The Dark Side of Annexing the Jordan Valley: Whitewashing Land Theft

The Israeli government has raised the theft of property ‘abandoned’ by Palestinians to an art form

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Netanyahu and cabinet members visiting the Jordan Valley
Netanyahu and cabinet members visiting the Jordan ValleyCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

The political uproar and strategic debate over annexing land in the West Bank under the coalition agreement have diverted attention from one of the largest conspiracies to steal private land since the occupation began in 1967.

Behind the ideological fervor and the alleged security motive, lies a plot to launder stolen land. Imposing Israeli law on Area C (the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under Israeli control), including the Jordan Valley, will effectively transfer vast areas legally registered in the names of a great many Palestinians to the State of Israel.

The Palestinian owners of these lands were expelled or fled to Jordan during the Six-Day War and were settled in refugee camps. Many of the displaced, whose numbers are estimated from 100,000 to almost 300,000 people, were refugees from 1948 who left behind houses and lands in Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem. Imposing Israeli law on Area C will immediately turn their property into “abandoned property,” or in other words, it would become the property of the occupying-annexing state.

In 2014, an expanded panel of seven Supreme Court justices ruled that the annexation of East Jerusalem enabled the “abandoned property” law to be applied to the property of Palestinians who fled or were expelled to the West Bank. According to this precedent, annexing parts of the West Bank would immediately turn the lands of the displaced into abandoned property. It will annul the military commander’s order No. 58 from 1967 that is in effect in the West Bank. This order differs the status of the “new refugees from their more veteran Israeli brothers, whose property was declared to be “abandoned property,” and marked with “no entry for Arabs.”

The order states that if “someone who had been the owner, or someone who holds an abandoned asset legally, according to the circumstances, returned, the supervisor will transfer the property or its value to their hands, and when this has been done, this asset will stop being an asset for the supervisor and will return to this same person of whoever comes in his place.” Until then, the land is deposited in the hands of the supervisor of state property in the Civil Administration and the government is not permitted to allocate these lands for purposes of settlement.

A view of the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Efraim on the hills of the Jordan Valley. Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

In addition to the military commander’s order, in July 1967 the United Nations Security Council ordered Israel to allow residents of the territories who fled during the war to return to their homes. In the peace agreement with Egypt and the Oslo Accords, Israel committed itself to act to solve the problem of the displaced.

Yet law professor Eyal Benvenisti of the University of Cambridge believes that applying Israeli law to Judea and Samaria will not meet the test of international law, and even contradicts the principle of democracy. According to Benvenisti, any imposition of Israeli governmental authority on a Palestinian – as opposed to the imposition of authority by the military commander that results from international law – could be considered as an impermissible violation of the right to dignity, because it treats him as an object and does not ask his consent to its authority. Benvenisti elaborates that after the French Revolution, when the French army began conquering territory beyond its borders, it cautiously conducted referenda in the new regions, based on understanding that affiliation to a democratic country cannot be imposed on those who have not given their permission for its authority.

But when it comes to the settlement enterprise, international law and democratic principles are at best just a recommendation. When it comes to the displaced Palestinians from the Jordan Valley, Israeli governments have perfected the concept of abandonment. The annual state comptroller report for 2005 revealed that in the late 1960s and 1970s, Israeli communities and army bases in the Jordan Valley were allocated thousands of dunams of land owned by the displaced.

When half a dozen camps were closed, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered their “liberated” land to be given to nearby settlements. The state comptroller wrote that the legal adviser for the Judea and Samaria Civil Administration warned two years earlier that the use of this land was illegal and warned about a “chain reaction that could put all the plots of land of the relevant communities at risk.” The settlements did not inform the buyers of the homes and plots of land, or the mortgage banks who provided them with loans, that this was in practice land theft, he wrote.

In at least one case, the land theft was carried out with the help of two corrupt officers from the Civil Administration, who helped a pair of swindlers to steal land from displaced people with the help of forged documents. Unluckily for them, the heir of the landowner, who had risen to be a minister in the Jordanian government, discovered that the land had been sold and had reached the hands of the Himnuta company, the long and twisted arm of the Jewish National Fund in the occupied territories. The officers were put on trial and were given a lenient plea bargain.

To prevent similar “accidents,” the Civil Administration prepared a blacklist of some 2,000 Palestinians whose land in the Jordan Valley was handed over to the settlers – or as compensation for Palestinians whose lands were confiscated in favor of their Jewish neighbors.

For fear that displaced people would sue for what they deserved under Israeli law in effect in the territories, the requests of the displaced to cross the Jordan River within the framework of family reunification, and even for the purposes of short visits, were denied with the regular excuse of “security considerations.”

Imposing Israeli law on the Jordan Valley is the best real estate deal since the passing of the abandoned property law 70 years ago. With the stroke of a single annexation law, the Likud-Kahol Lavan-Labor government will at the same time solve the problem of peace and also launder one of the greatest thefts of land since Israel was founded.

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