Over 40 percent of the graves in West Bank settlements have been dug on privately owned Palestinian land, according to new research by a left-wing Israeli NGO.
The comprehensive study claims that some 600 graves, situated in or near 10 settlements, are built on Palestinian land, including land that has been expropriated for public use or taken by Israel for what it describes as security needs.
The research was undertaken by Dror Etkes from Kerem Navot, a nongovernmental organization concerned with Israeli settlement and the state’s land policies beyond the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 borders).
Etkes used data from the Israeli Civil Administration’s Geographical Information System, which he received following a Freedom of Information request.
Until the mid-1980s, there were only two Jewish cemeteries in the West Bank – and these were both built on land purchased by Jews prior to 1948 (in Hebron and Kfar Etzion). However, Etkes says his mapping project – using aerial photography from different times, most recently June 2017 – shows that there are now 32 Jewish cemeteries containing at least two graves, scattered around the West Bank. There are also two sites featuring a single grave: one for the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein in Kiryat Arba (Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994); and a separate one in Ariel for Ron Nachman, who founded that settlement in the 1980s and was its mayor for many years.
Some cemeteries are tiny, serving small communities, while others are regional cemeteries with hundreds of graves that serve several settlements (like Barkan, west of Ariel, with some 300 graves).
An estimated 1,370 Jews are buried in the West Bank cemeteries, Etkes believes (some of his figures for the larger cemeteries are guesstimates, based on the aerial photography).
Most of the cemeteries – 14 – are built on territory the Israel authorities have declared as state lands. Some of the biggest of these are found in Ariel and Karnei Shomron (both 100 graves), and Kedumim (50 graves). However, at least 10 cemeteries are believed to be built on private Palestinian land.
Five of these (containing 78 graves, as of June 2017) are situated on what is believed to be privately owned Palestinian land in or near these settlements: Kochav Hashahar; Psagot; Mehola; Hinanit Shaked; and Yitzhar.
Three cemeteries, meanwhile, are built on land that was privately owned Palestinian land before Israel expropriated it for public usage (including by Palestinians): Ofra (40 graves); Barkan (300, as stated); and Mishor Adumim (100 graves).
Two settlement cemeteries, at Beit El and Shavei Shomron, are on privately owned Palestinian land that was taken by Israel for what it termed “security needs” (70 and 10 graves, respectively).
This method of land expropriation was often used for the establishment of settlements, until a Supreme Court decision on the Elon Moreh settlement in 1979 ruled that the army only had the power to take land for actual military purposes and not for settlement-building. However, the seizure of lands by the army denies their original owners the right to make use of them until such time as the “security situation” passes.
The most prominent recent grave to be dug on contested land (but not included in the data cited above) is that of Rabbi Raziel Shevach, who was murdered in a terror attack last month and buried in Havat Gilad, the illegal outpost where he lived.
Shevach’s grave was seemingly dug on privately owned Palestinian land, situated a few hundred meters from the outpost’s homes. However, it should be noted that Pinhas Wallerstein – the former director general of the Yesha Council (the umbrella organization of settlements in the West Bank) – told Haaretz earlier this month that the land on which Shevach was buried had previously been purchased by Moshe Zar, a prolific buyer of Palestinian land in the West Bank.
Etkes’ data show that the cemeteries are often situated hundreds of meters away from the homes of the actual settlements. For example, the Kochav Hashahar cemetery – which has about 35 graves dug on privately owned Palestinian land – lies some 470 meters (1,540 feet) from the settlement’s nearest homes. The Mehola cemetery, which has five graves, is about 300 meters from the nearest settlement homes. And Yitzhar’s eight-grave cemetery lies 650 meters away from the actual settlement homes.
Etkes tells Haaretz he believes the choice of where the cemeteries are situated – particularly when they lie on private land some distance from the nearest homes – is not a coincidence.
“I work on the assumption that there are always deliberate intentions afoot,” he says. The placement of a cemetery “is not chosen for no reason. It is a very long-term investment – and in Judaism, whoever buries people in a certain place does so on the understanding they will not be removed.
“Obviously, there is deliberate intent lurking behind the location of these cemeteries,” Etkes continues, “and it may be assumed that whoever buries the dead on private Palestinian land knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Etkes is fully aware that he’s raising an extremely sensitive subject, since Jewish custom holds that graves should not be exhumed and relocated. Since all of the West Bank settlements are on occupied territory, are the subject of international dispute and the chances of their being evacuated still exist, burial in the area is not a given.
Etkes points out, for example, that “there are no cemeteries serving the ultra-Orthodox settlements in the territories – none at all.”
A political act
The evacuation of Jewish graves from occupied territories became a real issue in Israel in 2005, with Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. At the time, Israel’s chief rabbis determined that the 48 graves situated in the regional cemetery serving the settlements (a bloc known as Gush Katif) should be exhumed and brought back to Israel.
Wallerstein, who has lived in Ofra for many years, says that in the past – but especially when the settlements were still in their infancy – settlers were concerned about being buried beyond the Green Line. They often expressed a desire to be buried within Israel proper, he notes.
Both of Wallerstein’s parents are buried in Ofra, but the decision to bury them there wasn’t straightforward and was ultimately made by his mother. For his part, Wallerstein says he wants to be buried in Ofra and doesn’t want his grave moved – even if the settlement itself is eventually evacuated.
In the 2007 book “Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007,” Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar wrote that the first intifada was the catalyst for cemetery-building in the settlements.
“Death was political, and it was formulated and interpreted as a life-giving elixir,” they stated. “The grave reinforced the foundations of the home and extended the roots farther into the ground. Life is mobile and can exist in many places. The finality of the grave, its being the terminal site, endows it with a numinous dimension that says ‘Touch me not.’”
Wallerstein concedes there’s some truth to the notion that burial in a particular place is “an additional seal on the certainty that we will not be leaving here.”
When asked if it isn’t somewhat cynical to dig graves on privately owned Palestinian lands, given that the evacuation of graves is such a sensitive matter and it’s clear it will be more difficult to evacuate them than buildings, Wallerstein demurs. “I don’t think too many people have invested much thought in this – after all, people are afraid of death,” he says, adding, “I don’t think the motivation is that you can evacuate [the settlements] or you can’t evacuate.”
Fellow Ofra resident (and Haaretz columnist) Israel Harel says very few of his friends decided not to bury their dead in the settlement over concerns about what the future may bring. Most of them, he notes, didn’t hesitate when it came to being buried in Ofra.
Haaretz asked the Civil Administration a series of questions related to this article: Whether it had issued permits to build cemeteries on private land; how the Civil Administration has acted in the matter; and the status of the specific land upon which Rabbi Shevach is buried in Havat Gilad. At the Civil Administration’s behest, Haaretz even provided the exact coordinates of all of the cemeteries built on private land.
However, the Civil Administration did not respond to any of the specific questions. Instead it stated: “The Civil Administration acts to carry out enforcement in Area C, in accordance with the authorities and regulations, subject to operational considerations.”
Yesha Council Deputy Director Yigal Dilmoni called the data “inaccurate and biased. In any case, we invite Kerem Navot to come over and move the graves to the places it chooses. It’s time for these left-wing organizations to stop hounding the residents of Judea and Samaria even after their death.”