The figures published yesterday by Peace Now's Settlement Watch team on the ownership of land on which the settlements sit presents a scary picture of the State of Israel's behavior in the territories. Approximately 40 percent of the area of settlements is privately-owned Palestinian land, according to the Civil Administration. Put simply, for dozens of years, Israel continued to expand and entrench the settlement enterprise by dispossessing Palestinian residents of their lands, whose private ownership even the State of Israel does not dispute. All of this is in contrast to the frequently voiced argument of official government spokesmen and settlers that "the settlements sit on state lands."
What is the method used to bring about this phenomenon? From 1967 to 1979, the Israeli military administration in the West Bank made widespread use of the process of "acquiring land for security purposes" to grab thousands of dunams of land under private Palestinian ownership. These lands were in practice used for the purpose of expanding the settlements.
Although "acquiring land for security purposes" in an occupied area is permitted according to international law, it is also limited to a certain time. The High Court of Justice rejected the petitions the landowners submitted against the acquisitions, basing itself on the argument that the settlements do indeed have an added security value, as they are located in the heart of an area where a hostile population lives. That is, permanent settlements were established on lands whose acquisition was meant to have been temporary to begin with. To this day, dozens of settlements owe their legal existence to the absurd ritual in which the OC Central Command signs an extension of the acquisition orders for the lands on which they sit, while declaring that he is convinced the land in question is "necessary for military purposes."
Ironically, this method of operation eventually ran into trouble specifically because of the settlers' refusal to continue cooperating with the open lie at the heart of all those declarations the IDF provided to the High Court of Justice. In a response submitted by the settlers in 1979, when the High Court of Justice was discussing land acquisitions for Elon Moreh, it was actually the settlers who refused to recognize the temporary nature of the settlement they were about to set up, arguing that it was not being set up for the purpose of temporary security needs, but as a "supreme moral and divine order." With no alternative available, the High Court of Justice was compelled to overturn its previous decisions and to order the state to refrain from acquiring lands intended for building settlements. Even though Elon Moreh had to relocate to an alternate site, all the settlements that had been established in this manner until that point remained where they were.
As a result of the Elon Moreh case, the construction of settlements in the territories, which only accelerated during those years, switched to two parallel tracks: the first, the pseudo-legal one, in which the government of Israel, assisted by the legal advice from the industrious Plia Albeck, declared huge tracts of the West Bank to be state lands. And in that way, without Israeli governments ever having to provide any sort of accounting, not for the questionable way in which these lands were declared state lands, nor for the very fact that these land were allocated only for Jews (even though they were and remain a small minority of the West Bank population), the settlement enterprise became entrenched.
The second track on which Israel worked represents a more advanced stage in the government's scorn for the concept of its subordination to the laws of the state, whose enforcement, or so it is commonly thought, it is actually supposed to oversee: the governments of Israel continued to initiate or "only" to enable the construction of settlements, neighborhoods and outposts on private lands without even bothering to issue acquisition orders, because after all, the High Court of Justice would probably have disqualified them.
As mentioned, all of this happened with the knowledge of the Civil Administration, which did not get lazy and took the trouble to document the phenomenon and its dimensions, while insolently insisting on its right to conceal it from the public. And this is what the Jerusalem District Prosecutor's Office wrote to the court when explaining its refusal to hand over the data: "The subject of the petition is an extremely sensitive issue that involves, among other things, the State of Israel's security considerations and foreign relations."
Even though it is hard to understand what "security considerations" could have been involved in this matter, it is easy to guess how Israel's foreign relations would indeed have been affected by the information contained here. The unfortunate conclusion is that when it comes to land management policy, the State of Israel acts like a mafia state inside the area of the West Bank.
The author is the director of Peace Now's Settlement Watch project.
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