Mustafa Hamdan, 80, a prosperous Arab farmer whose handsomely embroidered robes do not disguise the former hardscrabble life reflected in his weathered face, stood on a rocky hill near this West Bank village and said he could begin to smell justice for the first time in two years.
Hamdan is one of the estimated hundreds of victims, including both Arabs and Jews, in what officials say is the biggest land fraud uncovered in Israel's 18-year occupation of the West Bank. But looking out over the 15 acres that he said were stolen from him with documents forged by an Arab land broker and sold to Jewish settlers, he said: "The scent of justice is in the air. God willing, we will get our land back."
A half dozen other Arab farmers here, who said they also lost their land by fraud, expressed agreement and vowed to take revenge on the unscrupulous brokers who they said turned their lives into a nightmare.
The source of the farmers' optimism is a series of public disclosures in recent weeks of widespread land fraud during the past several years in which, according to an Israeli Justice Ministry official, as much as $100 million may have changed hands for thousands of acres of Arab-owned property that was taken through forgery, deceit, intimidation and, occasionally, force.
The swindlers, ministry officials said, were both Arabs and Jews, working in concert. The victims were also Arabs and Jews -- Arabs whose land was stolen and Jews who purchased West Bank property from middlemen at cut-rate prices only to find out later that the sellers had no clear title to it and that they could not get permission to build.
While there have been hints in the Israeli press of complicity of "senior officials" in the government, no evidence has surfaced to substantiate the allegations. The only arrests made so far have been three Israelis whose houses allegedly contained forged land documents, and two Arab land brokers.
Although the amount of land involved is relatively small, the fact that it is in the West Bank has elevated the emerging scandal into an emotional and potentially bruising political as well as legal battle. The scandal has underscored both the depth of feeling and attachment that Palestinian Arabs traditionally have had to the land in the West Bank, and the biblical rights to that land that many Jews feel exist.
Because the alleged frauds took place after 1979, the disclosures have raised questions about a five-year-old government policy, begun under former prime minister Menachem Begin, that opened the occupied territory to private land purchases by Jews. This has prompted a national debate over what limits should be placed on "redeeming" land and questions about whether the debate is being manipulated for political advantage.
Vice Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was Begin's foreign minister, called the land fraud disclosures a "witch hunt" against Jewish settlement last month and warned the police, "Be careful, don't touch land redemption."
Recalling difficulties Jews have always had in buying land from Arabs, Shamir said in a speech, "Sometimes tricks and schemes were needed and unconventional means used to purchase and redeem land. It is intolerable that the investigation of isolated cases of land purchases should turn into a general witch hunt on all the land purchases in the West Bank , with the aim of preventing this Zionist mission."
Deputy State Attorney Plia Albeck, in charge of the Justice Ministry's land registration division, said that more than 200 land fraud complaints had been turned over to a special police inquiry, nearly half involving Arab landowners whose first awareness that their property had been sold came when the buyer showed up with bulldozers. Most of the remaining swindles were uncovered in the process of reregistering the land, she said, and she estimated that the frauds may cover 12,500 acres.
The Justice Ministry said about 20 land companies registered in the West Bank are under investigation for fraud. All have Arab front men and are financially backed by Israelis or deal with Israeli land brokers, according to the ministry and Arab attorneys representing Palestinian landowners who claim their land was stolen.
Although the dimensions of the land fraud began to emerge only in late July when police raided the homes of three suspected Israeli counterfeiters and found hundreds of forged property deeds and other land registration documents, Albeck said the Justice Ministry asked the police two years ago to set up an investigating team to study the flood of complaints it had received. She blamed red tape and a lack of funding for the delay in starting the probe.
The origins of the situation, according to Israeli officials and private attorneys involved in the case, go back to 1979, when Begin's Likud government lifted prohibitions against Jews making private land purchases in the West Bank. This unleashed a wave of "land fever" in the occupied territory reminiscent of the homesteading era of the mid-19th century American West.
Before 1979, Jews were prohibited from privately buying land in the occupied territories as successive Israeli governments -- fearing a wave of land speculation -- resisted efforts by land "redemption" advocates to lift the ban.
About 33,000 acres of land in the occupied territories is in private Jewish ownership -- comparable to 5 percent of the total area of the West Bank -- according to figures compiled by former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti.
