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If the data published in the Peace Now report yesterday are true, the settlement movement yesterday suffered a severe blow. This is true both from a public relations point of view - for years the movement has claimed that the settlements have never stolen land - and from a legal point of view, although this has yet to be examined.

For many months now, the state prosecution has been clashing in the High Court of Justice with Peace Now over its duty under the Freedom of Information Law to publish data about ownership of land on which settlements were built. The state requested to refrain from revealing the data on the grounds that "the subject of the petition is a complex and sensitive one, and questions of the country's security and foreign relations are tied up with it." Its representatives asked for more time. Now it seems that time is up.

The material which Peace Now wanted the state to publish was apparently leaked to it. Attorney Talya Sasson appears to have used the same data base for her report on illegal outposts. Sasson's mandate was the outposts and Peace Now expanded the mandate to include settlements.

What appears to be the most significant and surprising revelation is that about the building on private Palestinian lands after 1979 - the year in which the High Court of Justice handed down what is known as "the Elon Moreh ruling." Until that time, Israel would set up settlements by seizing lands "for urgent military purposes," which is congruent with international law. This leaves the official ownership of the lands still in the hands of the original owner and it is valid for a limited period. In order to continue holding the lands, the army must issue notification every few years, that it has taken over the lands again.

This was the custom until 1979 and dozens of settlements were built in this way. In that year, the army seized 700 dunams belonging to the villagers of Rujeib, south of Nablus, for the establishment of Elon Moreh. The land owners petitioned the High Court of Justice and the state responded that one reason for the land seizure was an urgent security need.

At that point, the settlers stated that this was not a passing security need and that the settlement was built as a permanent site that served religious Zionist, and political, ends. As a result, the court accepted the land owners' petition and canceled the seizure orders. From that point on, the state stopped issuing seizure orders when settlement building.

Now it appears from the report that settlements continued to be built on private Palestinian lands after 1979 - even the large urban settlements inside the "blocs," such as Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev and Ariel.

When the permanent borders of the state of Israel are drawn, and the government wants to annex these blocs, this new information could be a severe stumbling bloc.