Israel’s decision to declare nearly 1,000 acres within the Gush Etzion Jewish settlement bloc “state land” was condemned by Peace Now last week as the largest seizure of Palestinian land in 30 years. But a further examination reveals it is not a fait accompli and may not even all be Palestinian land.
Hagit Ofran, the settlement watch project director of Peace Now, said by phone from Israel that she knows of lawyers representing Palestinians who plan to appeal the declaration.
“There are now 45 days for any person who claims ownership to this land to appeal,” she said. “It is going to be heard by a body established by the Israeli occupation — a military appeals committee. The court will then determine whether the land can be considered state land or not. Sometimes they accept the evidence and change the borders. Those who lose may appeal to Israel’s High Court of Justice.”
Ofran said that because nearly 1,000 acres are involved, she would expect there to be “tens if not hundreds of appeals. … I would expect it would take years until the authorities are able to finish the process.”
In announcing the declaration of “state land,” Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, said the action constituted a continuation of “instructions from the political echelon when Operation Brother’s Keeper ended.”
He was referrring to the search for three Israeli Jewish teens who were kidnapped in June from the Gush Etzion bloc and later found murdered. Israel blamed Hamas.
But Israeli sources insist that the “state land” declaration was not political but rather one that came after Israel’s Civil Administration spent nearly 10 years carefully researching this plot of land to determine ownership. Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law and an expert in universal jurisdiction and international criminal law, told The Jewish Week that it was “impossible” that the declaration of “state land” was made in reprisal for the teens’ murder.
“They were doing the [land] survey for a very long period of time,” he said. “It was not something that could be done overnight.”
But Lara Friedman, policy director of Americans for Peace Now, insisted “that doesn’t pass the laugh test. …To suggest it is just bureacratic and not political simply does not match the reality of how these issues work.”
Writing in Commentary magazine, Kontorovich said Israel’s action has been widely mischaracterized as an “appropriation” of private Palestinian land to promote settlement activity. … An ‘appropriation’ involves taking something that is someone’s. A designation of land as ‘state land’ requires a determination, based on extensive investigation, that it does not have a private owner.”
But Ofran pointed out that after Israel seized the West Bank in 1967, it stopped accepting Palestinian land registrations for West Bank property. Until then, she said, both under the British Mandate and later Jordanian rule, Palestinians were able to register land ownership. Although Israel accepted prior registrations, she said fully two-thirds of the West Bank was not registered when Israel took control.
Asked about Israelis who claim the nearly 1,000 acres is within a settlement bloc that almost certainly will remain Israeli under a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Ofran said: “If Israel wants to build in Gush Etzion, why doesn’t [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu talk with [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas, fix the borders and then build?”