Justice officials said legal sales of land to middlemen would be considered valid, but that property fraudulently expanded for sale eventually would be returned to the cheated owners once forgery or deceit is proved. But they said that that could take months or years of litigation.
In the course of the buying spree, according to Israeli officials and lawyers representing Arab landowners, hundreds of Arab farmers fraudulently lost their land, and it was only after individual Jewish purchasers and Israeli real estate companies discovered that they had bought land that was not legally registered that an investigation was begun.
Interviews with Israeli officials, Arab and Jewish lawyers and Arabs whose land was sold fraudulently revealed a common pattern in the schemes.
An Arab simsar, or middleman, legitimately would purchase a small plot of land from an Arab farmer, but before registering the transaction would alter the survey maps to encompass up to 10 times as much adjacent property.
Because Jordanian civil law, which still applies in the West Bank, requires that survey maps registered in land sales be signed by the owners of all contiguous property, the Arab middlemen forged signatures or thumbprints to cover up the alteration of the maps, officials said. The West Bank was administered by Jordan from 1948 to 1967.
Albeck, in an interview, cited a case in which an Arab broker bought 62 acres, falsified a survey map to expand the tract to 300 acres and sold it to a Jewish contractor, who in turn sold more than 100 quarter-acre plots to Israelis for $5,000 each. The fraud was not uncovered, she said, until the contractor began building roads and the Arab landowners got an injunction to stop construction.
David Zucker, secretary general of the Citizens Rights Movement, which investigated the land frauds, said one Arab middleman paid $500,000 for 100 acres in the proposed Ramat Kidron settlement near Bethlehem and sold 1,000 quarter-acre plots to Israelis for $5,000 each, for a total of $5 million.
After 107 Arabs filed objections that their signatures had been forged on registration documents, a military appeals committee issued an injunction against work on the site, but also declared the area a "closed" military zone, freezing use of the land by the Arab owners, Zucker said.
"So who are the victims?" he asked in an interview. "The buyers were victims in their haste to get cheap land, but the Arabs are victims, too, because they don't know if they'll ever get their land back."
Nidal Taha, a Nablus lawyer who represents more than 200 Arab landowners who have claimed that they lost property by fraud, said that in many cases local mukhtars, or village headmen, conspired with the land brokers to forge signatures or intimidate small landholders into signing transfer documents.
Taha said brokers circumvented another safeguard by publishing land registration notices in distant newspapers that the local landholders would be unlikely to see.
Once registered and sold to a Jewish land broker, property would be subdivided and resold to individual Jewish buyers at a hefty markup, but still far below the price of land available in most of Israel proper, Justice Ministry officials said.
"It's a comparatively simple fraud, because when a person buys land in an area he doesn't know, with neighbors who don't speak his language, he doesn't have much chance of discovering fraud until it's too late," Albeck said.
She said that many of the Jewish buyers will never recover their money because the biggest Arab land dealers involved in the swindles have moved abroad.
Jordanian law prescribes the death penalty for Arabs who sell land to Jews, and many Arab brokers have been sentenced in absentia by Amman courts, adding to pressures on the simsars to flee.
Taha noted that a mysterious fire had swept through the land registration office in Nablus last December, destroying thousands of deeds and other documents, and said that in many cases proof of ownership was made impossible as a result.
The fire, next door to the Nablus police station, burned for several hours before it was reported, Taha said. Justice Ministry officials said the cause of the fire is under investigation by the special commission.
Asked whether government officials were involved in the fraudulent land deals, Albeck said, "I don't think they are actively involved. They gave encouragement to land-buying to redeem the land, yes. Some may have promised to get government approval of new settlements. But as far as their being actively involved in fraud, I don't see it in my documents."
Zucker claimed that the Likud government's settlement policies set the stage and "created the climate" for the fraudulent land deals.
Hannan Mohammed Baadin, 65, an Arab farmer here, said he did not know which side to blame, since both Arabs and Jews were involved in the theft of his land. He said that Ahmed Uda, a wealthy Arab land dealer who has been arrested and identified by police as a key figure in the swindle ring, forged Baadin's signature and sold his land but that Jews bought it and are preventing him from working it.
Jewish victims were reluctant to talk openly about their experiences, and, according to lawyers in the case, many never have bothered to file complaints or retain counsel.