Israel Mulling Whether Land-grab Law Also Relates to Palestinian Agricultural Land

Government wants four months to respond to High Court petition by Palestinians who are claiming ownership of land near settlement of Shiloh.

The settlement of Shiloh in the West Bank.
Emil Salman

The government is mulling whether the new law enabling the expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land applies to agricultural land illegally worked by settlers and not just to areas on which settlers have built homes, the State Prosecutor’s Office told the High Court of Justice last week.

It was responding to a High Court petition filed by Palestinians who claim ownership of agricultural land located near the West Bank settlement of Shiloh.

The Palestinians say the settlers forced them off the land several years ago and have been working it illegally ever since.

In 2009, Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank issued orders barring the settlers from cultivating the land. However, those orders were never enforced, partly because the settlers appealed them. The Palestinians therefore asked the court to order that the land be restored to them.

About a month ago, the state told the court it was studying the Palestinians’ ownership claim, a process it expected to take four months. But last Thursday, it filed a new brief saying it must also examine whether and how the new law applies to agricultural land. It therefore asked the court to give it until April 30 to submit its conclusions.

The law, which was passed earlier this month, is worded fairly broadly. It authorizes the expropriation not only of land on which settler homes have been built (as long as certain conditions are met), but also “agricultural areas used by” a settlement or outpost. Nevertheless, its main purpose is to prevent the demolition of homes. The petitioners’ attorney, Kamer Mashraqi Assad, said that as far as she knows, there are no homes on the land in question; it is strictly agricultural.

But the question of the law’s application may be moot, since a petition challenging it has already been filed in the High Court. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has refused to defend the law, saying he considers it unconstitutional, and the court is therefore widely expected to overturn it.