up by the Settlement Division."

Neighborly relations sought

Buchnik said he wants good neighborly relations with the petitioners, and "until the High Court of Justice rules on the matter, I won't touch the land they claim ownership of. I appreciate the fact that they aren't damaging the land. We have almost daily conversations with them and their grandchildren. We are not rightists; on the contrary, the whole family is very pro-Palestinian."

When asked why he hired Fisher, Buchnik said he approached four other lawyers, but all charged sums that were beyond his reach (NIS 40,000 to NIS 50,000 ). His wife, "who is behind the whole effort," searched the Internet "and approached the Regavim organization, which referred her to Fisher. I don't know how much he charges. Regavim is the coordinator."

A veteran Reihan resident who wished to remain anonymous also said that Buchnik's Civil Administration job "doesn't provide him with any privileges here. He received the lands in his capacity as a resident of the community. We all receive and received land for free. Anyone who wants land today will receive it tomorrow."

The goal of the WZO's Settlement Division, as defined on its website, is "to establish and bolster Jewish settlement in the periphery while strengthening our hold over state lands given to the department by the government of Israel."

The Civil Administration said that after conducting a review, it concluded that there is no conflict of interests, since Buchnik obtained the lands through an individual process that bears no relation to his military activities at the Civil Administration. It did not reply to Haaretz's query about whether land allocations to Civil Administration workers without a tender and for a nominal sum are common.