Israel to Try to Legalize Sewage Plant Near West Bank Settlement Built on Palestinian Land

High Court rapped council heads for issuing illegal building permits, but state may now issue permits retroactively

The West Bank settlement of Ofra
Emil Salman

The state is trying to retroactively legalize a sewage treatment facility near the settlement of Ofra that was built illegally on private Palestinian land. The latest effort to legalize the plant may get a boost from a recent legal opinion issued by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit allowing the expropriation of private Palestinian land for infrastructure that would serve only Israelis.

The sewage facility was built without permits and two chairmen of the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council were fined after they admitted that they had advanced its construction through a land grab. A legal opinion of the Judea and Samaria legal adviser could allow for the expropriation of the land.

Steps to advance the plan are to be discussed at a meeting of a subcommittee of the The Civil Administration Planning Committee, set to convene on December 6. A security source familiar with the details explained that the plan is at an advanced stage and is expected to be approved. The land would then need to be formally expropriated and building permits issued retroactively.

The planning of the sewage treatment plant near Ofra began in 2007. During a meeting on the matter with the environment minister and the Environmental Protection Ministry director-general, then-Mateh Binyamin Regional Council chairman Pinchas Wallerstein said outright that the facility was to be built on private Palestinian land. In 2008, Wallerstein was replaced by Avi Roeh, who still holds the position. Roeh signed documents that purported to be building permits, but were in fact fictitious documents that had no validity because the regional council had no authority over that land.

In 2009, after construction began, the landowners filed suit for trespassing. Roeh and Wallerstein were questioned and didn’t deny anything. In 2014, then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided not to charge them, but a petition was filed to the High Court of Justice against the closure of the case. During the hearings on the petition, the state came to an agreement under which the two pleaded guilty to issuing an illegal permit. Each was fined 2,500 shekels (around $700).

Although the building was completed, it never began operations, nor was it demolished. In 2013, the legal adviser for Judea and Samaria stated that the land could be expropriated from the Palestinians if the facility were retrofitted to serve the Palestinians in the area as well as the settlers. In 2014, the state announced that it was examining the possibility of expropriating the land based on that legal opinion, but the state never went forward with that plan. Now it is revisiting it.

Two weeks ago, however, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit issued a legal opinion allowing the expropriation of private Palestinian land for infrastructure that would serve Israelis alone. That opinion was given to legalize a road that leads to the West Bank outpost of Harsha and has nothing to do with the treatment plant at Ofra, but it could boost the effort to legalize that facility as well. The High Court of Justice in the past had ruled that the treatment plant could not be operated until its planning status was properly settled, but if the subcommittee approves the plan and the land is expropriated, the facility could in theory begin operations.

In September the High Court of Justice dismissed a petition asking to throw out the agreement with Roeh and Wallerstein and to prosecute them instead. But the judges were harshly critical of their behavior in the case.

“With their actions, which included knowingly giving assurances and permits, verbally and in writing, without the authority to do so, Roeh and Wallerstein demonstrated contempt and disregard for basic principles of the rule of law, and caused serious and prolonged damage to the property rights of the petitioners,” wrote Supreme Court President Esther Hayut. “Roeh and Wallerstein’s behavior is tainted with a serious moral flaw.”