Israeli Farms Illegally Cultivating Hundreds of Acres of Palestinian Land Across Border

Moshavim around Latrun working some 370 acres of West Bank land that was handed to them by government authority in the 1980s; Palestinians torn on whether to fight in Israeli High Court of Justice.

Alon Ron

A group of Israeli farms near Jerusalem are illegally cultivating hundreds of acres of adjacent Palestinian land in the West Bank after it was allocated to them decades ago by the Israel Land Authority, even though it has no such power.

Following inquiries by Haaretz about the moshavim in Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, the Civil Administration in the West Bank said it was examining the issue.

The land is in an area that surrounds the settlement of Mevo Horon — near Latrun, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Jerusalem — which is adjacent to the pre-1967 borders of Israel (the Green Line).

The ILA allocated it to various communities in the region, including the moshavim (cooperative settlements) of Mesilat Zion, Even Sapir, Eshtaol, Taoz and Naham, which are all on the Israeli side of the Green Line. A total of 1,500 dunams (around 370 acres) is at issue.

Sources in those communities confirmed that they are indeed cultivating land in the West Bank. “It’s true, but we have only 150 dunams. I got it like that when I arrived here, so you’ll have to ask the Israel Lands Administration,” said a farmer in Mesilat Zion, using the government agency’s former name. “We grow mainly field crops there. I don’t know when it happened — it was certainly before I got here.”

A source at Naham added, “We work with the ILA and under their supervision. This was before the 1980s; it was decades ago.”

People familiar with the case say the ILA allocated the land to the various communities more than 30 years ago, and the communities have been working it since — legally, as far as they were aware.

“The method is never a problem,” said Dr. Ronit Levine-Schnur of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, who was a legal adviser to the Civil Administration until the start of this decade, explaining how such land is given to Israeli communities.

“For example, you can give the area in an authorized fashion to the World Zionist Organization, which is authorized to give it to anyone. Just like it can give it to a group like [settlement housing developer] Amana, it can give it to a community. And as far as it’s concerned, the formal status of the community — whether it’s an outpost or a community in Israel — doesn’t matter.”

Palestinians who lived in three villages that stood in the area before the Six-Day War are claiming ownership of the lands. Those residents who are still alive and the descendents of other residents claim to have documents and photographs proving their ownership.

Dima Abu Ghosh was born in Imwas, a village destroyed after the 1967 Six-Day War. The East Jerusalem resident says she has proof that the lands in question are privately owned and belonged to her parents.

“My father even managed to save the documents from the land registry that prove our ownership of part of the area,” she said. “The rest of the residents don’t want to go to Israeli courts. We are deliberating and it’s possible that in the future we might want to do so. But right now, there’s no agreement on the issue.”

If it was up to her, she would petition the High Court of Justice. “Personally, I think we have to do this,” she said. “But it’s not my decision. It’s not a personal issue”

According to Dror Etkes, of the Kerem Navot nongovernmental organization that researches Israeli policy in the West Bank, “There’s no doubt that these lands are Palestinian-owned.

“Aerial photographs show that these lands were cultivated by village residents who lived in the area before the villages were razed,” he said. “It’s not clear how the ILA got its hands on them, but it’s clear that it was unauthorized and contrary to its mandate — which allows it to operate only within the State of Israel.”

This is not the first time such activity by the ILA has been uncovered. Three years ago, the ILA admitted that in the 1980s it had illegally transferred private Palestinian land to Kibbutz Merav, on the northern border with the West Bank.

Despite this admission, the kibbutz continued to work the land — which apparently belongs to residents of Bardala and Tubas in the northern Jordan Valley — until only a few weeks ago. Recently, though, the kibbutz’s fields and orchards were cleared, causing the kibbutz heavy economic losses.

“It was a significant economic anchor,” the kibbutz’s business manager told Haaretz. “There are 45- and 50-year-olds here who were doing this all their lives.”

Ironically, the lands are now standing barren — because the Palestinians who claim ownership of them live on the other side of the West Bank separation barrier and cannot access them.

“The story of Latrun is different [to the story of Merav], says Levine-Schnur. “There were three villages at Latrun, and when they were building the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line, the question was raised of whether there was private land there or not. There was a petition, but it was rejected, they lost. The point is that there was pretty comprehensive research done on the question of whether there was privately owned land there at all.

“Therefore, if you are asking if this will end the way Merav ended — in Merav it ended the way it did not because of formalities, but because there were Palestinians [there].”

But there are Palestinians with claims in the Latrun-area case, too. Khaider Abu Ghosh, who was 14 when the Six-Day War broke out, says he recalls clearly the lands at issue.

“The crops and some of the roads in the area are standing now on lands that were ours before 1967,” he said. But he isn’t certain he will petition the High Court. “The issue of suing in Israeli courts is something we have been deliberating for 49 years,” he added.

Mateh Yehuda Regional Council said the moshavim have “a leasing agreement with the Israel Land Authority, which is the agency responsible for this issue.”