Palestinians to High Court: Israel's West Bank Land Claim Will Cut Bethlehem Off From South

Israel's High Court of Justice is to rule on the state's right to declare ownership of 1,000 acres of undeveloped land located in West Bank settlement of Efrat, which Palestinians say belong to them.

The Israeli government is seeking a ruling from the High Court of Justice on Wednesday that would permit it to declare ownership of a large swath of land in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

The Palestinian petitioners in the case are seeking to head off such a declaration, claiming they own the land. Local Palestinians have also expressed concern that if the land is claimed by the state, Efrat will be expanded and Bethlehem will ultimately be cut off from Palestinian towns to the south.

The land in question spans about 1,000 undeveloped acres within the municipal boundaries of Efrat.

In 2004, the twelve petitioners, who are from Bethlehem and the village of Nahleh, learned that about 325 acres of land, of which they each claim to own part, was about to be declared state land. They then filed an appeal with the military appeals court in an attempt to counter Israel's denial of their ownership rights. The state based its position on a claim that all or part of the parcels had been unfarmed over a 10-year period and were not registered with the Land Registry Office.

For their part, the petitioners argued that in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, residents of Efrat had denied them access to the land and attempted to build a road through it.

A double standard?

Wednesday's session before the High Court is the fourth on the matter since it accepted the case in 2009. In the course of the legal proceedings, it became clear that a Jewish-owned parcel of about 25 acres was not being declared state land even though it had not been cultivated or officially registered. The petitioners' lawyer, Sani Khoury, cited this as evidence that the state had intended all along to expropriate the land his clients claim as their own and transfer it to Jews. If true, this would make the declaration of state ownership of the land invalid under the law.

About two months ago, Israel – which says its declaration of ownership of the land is in accordance with the prevailing law in the West Bank and the past decisions of the High Court – announced it was reducing its claim by about 74 acres, excluding a parcel adjacent to student dormitories at Bethlehem University.

The land, known in Efrat as Har Eitam, is located about 1.5 kilometers from the developed part of the settlement, with the Palestinian villages of Nahleh and Wad Rahal in between. A corridor of about 37 acres that runs through the state-claimed part of the land has for some time been registered to Himnuta, a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund.

In the two decades following the Six-Day War, Jewish land dealers bought land in the area under the guise of Himnuta. In 2011, the Israel Defense Forces gave Efrat permission to establish a farm on the Himnuta-owned land. But it was only accessible through other land claimed by individual Palestinians from Bethlehem and Nahleh.

Contesting history

In November 2012 and again in February 2013, several residents of Efrat, including a security officer who is well-known in Nahleh, attempted to create an access road to the farm. Residents of Nahleh blocked the road and declared it off limits to the settlers.

In 2002 and 2009 settlers also tried to build a road across the land in two places to connect Efrat with the settlement of Tekoa, about 4.5 kilometers to the east. Palestinians in the area again thwarted the attempts, and in 2010 an indictment for trespassing was even filed against a man involved in the effort to build a road.

Residents of Bethlehem and Nahleh have expressed concern that in the prevailing political atmosphere in Israel, Efrat will be allowed to continue to expand eastward, limiting the development of Palestinian towns in the area and separating Bethlehem from Palestinian villages to the south. There is also still concern over efforts to build a road between Efrat and Tekoa.

Dror Etkes, who has researched Israeli control of land in the West Bank, said a final declaration of the disputed land as state land and the building of roads by settlers would be another step in encircling the major Palestinian towns in the area – Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala – through the expansion of settlements, military camps and limitations on movement where there is full Israeli control.

Emil Salman