Israel's Tony Soprano Policies in the West Bank

Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard
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The Israeli settlement of Mitzpeh Kramim, the West Bank.
The Israeli settlement of Mitzpeh Kramim, the West Bank. Credit: Emil Salman
Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held a meeting about two weeks ago aimed at making land theft in the West Bank more efficient. You don’t believe me? Take a look at the minutes of the November 23rd session on the committee’s website. Don’t be misled by the sleepy headline, “Renewing the land registration process in Judea and Samaria – Adopting recommendations of the Civil Administration.”

The subcommittee on civilian and security affairs in Judea and Samaria met in order to push the idea that has gained momentum recently in the political and bureaucratic pipelines of the occupation, which, if implemented, will strip hundreds of thousands of Palestinians of property rights to what remains of their land in the West Bank. The promulgators present it as a fair, professional and neutral “land registration,” by which Israel will once and for all put in order the land registry and list all those who have rights to land plots – Palestinians, Jews or “the state.” In practice, allowing Israel to arbitrate on land rights in the West Bank is like asking Tony Soprano to adjudicate all the financial disputes in New Jersey.

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A land registration process (which the British began and the Jordanians then continued) was underway when Israel occupied the West Bank, but under orders from Meir Shamgar, the military judge advocate at the time, a decision was made to freeze it.

The thinking was that it wasn’t the job of the occupier to conduct such a significant process with such long-term repercussions in the land it had occupied, because only a permanent sovereign should undertake such a task. Not to mention that the citizens whose rights are at stake should determine the character of the process and its terms, and public civilian participation is not really the forte of a military regime. In addition, many land owners aren’t present in the West Bank (they are “absentees” in military parlance) and a decision about land registration in their absence is tantamount to expropriation.

Since then, many good reasons have been piled on to the list of why Israeli authorities should be barred from administrating land registration in the West Bank – the main one being Israel’s illegal settlement project, which makes it an interested party in increasing the amount of land regarded as public (as opposed to privately-owned).

Indeed, in order to satisfy the settlers’ insatiable appetite for land, the relevant Israeli authorities from officers of the Civil Administration to judges at military tribunals and the High Court of Justice have consistently narrowed the recognition of Palestinian property rights and developed legal doctrines to allow dispossession that deviate from the policies of all previous rulers – the Ottomans, the British and the Jordanians. That’s what happens when the prosecutor is also the judge.

This distortion is exactly what the initiators of the debate held in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee want to reinforce by renewing the land registration process. Suffice it to look at the list of representatives of West Bank residents invited to the discussion – spoiler alert: not a single Palestinian was invited – to realize how deeply they are antagonistic to the idea that the land registration would serve everyone: The chairmen of the Gush Etzion, Samaria and Benjamin region regional councils, the director general of the Regavim settler organization and the lawyer for the Shiloh Forum, “which operates to supply tools and data for the strengthening, development and expansion of Jewish settlement in all parts of the land of Israel.”

That’s how it works in the Israeli South Africa, where the governing policy is tailored to serve the ruling class in the West Bank, which accounts for less than 15 percent of the territory’s residents.

And let’s not forget that all public servants who have attended the discussions and sold their souls to the registration idea from the head of the Civil Administration to his head of the infrastructure division, from the defense establishment’s legal adviser to the representatives of the state attorney general, all of whom, as one, have praised the idea of the registration and described it as “rain that will fall on everyone” – all are Israelis. It hasn’t dawned on any of them to ask the committee chairman, Zvi Hauser, and lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, who initiated the debate, if they’re interested in knowing the position of the 3 million non-Jews living in the West Bank. Their desires, aspirations, concerns and welfare are of no interest to anyone in the Israeli government. They should remain silent and accept the (Israeli) law.

An Israeli land registration of the West Bank amounts to continued annexation by other means. Palestinians who seek to prove their ownership within this framework will discover that the legal field is biased after years of being tilted by Israel, that information and documents that might assist them are hidden in the administration’s warehouses or in Amman and Istanbul, and that all the Israeli technological power is working against them.

Many land owners and their heirs aren’t present in the territory and are even barred from entering it. The registration constitutes a mega robbery that will change the reality and lead to crowding the Palestinians into the built up areas of their communities. Whoever thought the Trump plan to establish Palestinian Bantustans is off the table with Joe Biden’s election will discover it is being advanced via land policy.

Whoever seeks to prevent the deepening of Israeli apartheid and wants to preserve a chance for an agreed solution to the conflict, whoever cherishes human rights and whoever opposes annexation, must wage an uncompromising struggle in the coming weeks and months in order to thwart Israel’s intentions of launching a land registration in the West Bank.

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