Defense Minister Naftali Bennett approved a land allocation on Wednesday that will double the size of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, only three days after Palestinians were denied the same land.
His approval enables the Housing Ministry to begin planning a new neighborhood on this land.
The decision adds 1,100 dunams (225 acres) to the settlement in the area known as Givat Ha’eitam, which was designated as state land in 2004. In the intervening years, there were several failed administrative appeals and legal proceedings against both the designation and the land’s allocation to Efrat.
Bennett’s decision came just three days after the rejection of the Palestinians’ latest demand that the land be given to them instead of to Efrat. Peace Now announced that it intends to petition the High Court of Justice against the decision.
According to Bennett’s press statement, 7,000 apartments can be built on this land, which will enable new residents to move to Efrat, expand the settlement and significantly bolster the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The Efrat municipality welcomed the decision, noting that it capped 20 years of effort, including High Court proceedings that lasted for a decade.
Initially, Palestinians opposed the decision to designate the land as state land by arguing that they had been farming it continuously, which would make it ineligible to be state land. But an administrative appeals committee accepted their argument with regard to just 100 dunams of land.
Later, the Palestinians petitioned the High Court, arguing that the land was being expropriated so it could be transferred to Efrat. But in 2016, the court rejected that petition, saying the land had been designated as state land legally.
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Next, Peace Now petitioned the court to demand that the state give prior notice of its intent to allocate the land – something the state generally doesn’t do once land has been declared state land. Prior notice would enable anyone who wished to file objections to the allocation. But in 2018, as part of these proceedings, the state announced that the land had been allocated to the Housing Ministry for the purpose of planning a new neighborhood of Efrat.
In early 2019, Peace Now and Palestinians living near Givat Ha’eitam asked Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank to cancel the land’s allocation to the Housing Ministry and allot it to the Palestinians instead. This was a very unusual request, since Palestinians don’t usually apply to the Civil Administration for grants of state land.
Data obtained through a freedom of information request by the Movement for Freedom of Information and Peace Now, shows that since 1967, Palestinians have been given only 0.25 percent of the state land allocated in the West Bank.
In their request, the Palestinians stressed that they don’t accept Givat Ha’eitam’s designation as state land, but since that battle had already been lost, they at least wanted the land allocated for Palestinian development in the area. The area in question constituted the main land reserves for the development of Bethlehem and its suburbs, they argued.
Moreover, they said, Palestinians had worked this land for years, so they had a stronger claim to it than did residents of Efrat. And in addition, giving this land to Efrat would effectively cut Bethlehem off from the villages to its south, which today are part of the same metropolitan area.
But on Sunday, the Civil Administration rejected the Palestinians’ request for the land. In its statement, it said that Efrat has almost no land reserves, and Givat Ha’eitam is the only possible reserve it could acquire.