Revealed: Nearly 3,500 Settlement Homes Built on Private Palestinian Land

These illegal structures could be legalized under Israel's contentious 'land-grab' law, whose validity is now being determined by the High Court of Justice

Settlers build in the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona, since evacuated by Israel.
Emil Salman

There are 3,455 residential and public buildings built on private Palestinian lands in the West Bank, according to Civil Administration data. These illegal structures could be legalized under the expropriation law, whose validity is now being determined by the High Court of Justice in response to Palestinian petitions against the law.

Extensive details on the scope of illegal structures on private Palestinian land were revealed in an appendix to the state’s response to the petitions.

>>Explained: Israel's new Palestinian land-grab law and why it matters

The law allows the state to expropriate Palestinian lands on which settlements or outposts were built “in good faith or at the state’s instruction,” and deny its owners the right to use those lands until there is a diplomatic resolution of the status of the territories. The measure provides a mechanism for compensating Palestinians whose lands are seized.

According to the Civil Administration, the 3,455 structures fall into three categories. The first includes 1,285 structures that are clearly private land. These are structures built during the past 20 years on land that was never defined as state land and all have had demolition orders issued against them. The second category comprises 1,048 structures that were built on private land that had earlier been erroneously designated state land. The third category contains 1,122 structures that were built more than 20 years ago, during a period when planning laws were barely enforced in the West Bank.

The structures on clearly private land are within the jurisdictions or adjacent to the jurisdictions of 74 settlements throughout the West Bank. Of these, 874 are in outposts – small, illegal satellites of larger settlements. One example would be the Tzur Shalem outpost near Karmei Tzur in the Etzion Bloc. Amona, which was evacuated in February, was another example. The other 411 are individual structures that were built on enclaves of private land within various legal settlements that were planned in accordance with Israeli law.

Of the 1,285 structures built on clearly private land, 543 are built on what the Civil Administration calls “regularized private land,” meaning lands whose owners are known and whose ownership is formally registered. The other homes are built on lands recognized as private after aerial photos proved that these lands had been cultivated over the years, but there is no definitive registry of who was cultivating them. Cultivating land establishes ownership in the West Bank in accordance with the Ottoman-era laws that still prevail there.

According to Dr. Ronit Levine-Schnur, an expert on property rights at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, “Regularized land is land for which there is clear land registration, whether performed under Jordanian rule or during the Mandate period. The land at Amona was regularized land. In these cases there is no doubt about the rights because the registration invalidates any competing right and there’s no such thing as a statue of limitations on registered land. Non-regularized land can be unregistered but known to be privately owned, or registered but in a registry that doesn’t have the same strong evidentiary power.”

The second category includes structures built on lands that had been erroneously declared state land. Because the original declarations of state land were based on obsolete surveying technology, when the technology improved, errors were discovered and lands were removed from the state land listings. As a result, 1,048 structures suddenly found themselves outside the “blue line” that demarcates state lands. Of these, 799 structures are in areas that had a valid master plan and were thus planned and built based on the earlier declarations. Of this subcategory, 303 buildings are in the ultra-Orthodox city of Modi’in Ilit.

The third category of structures were built on private lands, with the Civil Administration admitting that in most cases the owners of the lands are known. These structures, however, were built more than 20 years ago, during a period when there was almost no oversight regarding construction on private Palestinian land. Until 1998, the policy was to conduct virtually no enforcement actions in the settlements. Of these 1,122 structures, 480 are in Ofra, 193 are in Beit El, and 146 are in Elon Moreh. Dozens of other such homes were built in Eli, Shavei Shomron, Psagot, Ma’aleh Michmash and Hermesh.

All told, of the 3,455 structures built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank, 1,576 (around 45 percent) were built on regularized private land and the rest on private land whose owners are not confirmed. This number includes residential structures and public buildings, mobile and permanent alike, but doesn’t include other types of structures like storage rooms, fences, roads and infrastructures that were built on private land.

The Civil Administration data is similar to the numbers that appeared in a recent Peace Now report, which estimated that the expropriation law could legalize up to 4,000 housing units in the settlements and outposts. Outposts that could be legalized included Avigail, Ahuzat Shalhevet, Beit El East, Bat Ayin West, Jebal Artis, Hill 725, Givat Assaf and more. The report noted that numerous homes could also be legalized in Oranit, Asfar, Beit El, Givat Ze’ev, Gitit, Har Gilo and others.

The Civil Administration appendix also details how many demolition orders were issued against illegal structures in the settlements. Between 2012 and 2016 there were 285 orders issued; between 2007 and 2011 – 251; from 2002 to 2006 – 451; between 1997 and 2001 – 278 orders and between 1992 and 1996 only 20 demolition orders were issued.