In Rare Ruling, Court Orders Settlers Off Arab Family's Land

11 residents of Shaarei Tikva agree to voluntarily leave property near West Bank city of Qalqilyah.

Atef Ahmad, from the village of Saniriya, east of Qalqilyah, admits that when he turned to the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court to request that settlers be removed from his family's property, he did not really think anything would come of it.

His neighbors told him it was a waste of time. His elderly mother wanted nothing to do with the Jews. In the end, nine family members agreed to the requests of human rights activists working for Yesh Din, and took a chance. They provided attorney Michael Sfard with power of attorney and forgot about the whole matter.

Ten days ago, Magistrate's Court Judge Irit Cohen confirmed that the 11 residents of the Shaarei Tikva settlement had agreed to leave the property of their own will. After failing to convince the court, which rejected their claims that Atef's father had sold the property when Atef was merely 6 years old, the settlers gave up.

"We did not believe in the Israeli legal system," Atef, 41, says in fluent Hebrew. He works at the Keter factory in the Barkan industrial zone. "Now I tell every Palestinian whose land was taken from him not to be afraid, and to go to Israeli court. There are honest Israelis, and you can find justice."

But Sfard is not as enthusiastic. He says he cannot recall a similar case in recent years, where Palestinians succeeded in having settlers ordered off their property by the courts.

The attorney says Palestinians are usually deterred by their ignorance, lack of resourcefulness, and lack of trust in the Israeli justice system.

Had Yesh Din not insisted, the Ahmad family also would have simply let it go.

The family's troubles came in bursts. Initially there was the separation fence, which kept them from their 30-dunam olive grove, which sat between the new fence and Shaarei Tikva. In order to get to their land, they had to ask the settlement's security officer to open the gate. If he wanted to, he did. If not, he went to lunch.

A short while later came the horse ranch. Youth from the settlement took over a dunam of the family's land, set up a corral and rode horses there.

The Ahmad family turned to the police and asked for assistance. As is common, the police tried to mediate, asked to see ownership documents, and then asked for more permits.

A month passed, and then a year, and the Ahmad family decided to give up. They were worried that if they "caused trouble," the settlers would make it even more difficult for them to access the olive grove.

Fifteen months after turning to the courts, an agreement was reached whereby the settlers would surrender the land by February 1, 2009, and would pay $100 per day of delay.

Over the 11 months until the land is restored to its owners, the settlers have also promised to allow the Ahmad family unfettered access to its olive grove.