Israel’s High Court of Justice has ordered Israeli settlers to stop working 42 acres of West Bank land, saying they have been doing so illegally after 13 years of legal proceedings.
The land, located in the Shiloh Valley, is being farmed by Meshek Achiyah, one of the largest agricultural businesses in the West Bank settlements that makes olive oil and wine, and a settler named Chen Ben-Eliyahu.
The ruling, issued last Tuesday, ordered Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank to remove all the olive trees and vineyards on the land by October.
Eight Palestinian petitioners, heirs of people who claimed original ownership of the land, had appealed to the court to remove the current occupants and allow them to use the land themselves. However, Justices Esther Hayut, Menachem Mazuz and Daphne Barak-Erez did not rule on the question of land rights and stated that Israel must “fulfill its obligations” as per the law toward the Palestinians. They said that since the land was never formally registered, its ownership remains unproven, and the High Court is not the proper venue to decide that issue.
Achiyah claimed that it bought the land in good faith from other settlers who had worked it previously.
The court essentially validated the Civil Administration’s decision to evict Achiyah by issuing a disruptive use order. This procedure allows the eviction of squatters from privately-owned West Bank land even if the owner hasn’t complained and even if they haven’t actually proved ownership of the land, as long as the squatters are unable to prove that they are using the land legally.
Altogether, Achiyah farms around 800 dunams of West Bank land. Its claim to 174 dunams of that area is being challenged in three other legal proceedings. The Civil Administration has issued disruptive use orders against Achiyah over that land as well.
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The length of the legal proceedings in the current case stemmed in part from the state’s argument that the court shouldn’t rule on this case before it ruled on the constitutionality of a law passed by the Knesset in 2017 that allowed the expropriation of privately-owned Palestinian land in cases where settlers had farmed or built on the land in good faith and with the state’s encouragement. If that law were upheld, the state argued, it would likely affect the outcome of this case.
But after the court overturned that law, arguing that it violated both the principle of equality and Palestinian property rights, there were no further barriers to ruling on the case.
In their ruling on the Achiyah case, the justices criticized the state for failing to present an explicit position on several key issues.
Attorney Quamar Mishirqi-Assad of the Haqel human rights organization, who represented the petitioners, said the court “stressed the army’s obligation to protect Palestinian property and criticized the state’s foot-dragging in this proceeding. The petitioners won’t have the privilege of seeing their lands vacated, but their children feel that after 13 years during which they were forcibly kept from their lands by a wealthy, powerful squatter, justice has finally been done.”
Attorneys Itamar Miron and Yarin Reuven, representing Achiyah, termed the ruling a “fundamental error” that grants the Civil Administration “unlimited power and enables it to take action even against state land, in clear violation of the language of the ‘Disruptive Use of Private Land Order.’”
Moreover, they said in a statement, the ruling is a salient example of exactly the kind of injustice the overturned law was meant to correct: Achiyah bought the land in good faith for full price, and will now be left with neither the land or the money. Yet the Palestinian claimants will also be left with neither the land nor monetary compensation, since their ownership of the land hasn’t been proven. Effectively, they said, both sides lost.
They concluded by hoping that the Civil Administration will at least try to reach an agreement on compensation for Achiyah, “especially since there’s no dispute that the farm paid millions of shekels for the land and also for the plantings.”