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Settler Leaders in West Bank Want Israeli Law Applied to Them — Until They See the Bill

A recent lawsuit over fees collected on land development points to the contradictions and self-interest behind the movement for quasi-sovereignty

Ido Baum
Ido Baum
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The Israeli settlement of Ariel, May 26, 2019.
The Israeli settlement of Ariel, May 26, 2019. Credit: Oksana Arat
Ido Baum
Ido Baum

Settlers leaders are constantly demanding that Israeli law be applied to West Bank settlements, a move that would effectively establish Israeli sovereignty. However, when the application of Israeli law threatens to cost them millions of shekels, their tune suddenly changes.

This is exactly what happened in a suit that was brought before the High Court of Justice over the issue of collecting “banned fees” from those homes in one of the new neighborhoods under the jurisdiction of the Hebron Hills Regional Council.

The suit, which was filed by 26 people from the Eshkolot settlement, revealed that the practice of community associations requiring fees as a condition for new residents applying to the admissions committee is still alive and well in West Bank settlements. It was widespread inside the Green Line, too, but the government put a stop to it years ago.

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The plaintiffs asked the court to order the World Zionist Organization, the Custodian for Government and Abandoned Property in the West Bank and the attorney general to impose the same rules in Judea and Samaria as it does inside the Green Line.

The Israel Lands Authority spent years cracking down on the practice of collecting the fees from people seeking permission to build homes in existing communities. Today, the ILA, the government body that owns nearly all the land in Israel, bars charges above and beyond the cost of providing infrastructure to new neighborhoods.

To prevent local officials from inflating those costs, they are required to post on the ILA website to the public their estimate of maximum infrastructure costs related to the new construction after discounting for any government subsidies they will be getting.

The ILA has access to all the relevant documentation to verify it, and it will take legal action against local authorities and community councils that abuse the system. Violators can lose control of the land being sold for housing to the ILA, which then conducts its own sales of the land.

In the case of Eshkolot, the settlement was founded in 1982 by a Nahal group and until two years ago numbered about 70 families. Since then 64 new families have joined the settlement in a newly constructed neighborhood.

When it came to construction, Eshkolot has operated by its own rules.

The Construction and Housing Ministry gave it permission in 2014 to collect infrastructure-development costs not exceeding 230,400 shekels ($65,200 at current exchange rates) per lot. But the Eshkolot community association, through Azorim, the company developing the site, collected more than 400,000 shekels each from more than 60 families and denied them the option of getting government subsidies.

Many of those families asked the High Court to order officials to pay back a combined 6 million shekels they assert was collected from them illegally. More than that, they want the ILA to enforce the same policies on fees that apply inside Israel’s pre-1967 border. In other words, the same law should applied to Israeli citizens no matter which side of the Green Line they live on.

So far, so good, as far as settler logic goes. But the surprise is that the WZO, the Hebron Hills Regional Council as well as the Eshkolot community association are arguing before the court that the rule on fees should not apply to Judea and Samaria.

The Hebron Hills Regional Council’s stand is particularly surprising because like other settler regional councils, it has been insistently calling for Israeli law to be applied in the settlements.

Against this, the government is arguing that the rule applies to the settlements because it is a policy of the government’s Custodian for Government and Abandoned Property. What applies inside the Green Line, applies outside it and to Eshkolot.

There are legal nuances involved here. The state says Israeli law doesn’t apply directly to the West Bank but does apply to the Custodian for Government and Abandoned Property because it is an arm of the government.

Justices Isaac Amit, Ofer Grosskopf and David Mintz accepted the state’s position in a ruling made in the last several days and said the WZO may no longer transfer land rights without getting explicit declarations from all those involved that no fees in excess of development costs will be collected from home buyers.

If any of the authorities are found in violation, the WZO can take over the land sales and sell lots directly to home buyers without any say by the local association.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The practice of collecting the banned fees is widespread throughout West Bank settlements. It seems likely now that a flurry of new lawsuits will be filed.

The result might not end the practice of community associations enriching themselves from the sale of state lands, but bring a sharp reduction in the price of land in the settlements.

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