The order the state gave to a Palestinian to vacate farmland near Bethlehem was illegal, the appeals panel of the Civil Administration found last week, in a ruling that harshly criticized the state’s conduct in the case.
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The panel’s three military judges ruled against the Civil Administration’s position, according to which the 16-dunam (four-acre) plot farmed Ismail Mahmad Mohammed Sabih was state property.
Sabih proved that he began the process of verifying his ownership of the land in 1963, when the area was under Jordanian control, and the process reached an advanced stage after the 1967 Six-Day War.
In 2003 the state ordered Sabih to vacate the land, claiming it was not being cultivated and could therefore qualify as state land. Under Ottoman law that still obtains in the West Bank, ownership is acquired when a plot of land is cultivated continuously for 10 years. Sabih has indeed been cultivating it, growing grapes and squash.
“The state claimed that the petitioner did not meet the burden of proof that the land had been cultivated when the [Jordanian] regulation processes began. That claim is unacceptable,” wrote one of the judges, Maj. Meir Vigiser.
Vigiser slammed the state’s conduct in the case, saying it never bothered to examine aerial photographs taken when Jordan began the process of regularizing the land. The state didn’t even try to support its claims, Vigiser added. The panel ruled that Sabih should not be removed from the land.
Although the ruling must be approved by the army in order to take effect, military commanders nearly always ratify the rulings of the appeals panel.
Jiat Nasser, the lawyer who represented Sabih, told Haaretz that he has not decided whether to complete the process of formally registering the land in his client’s name or to make do with the reversal of the eviction order. I(an onerous process), or if they should settle for the cancelation of the evacuation order. In any event Sabih can continue to work his land.
The ruling by the appeals panel was unusual, said Hagit Ofran of the Peace Now settlements monitoring team. She added that it illustrated the distorted mechanism by which land has been declared state land.
The Civil Administration said it was still studying what it termed the recommendations of the panel.