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West Bank Settlements Often Use Private Palestinian Land, Study Says

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

JERUSALEM, Nov. 21 -- An Israeli advocacy group has found that 39 percent of the land used by Jewish settlements in the West Bank is private Palestinian property, which the organization contends is a violation of international and Israeli law guaranteeing property rights in the occupied territories.

In a report released here Tuesday, the Settlement Watch project of Peace Now also disclosed that much of the land that Israeli officials have said would remain part of the Jewish state under any final peace agreement is private Palestinian property.

That includes some of the large settlement blocs inside the barrier that Israel is building to separate Israelis from the Palestinian population in the West Bank. The report states that 86 percent of Maale Adumim on Jerusalem's eastern edge sits on private Palestinian land. A little more than 35 percent of the settlement of Ariel, which cuts deep into the northern West Bank, is also on private property.

Peace Now is an advocacy group that supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and contends that Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where roughly 250,000 Israelis live, represent a major obstacle to achieving one.

Israel's government has long maintained that the settlements, developed in large part with public money, sit on untitled property known as "state land" or on property of unclear legal status. Israeli courts have ruled that unauthorized outposts erected on private Palestinian property must be razed, although those orders are rarely carried out.

The 38-page report offers what appears to be a comprehensive argument against the Israeli government's contention that it avoids building on private land, drawing on the state's own data to make the case. Israeli officials said Tuesday they are studying the findings.

The report's authors, Dror Etkes and Hagit Ofran, note that "it is difficult to assess all of the political and legal implications" of their findings. But "it is clear," they write, "that the settlement enterprise has, since its inception, ignored Israeli law and undermined not only the collective property rights of the Palestinians as a people, but also the private property rights of individual Palestinian landowners." The report states that the settlements occupy a total of 15,271 acres of private Palestinian land.

The report draws on maps and data from the Civil Administration, the military authority Israel established to govern the West Bank following the 1967 Middle East war. Its findings were reported first in Tuesday's New York Times.

The database was also used by a state commission, headed by Talia Sasson, a lawyer, that issued a critical report last year on the expansion of unauthorized Jewish outposts in the West Bank. Peace Now officials said they were leaked the information after Israeli courts delayed a hearing on their petition for the data earlier this year.

The Israeli government did not annex the West Bank after the 1967 war -- keeping the Palestinian population there from voting in the Jewish state -- and soon began sponsoring settlement construction in the territories. International law has been widely interpreted to prohibit civilian settlement or construction on land occupied during war.

As the report notes, the West Bank has been under Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli control over the past century, leaving a highly complicated land registry and murky title in many cases.

The report defines private property in the West Bank as land registered by Palestinians before 1968, when Israel stopped the process, and cultivated land that Israel recognizes as private under Ottoman law. It focuses on the West Bank and does not examine property in East Jerusalem, whose annexation by Israel is not recognized internationally.

Of the land occupied by the settlements, the report found, 54 percent is so-called state land while nearly 6 percent is designated "survey land," meaning its legal status is unclear. The report notes that 1.3 percent of the settlement areas is "Jewish land."

The report says Israel most commonly seizes private land citing "military purposes." That designation leaves the land in the name of its Palestinian owners but gives control to the Israeli army for a period that can be extended indefinitely. In other cases, Palestinians are offered compensation by the Israeli government, something they usually refuse in protest.

Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Tuesday that the government would comment on the report's methods and findings once officials have had time to review it. Olmert won election in March on a pledge to withdraw Israel from much of the West Bank, while holding on to the settlement blocs inside the wall.

"We have to read the full report to understand it," Eisin said. She added that "even if it turns out only 5 percent is private land, that is something we must take note of."

In another development, Israeli troops pushed into the Gaza Strip early Tuesday and killed two Palestinians in fighting near the village of Zeitun. One of them was identified as Ayman Daif Allah, 25, a senior commander of the governing Hamas movement's military wing. Palestinian medical workers said Saadiya Herez, 70, was also killed by gunfire.

The operation is part of Israeli military efforts to stop Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel that has spiked in recent days. At least four rockets fell Tuesday in and around the Israeli town of Sderot, fatally wounding a factory worker. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, was visiting Sderot at the time of the attack.

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