JERUSALEM, Jan. 23 -- Israel has quietly seized large tracts of Jerusalem land owned by Palestinian residents of the West Bank after they were cut off from their property by Israel's separation barrier, attorneys for the landowners said.
The land was taken after the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided several months ago to enforce a long-dormant law that allows Israel to seize lands of Palestinians who fled or were driven out during the 1948-49 war that followed the establishment of the Jewish state.
The new policy, first reported in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, could affect hundreds of Palestinians who own property in Jerusalem and intensify the dispute over the city, which Israel and the Palestinians both claim as their capital.
The affected landowners live in the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Beit Jalla, just south of Jerusalem. Their land was taken in August, after the West Bank separation barrier cut them off from their land in the city.
The land was transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property, a body formed by a 1950 law that allowed the seizure of property of Palestinians who had left Israel during the war, according to documents from Israel's Finance and Justice ministries.
Johnny Atik, a Bethlehem resident, said Sunday that he lost eight acres of olive groves within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries as a result of the new policy. The land is 100 yards from his home, which sits on the other side of an electronic fence and patrol road that are part of the separation barrier.
Atik said land belonging to 40 families in his neighborhood had been taken.
Hundreds of other Palestinians are now at risk of having land seized, according to Daniel Seidemann and Mohammed Dahla, attorneys representing several of the landowners.
Atik said he planned to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Finance Ministry declined to discuss the policy, and a spokesman insisted he would only respond to written questions. The ministry's written response did not address how much land had been taken and whether landowners would be compensated.
Israel's absentee land law was first used in the 1950s. At least 20,000 Arab homes in the western part of Jerusalem were taken under this law, said Moshe Amirav, a former member of the Jerusalem City Council.
In the 1967 Middle East war, Israel captured the eastern half of Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, then expanded Jerusalem's municipal boundaries and annexed the area.
Sharon's office declined to comment, except to confirm the government's decision that the Custodian of Absentee Property has the authority to "transfer, sell or lease" lands in East Jerusalem that belong to absentee owners.
The Finance Ministry said the properties of the Bethlehem-area landowners were transferred to state custody after the 1967 war. Asked what the state would do with the land, the ministry said the question was "not relevant."