Opinion |

Annexation Is the Israeli Settlers' Real Estate Dream Come True

Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard
The village of Arab al-Ramadin in the West Bank. The village isn’t recognized by Israel’s Civil Administration, leading to frequent house demolitions.
The village of Arab al-Ramadin in the West Bank. The village isn’t recognized by Israel’s Civil Administration, leading to frequent house demolitions.Credit: Alex Levac
Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard

So, will there be an annexation? It’s hard to say. It’s not a done deal, but it seems like we’ve never been closer. The sense is that the most dramatic decision relating to Israel’s sovereignty since it declared independence won’t be made in Jerusalem but in Washington.

Bibi swears in his colossal coalition and readies for a courtroom showdown Credit: Haaretz

It’s all pretty demeaning. The Third Jewish Commonwealth, it turns out, was handed to us with strings attached. There’s a landlord, and we can’t even close off a balcony without his approval.

Whether Israeli or American interests will dominate, it’s clear that Palestinian interests aren’t part of the equation governing the fate of their land. I’m not referring to the interests of the Palestinian government or the Palestinian national movement. I mean Palestinians who live in the West Bank and in refugee camps, who will be the ones most affected by an annexation.

I mean people like Kassab from the village of Arab al-Ramadin, squeezed in between Qalqilyah and the settlement of Alfei Menashe, or Nasir from Susya in the South Hebron Hills, as well as hundreds of thousands of others. Is anyone even asking what will become of them?

So, be aware that an Israeli-style annexation is above all a move leading to dispossession and expulsion. It’s an aggressive real estate maneuver. The land to be annexed includes areas owned by Palestinians, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that all these areas, to the last plot, will be expropriated – some immediately, some in a process lasting years.

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How will this be done? Via two main legal methods; first, the Absentees’ Property Law. This law was passed in 1950 to nationalize Palestinian refugees’ property. Once applied to an annexed area, it will lead to the expropriation of all land there owned by Palestinians living in Jordan, Syria or Lebanon. West Bank residents who own property in the annexed area could also lose their assets because, technically, they too will become “absentees.”

This is what West Bankers who own property in East Jerusalem faced after Israeli law was applied there. Although the High Court of Justice ruled that this fictitious “absenteeism” (since these people did not immigrate and are under Israeli rule) should only be invoked in very exceptional cases, you don’t need a crystal ball to see what lies ahead. You only have to be familiar with the record of High Court rulings on occupation-related cases, and with the court’s transformation in recent years, to realize that High Court judges in coming years will expand these exceptions until they, like others allowing the violation of Palestinian rights, become the rule.

Even in cases where the “absentee” law will not apply, Israel will be able to do what it couldn’t do over the past 53 years, namely, to apply “ordinary” expropriation for public use (eminent domain) – the “public” being the settlers. The legal prohibition on expropriating private Palestinian land for settlements' expansion – a principle already eroded by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in recent years – will evaporate once this territory is annexed. The annexation will unleash a tsunami of dispossession for the purpose of expanding settlements.

This prediction of massive expropriation isn’t the prophecy of an angry prophet. It stems from a realistic understanding of the fantasy of annexation. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a territorial one, so why annex if you can’t steal some land?

In addition to dispossession, annexation may achieve a displacement for many Palestinian individuals and communities. The Israeli military administration in the West Bank has controlled the Palestinian population registry for the past 53 years. With the interests of the settlement project in mind, it has prevented many Palestinians from changing their address. This takes place in areas that Israel seeks to “empty” of Palestinians – namely the South Hebron Hills, the Jordan Valley and areas just outside Jerusalem – where Israel does not recognize the existence of many Palestinian communities.

That’s why communities such as Khan al-Ahmar and Susya are under threat of deportation even now. If these areas are annexed to Israel, dozens of communities that Israel does not recognize and residents registered as living outside the annexed territory will immediately become illegal residents in their own homes. They will suddenly find themselves in an expanded Israel with the sword of deportation hanging over their heads. Their deportation will change from being an issue of unpermitted construction to one of removing illegal aliens from Israel’s sovereign territory.

Take Arab al-Ramadin. Around 350 Bedouin live there, refugees from the Lakiya region in the Negev. When the State of Israel was established, they were forced to flee their homes to the West Bank. They bought land on a hill south of Qalqilyah, where they live to this day.

In the ‘80s, the settlement of Alfei Menashe sprouted up next to them, taking over most of their grazing lands. In the 2000s, they were surrounded by the separation barrier that was built along most of the 1967 border invading the West Bank to include settlement blocs, trapping them in an enclave and separating them from the rest of the West Bank. The village isn’t recognized by Israel’s Civil Administration, leading to frequent house demolitions.

Anyone familiar with the Israeli occupation knows that not all occupied people are born equal; for some the occupation is tight, for others it is even tighter. The occupation imposed on the residents of Arab al-Ramadin has been suffocatingly tight. They’re dependent on the Civil Administration for everything. They need a permit to continue living on their hill, they need permits to leave it by car, to bring in basic necessities, to breathe.

In the past, when a village donkey blocked the road, the irritated Alfei Menashe council cut off Arab al-Ramadin’s water supply – to teach the Ramadinians a lesson. In recent years, the Civil Administration has exploited their dependence, making their lives hell to persuade them to move east of the barrier, a move that would make the enclave “Palestinian-free.” If you move, you’ll have nice stone houses, not tin shacks, they were told, but the people of Arab al-Ramadin adamantly refused. Since the village is unrecognized, the IDs the Civil Administration issues list them as residents of Qalqilyah.

If this enclave is annexed, the residents of Arab al-Ramadin will instantly turn into illegal aliens, leading to their eventual expulsion. Once they find themselves in the unannexed part of the West Bank, refugees for the second time, they will also be classified as “absentees,” with their hill possibly taken over by the state. On the ruins of this village a new neighborhood of Alfei Menashe might be constructed. Maybe they’ll call it Ramat Din, Law Heights, because its construction will be carried out according to the laws of the land.

Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer, represents the village of Arab al-Ramadin.

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