Now Revealed: Top Military Judge Said Ethiopians Could Live on Private Palestinian Land

Uri Shaham’s legal opinion in 1998 said mobile homes may be sited on land near Ofra in West Bank

New prefab homes erected in Ofra for relocation of Amona settlers.
Emil Salman

A 1998 legal opinion the state has long tried to suppress agreed to the establishment of temporary housing for Ethiopian immigrants on privately owned Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Haaretz has obtained a copy of the opinion, written in May 1998 by then-Military Advocate General Uri Shaham, and called “Establishing an absorption center for Falashmura immigrants in Ofra.”

Settlers from the recently dismantled outpost of Amona tried, unsuccessfully, to use Shaham’s opinion to block their eviction in February.

Israeli security forces tried to prevent the opinion from reaching the public domain, refusing to hand it over after its potential relevance to Amona came to light. A Haaretz freedom of information request to see the opinion failed, but the paper obtained a copy eventually.

Shaham’s opinion relates to 23 Ethiopian families who had been placed temporarily in a religious school in the settlement of Ofra, which was slated to accept 60 Ethiopian families.

Shaham stressed that a trailer site needed to be urgently established to house the families more suitably than the school could. Land was chosen next to Ofra, but not in the actual settlement itself because it was considered optimal that the immigrants be allowed to live independently.

The need was urgent and unusual, Shaham wrote, because regional councils within Israel had demonstrated a “lack of desire” to absorb the Ethiopian families.

The only snag with the proposed site was that it was owned by Palestinians. Shaham wrote that the land – about 25 dunams (about 6 acres) in area – belonged to Abdul Hamid Saliman Mohammed el-Hamad, who, insofar as was known, had left Israel before the Six-Day War and died in the United States. His heirs and brother Mustafa all lived outside Israel and could not be located. The land was, therefore, designated as “abandoned.”

Shaham did not explain how no land could be found to house the Ethiopian immigrants in all of Israel, or even the West Bank, that didn’t belong to Palestinians.

He stressed that the state could not do as it pleased with private land, even if its owner is missing. Yet he did agree for the trailer site for the immigrants to be housed on this private land, albeit for a limited period of three years.

Ultimately, the trailer site never did go up. Aerial photographs of the area show the land remained empty. The only remnant of the affair is the permission of the military advocate general to let Ethiopian immigrants be housed on private Palestinian land.

On Shaham’s behalf, the courts spokesperson told Haaretz that the opinion had been written 20 years ago, in the framework of his function as military advocate general. It had been appropriate at the time, but was not necessarily appropriate to current circumstances.