Israel has been taking Palestinians' land under an obscure Ottoman-era law and giving it to settlers and Israeli companies. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah
West Bank land seized under arcane 'state land' rule is being given to Israeli settlers
RAMALLAH // In the past 33 years, Israel has portioned out less than one per cent of state land in the West Bank to Palestinians, compared with 38 per cent to Jewish settlers, an Israeli newspaper reported yesterday.
The newly disclosed figures brought immediate condemnation from an official for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), who said they again showed how the designation of Palestinian territory as so-called state land was one of many tools that Israel has used to build and expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The difference between "state" and Palestinian soil is "a false distinction to serve the colonial practice of stealing Palestinian land," said Xavier Abu Eid, an adviser to the PLO's negotiations department.
The report in yesterday's edition of the Haaretz newspaper cited data obtained through a freedom of information request to the government by Israeli rights groups three years ago.
It said authorities had allocated the confiscated "state land" to Israeli mobile telephone operators and utility companies, in addition to settlers. Palestinians received about 860 hectares of state land.
According to Palestinians and Israeli analysts, Israel began designating large areas of the West Bank as state land in 1979 as a way to circumvent an Israeli court ruling that reduced the effectiveness of another Israeli land-acquisition tactic: classifying Palestinian land as necessary for Israeli "military purposes."
Invoking an obscure Ottoman-era law, authorities declared parcels of private and unregistered Palestinian land as insufficiently cultivated. The land parcels were then seized and relabelled state land.
"But of course, the intention behind using that Ottoman law was to take as much land for settlements as possible," said Dror Etkes, an independent Israeli-settlement expert, who added that about 90 per cent of all West Bank settlements are located in areas Israel has declared state land.
Mr Etkes said about 60,000 hectares of the West Bank was declared state land by Jordan, which ruled the area before Israel captured it, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israeli authorities, primarily since 1979, have expanded the amount of state land in the West Bank by at least 80,000 hectares.
Many Palestinians fear that the prospects of an Palestinian state have been sabotaged by the half-million Israelis living in settlements, which violate the Fourth Geneva Convention's prohibition on occupying powers moving citizens onto territory seized during war.
Mr Etkes believes the total amount of land classified as state land far exceeds the roughly 130,000-hectare figure cited by Haaretz. Israeli authorities stopped formally declaring state-land seizures over a decade ago, he said.
"When you don't announce that you're taking land, you don't stir up as much fuss," Mr Etkes explained. "So then you get situation where once a Palestinian landowner tries to farm his land, he will suddenly receive an eviction notice. Otherwise, it's a quiet policy."
Israeli defence officials have admitted during court hearings to using lax methods when determining whether the state could appropriate Palestinian land, according to the Haaretz report. It cited how officials described retroactively legalising a settler outpost on private Palestinian land by devising "a method of declaring the area between cultivated spots, for example, between trees, as 'uncultivated'".
Decisions on state land designations were taken at the highest levels of the Israeli government, the newspaper quoted officials from the defence ministry as saying.
"The official who decides on the declaration [of state land] is at the political level, the defence minister," said Gilad Palmon of the defence ministry's civil administration, which administers Israeli activities in the occupied territories.