In the end, the result is the same: More Palestinian land stolen and transferred to Jews because they are Jews (born in Israel or the Diaspora) and for their benefit. But the Jewish brain invents tricks of the trade, and the means and methods that the military bureaucracy has created and is still creating to reach this result are many and varied, until confusion and fear take over at the sheer multitude of details.
Dror Etkes, a researcher of Israel’s settlement policy, wants, as usual, to put things in order. In a new study he will be publishing this week, he focuses on the history of orders to seize Palestinian land, issued by generations of army commanders in the West Bank (not including the part that was annexed to Jerusalem). More than 1,150 seizure orders have been issued from 1969 to the present. After subtracting those that were revoked or that overlap, it turns out that this particular trick enabled Israel to take over more than 100,000 dunams (25,000 acres) of Palestinian land. More millions of dunams of Palestinian land have been stolen in other ways, which Etkes has been researching too.
The declared purpose for such seizure is security and military needs. On the website of the Military Advocate General, the body that advises the army on legal issues, this goal is stressed. Etkes quotes at length from this source in his study: In accordance with the laws of belligerent occupation detailed in customary international law, an occupying power is prohibited from confiscating the private property of a local population in an area under its belligerent occupation. [But] the commander of the area has the authority to take possession of private land if there is a military need. … Exercising this authority does not invalidate landowners’ rights of possession, although they are temporarily prevented from holding and using the land. ... The word temporary is used, because the occupation is meant to be temporary, and because military needs may change.
Surprise surprise. Some 40 percent of the area officially seized for military and security needs have been allocated over the years to settlements (a quarter of the total area is indeed used for military purposes and another quarter is occupied by the separation barrier). The governments of the Alignment, the Labor Party’s predecessor, started this tradition. They allocated 6,280 dunams to settlements – 28 percent of the approximately 22,000 dunams that have been seized for military use in those years. As expected, the rise of Likud to power has seen a huge spike in allocation to settlements of land that was originally seized for military use. From Likud’s victory in May 1977 to the end of 1979, more than 31,000 dunams were seized. Out of this total, 23,000 were allocated to settlements – that is, 73 percent.
If we thought this method was quashed by the High Court of Justice ruling in the case of the settlement of Elon Moreh – which was handed down in October 1979 and placed restrictions on the authority of an Israeli military commander in the West Bank to seize land for settlement construction – it turns out we were wrong. Because for three years, commanders continued under Likud to issue seizure orders for security needs that benefited the settlements: Out of some 11,000 dunams seized, 7,040 dunams were given to 12 new settlements. (The dates on some of the orders are unclear; therefore they are not included in the breakdown above that Etkes produced at Haaretz’s request. But the goal of those orders, too, is clear: settlement. And they apply to areas amounting to about 2,000 dunams).
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Following the High Court ruling on Elon Moreh, Israel found a surer method of robbery: declaring Palestinian land to be state land (that is, for Jews), in a very lenient interpretation of an Ottoman law on the matter. The raw material from Etkes’ research is digital maps and layers of data given to him by the Civil Administration (through gritted teeth) by dint of the Freedom of Information Law. According to this information, Etkes estimates that since the 1980s, Israel has declared some 750,000 dunams as state land, out of approximately 5.7 million dunams in the West Bank. (Reminder: This column does not recognize the legality of the Israeli definition of Palestinian land as state land, and even less the legality of their transfer to Jews).
As usual, Etkes delved deeply into the takeover of Palestinian land. Out of some 40,000 dunams allocated to 45 settlements in only 73 seizure orders, only about 43 percent are in use for built-up areas and agriculture. The rest – 57 percent – stands empty. Imagine an Israeli peace government in 1994 declaring that as a first confidence-building step, any piece of land seized for settlements on which there is no construction would be returned to their legal owners (Palestinian local councils, towns and individuals). By the way, 45 percent of all Palestinian lands seized by these orders (including for purely military purposes) is not in use. It is left for us to conclude that the main idea is for Palestinians not to be able to cultivate their lands, build on them, pasture their animals, hike and picnic in them.
Until 1989, such orders did not have an expiration date, only a date when they go into effect. This indefiniteness was challenged in 1989 when Bethlehem resident Naim Juha petitioned the High Court against the seizing of his family’s land. The court approved the seizure, but ordered that it be limited in time. Since then new orders appear with an expiration date, which is extended as needed. The orders from before the Juha petition remain infinite.
The study will appear in Hebrew, Arabic and English on the website of the civil society organization Etkes established in 2012, Kerem Navot. The title: “Seize the Moral Low Ground”.