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The government maintains a "blacklist" of Palestinians who left the territories during the 1967 Six Day War, and have since been barred from coming back, lest they sue for the return of their land, the Defense Ministry admitted for the first time yesterday.

The property has been used to establish settlements and military bases in the Jordan Valley.

The blacklist began with 100 people, but swelled to over 2,000 by late 2004, when Brigadier General Ilan Paz, then-commander of the army's Judea and Samaria (West Bank) District, ordered that no new names be added henceforth. Palestinians on the list who sought to rejoin their families in the territories, or even to come on brief visits, were refused permission "for security reasons."

Following a report on the blacklist published in Haaretz on March 14, the head of Meretz's Knesset faction, Zahava Gal-On, demanded a response from Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Yesterday, Gal-On received a letter from Peretz's bureau which said that the practice of "approving the entry of Palestinians on the basis of the background described above has been canceled."

By confirming the cancelation of this practice, the letter also implicitly confirmed its existence. And with the practice confirmed, Palestinian landowners now will be able to sue the state for the return of their property, as well as for financial compensation for its use over the past few decades.

However, they may still be unable to enter the territories, since Israel has barred almost all Palestinians from returning to, or visiting, the areas since the intifada began in 2000.

According to a 2005 State Comptroller's Report, thousands of dunams of "Palestinian-owned lands were allocated to Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley" during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Numerous ministers, senior government officials, and officials of the World Zionist Organization's Settlement Division were involved in this process.

By law, however, property owned by absentee Palestinians was supposed to be held in trust by the Civil Administration's Director of Government Property, a representative of the Custodian General. Such land could not legally be used for settlements, and it could be used for security purposes only if an official expropriation order were issued.

But according to military sources, a significant portion of the Jordan Valley settlements were established on land owned by Palestinian absentees. Parts of the absentees' lands were also given to local Palestinians in exchange for their lands, which were than transferred to the settlements.

In a legal opinion drafted in October 2003, the legal adviser for Judea and Samaria warned that the use of these lands was illegal, and suggested that the government find a way to resolve the problem, since if it ended up in court, "it would not benefit the state in any way, and would cause a chain reaction that would endanger the entire fabric of the relevant settlements' land."