The land of a West Bank settlement evacuated almost eight years ago will be returned to its Palestinian owners, the state told the High Court of Justice last week.
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The West Bank settlement of Homesh was founded in 1978 on 700 dunams (173 acres ) belonging to Palestinians from the adjacent village of Burka. The land was confiscated by the Israel Defense Forces for what it said were military needs - a common method subsequently banned by the High Court.
In 1980, the area was given over to Jewish settlers, who built up Homesh that year. The state confiscated other land nearby.
In August 2005, Homesh was evacuated as part of the disengagement from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank. All Homesh's houses were demolished except for a water tower.
A settler movement called Homesh First occasionally protests at the site, and the security forces remove the demonstrators. In December 2011, the elders of Burka, six landowners and human rights group Yesh Din petitioned the High Court to annul the military requisition orders preventing the villagers from returning to their land. The orders remained valid even though Homesh had been evacuated six years earlier.
The state took its time in forming its position due to the objection of former Central Command chief Avi Mizrahi, who said the site had to be kept for military purposes. But the Defense Ministry's legal advisers said this was not sufficient cause to hold all the land.
In December 2011, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon took over at Central Command, overturned Mizrahi's decision and paved the way for the return of the land.
The High Court was due to hear the petition this coming Wednesday, but the state said last week it would annul the requisition orders. It did not explain why it had taken so long.
"It has been 35 years since the land was stolen from its rightful owners, eight years since Homesh was evacuated and two and a half years since the petition was submitted," said attorney Shlomo Zaharia, who submitted the Yesh Din petition with attorney Michael Sfard.
"It's sad that so many years had to pass until the state decided to uphold the law and return the robbed land to its owners. Now we must ensure that the landowners are given access to their land. In our experience, the state's recognition of private Palestinian ownership does not necessarily mean the landowners are allowed to access their land and farm it."
Gershon Mesika, head of the Shomron Regional Council, harshly criticized the state's reply to the High Court of Justice.
"Even those who deported [the settlers] from north Samaria realized that the area is vital militarily and strategically," he said. "Therefore we consider the state's decision puzzling .... We can only conclude that despite the change of government and Israelis' clear vote for the rightist camp, the Defense Ministry's legal advisers persist in their agenda to influence the decision-makers."