Anti-Settlement Group Takes Palestinian Property Claims to Israel's High Court

The settlement called Adam, as seen from the West Bank village of Hizmeh. The Israeli government has approved construction in Adam to absorb settlers who are to be moved from Migron as a result of litigation.
The settlement called Adam, as seen from the West Bank village of Hizmeh. The Israeli government has approved construction in Adam to absorb settlers who are to be moved from Migron as a result of litigation. (By Tara Todras-whitehill -- Associated Press)
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 31, 2009

BURQA, West Bank -- It has been nearly a decade since the Jewish settlement of Migron appeared on the hilltop opposite this Palestinian village, beginning with a communications tower and followed by a cluster of homes and a fence around approximately 90 acres of land.

Data tucked onto the hard drive of anti-settlement activist Dror Etkes's computer indicates that the land belongs to the residents of Burqa and nearby Deir Dibwan, and Etkes said he expects that information will one day force the settlers to leave.

The compulsion won't come from Israel's politicians, world public opinion or the Obama administration, Etkes contends, but from Israel's Supreme Court, where local advocacy groups are having increased success challenging settlements with simple property claims.

Etkes, the 42-year-old coordinator of settlement issues for the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, has helped instigate a number of lawsuits through the pioneering use of mapping software to establish where settlements have encroached on private Palestinian land. "You have to create a tsunami that will expose the dimensions" of the problem, he said.

The debate over the status of West Bank settlements has been underway for more than three decades -- with the United States and many other countries regarding them as the improper actions of an occupying power, Israel claiming they are legitimate uses of land it is responsible for administering, and the Palestinians regarding them as an effort to undermine creation of a state of their own. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and about 290,000 Israelis now live in roughly 120 government-sanctioned settlements, as well as several dozen unauthorized ones. Those figures exclude Jewish areas in East Jerusalem.

The enclaves run from small clusters of homes, such as Migron, where some residents feel they are fulfilling a religious call to reclaim the land of Israel, to city-size developments with tens of thousands of residents drawn by cheaper prices and room for growing families.

But even as the international debate has proceeded with no clear resolution -- the dispute between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the latest in a long series of disagreements between their countries over the issue -- a quiet revolution has taken place among Israeli groups opposed to the settlements.

Limited in the past to political advocacy and efforts to court international opinion, they now have access to a deeply layered database on West Bank land that Etkes assembled over three years. Multiple sets of information can be compared -- official Israeli maps; Palestinian, Jordanian and British records rendered in digital form; hundreds of Global Positioning System images; and aerial photos supplemented by field observations.

The Israeli courts honor the property rights of Palestinians and are beginning to pressure the government to block construction or make plans to remove houses built on private property. Proving landownership in the West Bank is not always easy, though, with a hodgepodge of records and rules that include formal land registrations, conventions that extend property rights to those who traditionally cultivate an area and Israeli government property seizures.

Still, Etkes's data are having an effect. Prodded by litigation, the Israeli government is laying plans now to move the Migron settlers to another part of the West Bank. And building at the settlement of Ofra has been restricted because it is on private land, according to Michael Sfard, the lawyer who has filed most of the lawsuits.

"It's a different universe," Sfard said. "If we had had these tools 40 years ago, I think the landscape would be different." Yesh Din has about 20 cases pending in the courts, and Etkes said "dozens" more are yet to be filed. The change has been noted by the Netanyahu government and others, who say the groups are funded by foreign governments and other outside sources and who have promised more aggressive rebuttals.

But Yesh Din's strategy of relying on the Israeli courts raises some deeper issues, akin to the debates in the United States about the role of the judiciary in molding policy, said Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, who tracks the funding and relationships among nongovernmental groups.

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